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You're in the Na'vi now
A 3D film review of AVATAR by Camus
 
  "It's pretty simple. I like to be an explorer and I like to be an artist. I find those two things most fulfilling and after Avatar is done and I've hopefully made a little money off it I can go and do some more exploring."
 
Writer/Director, James Cameron

 

Say what?

Shock can be therapeutic. Ice cold surprise can sometimes wake you up, can force you into seeing things from a different perspective but nothing prepared me – not a single shiny thing – for my jaw-dropped, astonished reaction... to the quote above. Does James Cameron mean he's spent all his Titanic money? Jesus H. Christ on a ten-speed. So with a somewhat inevitable tickle of anticipation, I sat, popcorn lapped and waited for his next magnum opus. Those bad human beings want to take over an alien planet and the spiritual, indigenous natives have to fight back – and that was just the trailer for the 2010 CG animated Battle For Terra. I'd say that was canny marketing or a fluke of timing of planet-size proportions. It was during this trailer I realised that one of the cinema's speakers had blown (it's extraordinary how annoying that can be) and was throwing out bass in a flattened spiked crunch. When you should feel the sound, it snorted, sounding simply wrong.

No matter. I was here to assess the oft-hype-proclaimed 'cinema's next stage of evolution' - as if I had the right to do just that. I remember joining the BBC in the 80s and being told that the death of cinema was inevitable. James Cameron's Avatar is the hugely expensive next step on the cinematic ladder – 3D, over two and a half hours long, three distributed versions (IMAX 3D, 3D and 2D) and almost every shot with some digital enhancement and a great bulk of the film completely digital. Watching the movie, you do get a strong sense that some significant time has been taken over its creation... To put it bluntly, I am in a serious amount of awe of the work that put this movie on the screen (even if I hated it, which I didn't). There is a phrase that describes CG rendered humanity in the era and style of The Polar Express, that dead eyed look that creeped me and many others out. It's nicknamed 'The Uncanny Valley'. The character's eyes would always have been the stumbling block for a computer render. The window of our souls replicated by binary? Could it ever be done? To be fair to James Cameron and his multi-talented effects team, Avatar boasts the most realistic and sophisticated CG characters ever seen and I do not say that lightly. WETA's work on Gollum was the initial inspiration, the key to unlocking Avatar as a viable project. I am and always have been an effects geek. I know my travelling mattes and my miniature forced perspectives. While CG doesn't have the hands on romance attached to traditional effects, I still bow down to those who have crafted these vistas, creatures and made the whole thing so wonderfully alive.

Once movie special effects emanated almost solely from hard drives I got a bit lost (nurbs aren't for everyone, you know) but after the big, sweeping pull out from the Titanic and my noticing a few very crudely animated CG people wandering about on deck, I smugly thought I'd never get fooled. An aerial shot of the fellowship of the ring dashing away from the Balrog in the first Lord of the Rings pulled me up short. Where once I could tell, now I could not. Now we've reached full face CG realism (OK, these are aliens so that judgement doesn't count) and as I cared about their fates, I didn't care what it took to get them to be cared about. Does that make sense? Yes, it's CG but it's CG that makes you forget it's CG. It doesn't hurt that the Na'vi are sexy, lithe, nimble and ferocious. I casually wondered if Cameron's aliens had looked more like Hans Rudi Giger's creatures, would I have cared as much? Pretty sure that's a no.

Earth is screwed, barren and ripped of its treasures. No, no. Not now although we are heading there with alarming speed. We're in the 22nd century. Mankind has ventured into space and found a lush world, Pandora, where the McGuffin (the so-called important thing the movie revolves around) is under the ground, specifically under an enormous tree that the native creatures hold sacred. Above the ground live the Na'vi (in the hue of Na'vi blue no less) and they're not keen to move on or give up their sacred areas just so homo sapien can dig up a mineral and get rich. When I discovered this was the plot from Avatar's less than well received 2nd trailer, it dented my enthusiasm a little. It's such an old, old story and we hate the human beings from moment one. The parallels to our own treatment of terra firma are so overblown that it's almost subtle (having gone right around the subtlety clock face) but Cameron is less interested in the originality of the narrative than he seems to be in simply creating things to gawp at.

You can practically checklist the events and set pieces and when a big ship went down at the end and I mistakenly thought for a fleeting moment "Hey, the big villain's on that ship and it's just blown up! Where's the mano a Na'vi that's de rigeur in these kinds of movies...?" He was on another ship so he lived long enough to have his private, big, fatal final fight. What? That's hardly a spoiler. To be fair to all concerned, you don't spend this much on a movie and tell a complex or arcane story. You literally cannot afford to. Cameron has some responsibilities to the Fox suits. In fact the cowboys and indians inspiration of the tale is again so overstated, it's as if Cameron has created an opposite of subtext, above-text, super-text, text so blindingly obvious it ceases to be text and somehow rises. He's never been king of smart dialogue but the man can spin a yarn. It can't be a coincidence that at Outsider, we celebrate some directors' earlier works more than their most recent. Is it because we were younger and therefore more impressionable when T2 knocked our collective socks off or is it the filmmaker getting older and losing a raw edge to his/her film-making? For reasons that I cannot wait to learn, Slarek is actively avoiding 'the next generation in film making' at all costs and yet he admires Cameron pre-Titanic... (not totally true, I absolutely loathed True Lies – Slarek). I'm always curious about what's round the big budget corner and it may be disingenuous to suggest that the better CG gets, the more chance there is that it'll fold into film-making becoming as important as the camera used to be. But of course, it's never the weapon, it's always the brain attached to the trigger finger. And Cameron simply adores guns...

Yes, there are things to enjoy in Avatar even if the essential story is a time honoured one told to cliché and back several thousand times before. A paraplegic marine is sent to Pandora after his brother is killed. His twin was training to inhabit an avatar, a genetically grown Na'vi/human hybrid who would infiltrate the aliens and try to persuade them to move while human beings with enormous weapons smash the shit out of everything. Jake Sulley takes his dead brother's place and despite being none too bright (something that grates on the leader of the avatar project, Dr. Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver), he manages what everyone else has failed to do. After getting lost on the planet, he's taken in by Neytiri, the stunning motion captured Zoe Saldana, fresh from Uhura duties on the Enterprise. He goes native and after three months is ready to lead the Na'vi in a battle against his own species.

At a running time of well over two and a half hours, you'd think there'd be a sag in the middle. Well, there is so much to see (in a controlled and well directed fashion, not a Lucasian one) and your eye does lap up most of it. I mean, Pandora is seriously gorgeous (even if its physics is a bit odd – how can Earth machines fly and yet the planet's mountains float unsupported?) and the Na'vi are intriguing and so lifelike. If there is a slight drawback in total immersion, it's because we are not used to seeing how ten feet tall alien humanoids move therefore the only references we have are ourselves. There is a scene at the end of the film (which I won't spoil) but it involves close human and Na'vi physical contact and even with a CG humanoid and a real human being entwined around each other, it works gangbusters.

Sam Worthington does vulnerable/tough very well (as seen in Terminator: Salvation) and he's a credible lead. The effect of his withered legs is also a startling one when you get to see them because it's such a mundane image (pretty sure Worthington does not own those legs) but on him, it's a shocking one. Weaver impresses with her authority and Michelle Rodriguez is a feisty chopper pilot who changes sides to help the resistance. It's her customised chopper that for me was the nicest "Yeah!" moment in the entire film. I've been enjoying her work in the US TV hit Lie To Me. The human slime balls don't get much slimier than Giovanni Ribisi, the manager of the mining mission who is so much the company man, he may actually be branded. Then we come to lead bastard No. 1. Stephen Lang has an unfettered machismo that in a few scenes tips perilously close to parody. It is a delicious thrill to see all his best laid plans fall out of the sky even if it is obviously just waiting to happen. Characterisation is fairly rudimentary but that's not the pay off. The Avatar effect is to widen your eyes more than applaud its narrative despite quite a number of "Wa hay!" moments, some of which don't come off as vigorously as I think Cameron would have hoped (for this reviewer at least).

The one element hurt by Cameron's clichéd skeleton of a narrative is having the audience too far ahead of him. Things feather-dropped into the movie as signposts meant to be forgotten until we realise their significance later on, smash down with a resounding whispered bellow of "That's Going To Be Significant!". When Neytiri says that only – and I'm paraphrasing - "...my great grandfather tamed the beast of Ragnor..." (or whatever) it's practically written in stone on screen that this is what our hero is going to do. Plant life singles him out for he is 'the one'. At least the power loader in Aliens was obvious but the pay off was huge. So while Cameron drops the medicine ball dishing out the signposts, at least he makes up for it in the power of his extraordinary visuals.

Last and well, least I have to mention the 3D. As I said earlier, Avatar is being released as a 2D movie, a 3D movie and an IMAX 3D movie. I don't know how Cameron has dealt with the changing frame sizes (re-framed especially for the IMAX format?) but one thing I do know. I wanted to be knocked out by the 3D because the hype was considerable. Wisely Cameron does the 'stick poking out of the screen' only a few times but to be honest I had no extra emotional reaction to the 'immersive' 3D to use the buzzword that TV and film financiers are using right now. If anything, it calls attention to the artifice, something good 'immersive' 2D movies never do. Like Up, it's a novelty and one that comes with a price. Those Polaroid glasses dim the view (it's basic physics) and whether the movie is slightly over exposed (do these terms ever apply any more?) you are always aware that it would so nice to take the glasses off... Now IMAX 3D is a different animal and I can imagine the IMAX theatres being relatively full for the next few weeks (as my son and his mother found this out yesterday in London).

So, is Avatar worth the hype? For Pandora and the Na'vi alone, to bask in something believably alien, go along and enjoy the view. Action cinema fans are certainly not short-changed even if they'll have to put up with some serious new-age mysticism. The narrative is told well but still it's a train and everyone knows a train can't suddenly veer off unexpectedly. But there's enough going on to entertain the casual cinemagoer and it's not as if over one thousand seven hundred people have not poured their souls into the picture. Well done, Philip! Cameron should be admired for quite a lot and he pulls off Avatar as long as you accept Hollywood's own self-imposed limitations. The movie is tentatively recommended for those easily distracted (I like writing for this site and do not want to get fired for approving something the site's administrator would pay to avoid)...

Avatar

USA/UK 2009
162 mins
director
James Cameron
producers
James Cameron
Jon Landau
screenplay
James Cameron
cinematography
Mauro Fiore
editors
James Cameron
John Refoua
Stephen Rivkin
music
James Horner
production design
Rick Carter
Robert Stromberg
starring
Sam Worthington
Zoe Saldana
Sigourney Weaver
Stephen Lang
Michelle Rodriguez
Giovanni Ribisi
Joel David Moore
CCH Pounder
release date (UK)
10 December 2009
review posted
20 December 2009

See all of Camus's reviews