Review by Jack Foley
JAMES Cameron’s Avatar has widely been hailed as an industry “game-changer” that will revolutionise the way we see movies and set new standards in technical achievement.
Now that it has been unveiled, only part of this is true. Avatar is technically impressive but emotionally flawed and far too derivative of better movies.
It aims high visually but is, at its core, a pretty basic story that’s been told many times before. Yes, Cameron litters the film with pertinent social and historical issues, such as man’s mishandling of the environment and his propensity for taking whatever he wants.
And there’s also nods to key historical moments, such as the displacement of the Native Americans by settlers, Vietnam and the current conflict in Iraq…. not to mention 9/11.
But Cameron isn’t really doing or saying anything with these themes that hasn’t already been seen or done before. If anything, he even simplifies them. There’s a clear distinction between good and bad; villains are clearly defined and get their comeuppance.
It’s a Hollywood take on reality, played out in a heightened alternative one.
That’s not to say Avatar isn’t enjoyable for it does have many things going for it. But it’s not as complete or as satisfying as the groundbreaking likes of Cameron’s greatest achievements, Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens or even 11-time Oscar winner Titanic.
Set in 2154, the film focuses on a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who arrives on the distant moon of Pandora with a mission to help displace its indigenous population, the Na’vi, so that humans can mine a precious material needed to ensure the Earth’s survival.
In order to do so, Jake must assume 12ft blue Na’vi form using advanced avatar technology.
But after winning their trust and being embraced as one of their own, Jake finds his allegiances gradually shifting until the point he is compelled to lead the Na’vi against the military might of his former bosses in order to defend their world and ideals.
For a film with such a simple premise, it’s debatable whether Cameron needed to take almost three hours to let events unfold.
But then he would argue that having taken four years to create the Pandora universe, it’s worth providing viewers with the time to properly immerse themselves in it.
And here’s where the movie really does come into its own. Visually, Avatar is often breathtaking, expertly combining a sense of the unknown with all the thrills and danger that come with it.
The landscapes are amazing, as are most of the flora, fauna, insects and creatures that populate it. Viewers should have as much fun exploring Cameron’s vivid imagination as Sully does initially – while in 3D form much of the environment and action that takes place really does come alive even more.
But as hard as Cameron has strived, the central blue Na’vi still look odd at times. Viewers are required to make a massive leap and while the ‘dead eyes’ that have marred so many performance capture movies have been successfully removed, it’s also no surprise that Avatar works best during the scenes of genuine human interaction.
A lot of this may be down to the script; for while great actors can work wonders with not very much, it must be hard for performance capture to convey the same thing.
Hence, Stephen Lang’s gung-ho Col Quaritch emerges as the film’s most interesting character, even though the script reduces him to such a one-dimensional villain.
Lang scenery chews with glee, issuing lines such as “you’re not in Kansas anymore” or “we will fight terror, with terror” with relish.
Sam Worthington and even Sigourney Weaver find their range curtailed somewhat by the limitations of the technology once in avatar form, even though Zoe Saldana’s Na’vi character does well and enhances her reputation even further post Star Trek.
Avatar will ultimately stand or fall on its visuals, however, and the “wow” factor that Cameron was seeking has certainly been registered in the majority of early reviews.
Fears fuelled by cruel early commentaries labelling the film as “Ferngully in space” or “Dances With Smurfs“ are largely dispelled as early audiences have bought into and embraced Cameron’s vision.
It’s an even greater shame, therefore, that the director finds himself shackled thematically by so many easy comparisons, with everything from Dances With Wolves and Apocalypto to A Man Called Horse and Braveheart never far from the memory.
Avatar‘s great triumph should have been its ability to blow your mind and captivate your senses in a way that hasn’t been achieved before. That it doesn’t really do both must rate as a disappointment, especially coming from a director of Cameron’s calibre.
Running time: 161mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: April 26, 2010
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- James Cameron interview
- Stephen Lang interview
- Sigourney Weaver interview
- Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana interview
- Jon Landau interview
- Avatar in IMAX - 35,000 tickets sold so far
- View Avatar photos
- Avatar - The Game reviewed
- Avatar OST (James Horner) reviewed
- Read our first-look Avatar preview