James Cameron has always, honestly, made me go “wow”. Watching from behind a cushion as Arnie popped his ruined eyeball into sink, grinning from ear to ear every time I watched Ripley fight the Alien queen sometime around 3am on channel 4 for the 3,000th time or seeing T1000’s metallic bullet wounds heal over and that little smile curl his lips. Yet, oddly and as much as I love those films, there’s always been something in the way James Cameron put his ideas on the screen recently that makes the movie itself somehow seem like it comes in with a second place trophy, just losing out to the technology that helped make it.
Cameron’s Avatar introduces us to paraplegic marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, once again fighting his Aussie accent every step of the way) as he scores a trip to replace his brilliant scientist brother (may he rest in peace) on Pandora; An alien planet rich with some kind of mineral which us humans are intent on mining against the will of the 10ft tall blue aliens who live there. Dr. Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of scientists have built alien bodies which can be remote controlled by the puppeteering humans with the intent to learn more about the culture of the Na’Vi, as they are known. And, as Jake shares the same genes as his genius brother the government can save money on not having to build another alien body for him to inhabit. Que science/humanity vs government/politicians themes which underpin most of Cameron’s best efforts.
So the brash Sully heads into the jungle with his new legs and body and falls head over heals in love with Na’Vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who is forced at the request of her parents, the king and queen of the tribe to train Sully in the ways of Na’Vi.
We shall call him “Wanders with Aliens”.
With his loyalty to the scientists, the military and the natives all coming into question, it’s up to Sully and Sully alone who he sides with (even though we already know from the poster, the trailer, the T.V spots, the interviews, every inter species love story made up to this point and the 15 minutes we already saw a few months ago, who it will be).
Seriously though, Avatar is a spectacle and without a doubt one that you should definitely see, on the biggest screen possible, armed with the largest popcorn, the biggest trough of coke(tm) you can find and a head full of nothing. I’m not going to deny it, as a movie Avatar is beautifully entertaining. Though ridiculously over long, over bearing and over the top it is still good fun.
It’s story is simplistic at best (an equal cross of Dances with Wolves and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor… seriously) it’s morals painted out in huge blue neon lettering (Hurting the Earth = Bad, Nature = Good) and its performances are, at best, secondary to everything else happening on screen but Cameron does manage, albeit sporadically, to pull you in.
Of course there’s the company man Parker Selfridge (Giovani Ribisi – Carter Burke anyone?) there’s the obviously bad colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) with giant scars on his face, in fact indicating his evilness from the get go. There’s the geeky side kick Norm… Yes, Norm; “Man, he must be a nerd!” (Joel Moore – a talented comic actor who sadly does nothing in regards to the film’s story) and the very Cameron like, tough as hell female chopper pilot Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez – Pvt. Vasquez anyone?).
The effects are what you have already come to expect. They look great, some of the finest mo cap work ever in fact, but does that make it great? I wholly appreciate the design and the painstaking effort that has gone into the 3D landscapes and characters, it’s an amazingly designed world and one that I think will be gone over with a fine tooth comb in the months/years to come. Is it photo real. Truly photo real? As with all CGI if anything there’s a heightened sense of it being unreal which seriously dilutes the idea of immersion on a grand scale that Cameron had in mind.
But on the other had it is another world.
For me, I left not feeling like I’d been somewhere new and important at all but much the same way I did after seeing Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Impressed but a bit battered, lost and cold. I knew that an intense amount of work had gone into a project that I felt little for. Did I miss something? Should I be compelled and guilted into liking it because of its technical achievements even though it hadn’t moved me or challenged me at all?
I’ve decided no.
Avatar serves it’s purpose for me as a good action film and a technically brilliant one but, instinctively and on first watch, it’s not a signpost to the way genuinely affecting films will (or in fact should) be made in the future. At least with regards to SFX because lets face it, with a film like this, that’s all we are really talking about when the word “groundbreaking” is batted around these days. I’m only saying that on a gut level based simply on the fact that it didn’t feel like a revelation to me as I watched it. At least not like Aliens or T2 did or even, weirdly, The Matrix. Maybe I was younger then or maybe the technology was… Ah hell, I’m ramblin’.
After you’ve all see the film (as you most certainly should) just be damn sure to check out the rad Ewoks film, the indispensable Fern Gully and Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves one more time… OK, well maybe not the last one.
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