‘I’m the King of the World!’ declared James Cameron after the box-office smashing, Oscar hauling behemoth of a film that was Titanic. With Hollywood wrapped around his little finger, Cameron looked poised to produce many a hit-film from his throne but quicker than you can say Terrence Mallick, he disappeared. During the decade long absence of his highness, many a young pretender have arisen to steal his crown and whilst Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mediocre blockblusters have filled the void, the return of King Cameron seemed to herald the revitalisation of the action film genre. So just what has JC been doing for the past eleven years? We were promised the biggest revolution in cinema history since the Jazz Singer and a revolution he has certainly started, just how big it will be, only time can tell.
Avatar employs a new motion capture technology developed by Cameron and co. that allows the director to view the actors performances with all the special effects added immediately thus moving CGI closer to conventional filmmaking. However murmurs of discontent were heard as soon as details of the film emerged. Criticism of the ‘photorealistic’ effects and the very familiar plot were hurled at poor James, even meriting a whole South Park episode dedicated to highlighting the similarities to _Dances with Wolves _(smurfs). Interestingly JC didn’t rise to the bait, confident with the knowledge that he made something special. But has Cameron managed to break the recent trend of directors becoming carried away with CGI and ignoring the real substance of their films? Well yes, just about.
Avatar is spectacular to watch, the alien Planet of Pandora is vividly imagined with incredible attention to detail. Fantastic plants and luminous flowers populate the dense forests whilst vicious six-legged beasts roam the undergrowth and brightly coloured dragons swoop amongst floating mountains; Salvador Dali would be put to shame. What is amazing is that every part of the planet has been rendered on a computer but not once does the environment feel fake. This illusion is only slightly shaken involving scenes with the natives of the planet – The Na’vi – but I attribute this more to the fact that we are not used to seeing blue people instead of imperfections with the CGI.
The Na’vi resemble Native Americans in most aspects including a spiritual link to nature. But their perfect existence has been threatened with the arrival of the sky-people aka humans. Far from a dying Earth, a mega-corporation has employed a private army to help them exploit Pandora’s recources, specifically a rare mineral conveniently named ‘unobtanium’. The film’s hero Jake, a paraplegic ex-marine, is enlisted to join the ‘Avatar Project’ in which human’s pilot home grown Na’vi bodies so they can breath the toxic atmosphere and interact with the locals. Unintentionally infiltrating the local tribe, Jake’s loyalties slowly switch from the classically unhinged colonel (played with menacing glee by Stephen Lang) and to the Na’vi as he falls in love with their way of life and also a special lady alien.
The latest big discovery Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) really comes to life when he’s transformed into his 12 foot alter ego. His portrayal of a regression to an almost child-like state due to a new leash of life in contrast to the depression of being crippled is very convincing. Zoey Saldana, last seen in Star Trek, gives the strongest performance of the film as the beautiful but fierce Neytiri who’s sent into a cascading dilemma of conflicting emotions and loyalities. The motion capture technique picks out Saldana’s every subtle movement and expression helping make Neytiri seem the most human character in the film and her Na’vi accent and cat-like actions when angry makes her one of the sexiest characters to grace our screen in years (I’m not ashamed to say that!)
Fittingly, the central two characters are the most developed and help keep Avatar focused, however the rest of the cast seemed to have wondered in from a variety of films. We have the gung ho Colonel Quaritch, who is simply Colonel Kilgore plucked from the horror of ‘Nam in _Apocalypse Now _and thrown into the year 2154. Cameron even shamelessly acknowledges this by placing a mug of coffee in his hand during the gunship attack scene (only this time, there’s no Wagner). When you need a macho woman these days, Michelle Rodriguez is top of the list but she struggles with some of the weakest lines in the script and her part is underused. Sigourney Weaver is reunited with Cameron for the first time since Aliens, her headstrong scientist is such a maverick that she smokes in space! And so the list of stereotypes goes on and on…
But James Cameron is the first to admit that the plot contains everything but originality however avant-garde films are not his craft and where he excels is in his attention to the structure, pacing and general tidiness of his films. When it comes to the story, we are in traditional Cameron territory; a love affair interrupted by the inconvenience of the threat of death and a finale climaxing with a duel between our hero and villain. So the plot maybe slightly dull but he makes up for this with expert direction; there are no stupid ‘action’ camera tricks to confuse the audience or repetitive fight scenes which take up half the film. The carefully built set-pieces are masterfully handled, expert pacing combined with precisely fluctuating levels of suspense ensures that our attention is held throughout. Most importantly, at a running time of 2hrs 40mins, this film is never boring.
His screenplays have never pushed boundaries but they are usually quite solid, unfortunately Avatar’s isn’t so and this is where the film falls flat. The weak script is peppered with clichés and the dialogue feels unnatural preventing the characters from gaining any emotion depth. This was a big shame as I felt the wooden characterization hampered the cast’s performances who would have typically given stronger performances. There’s the Na’vi language to consider as well of which Cameron is apparently very proud of though it soon turns out it is basically redundant as all the aliens speak English anyway. The film’s mythology wisely sticks to a familiar fantasy format and thus avoids alienating audiences with technological jargon made infamous by the Star Trek films. Though somewhat far-fetched, downloading yourself into the universal conscience of the planet and praying to a giant glowing tree makes perfect sense.
However not even the meanest of scrooges will be able to sit sour faced through the film, grumbling about the script. The shear magnificence of the visuals will elevate you to a state of ecstasy pushing any thoughts of the film’s thoughts way to the back of your mind. But to experience the film’s maximum beauty I strongly advise seeing it in 3D. Instead of being a gimmick, the 3D helps immerse you more into the kaleidoscopic world of Pandora. Ignore my negative criticisms, I’m just being a film snob and if you haven’t seen Avatar yet then skip your next lecture and head down to the nearest cinema; you won’t be disappointed.