Avatar - was it worth the wait?
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By Tom Powell.
Friday, 18, Dec 2009 12:16
Lewis Bazley has seen a glimpse of the future of cinema; and it's very blue, and very 3D.
Directed by James Cameron, out December 17th in cinemas, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, running time 165 mins.
What's it all about?
Probably the most eagerly awaited film of the decade, James Cameron's groundbreaking Avatar was first conceived of in 1994, years before the technology required to realise the director's vision existed. After four years in production, the 3D and performance capture technology pioneered by Cameron and his crew means Avatar's release could change the world of film as we know it.
In 2154, paralysed former marine Jake Sully (Worthington) is drafted for an extraterrestrial mission after his twin brother is killed. The Resources Development Administration has spent billions to mine the distant world of Pandora for the rare and vital mineral Unobtainium but with relations with natives still fraught three decades after colonisation, technology has been developed to allow human 'drivers' to have their consciousness linked with an avatar, or remotely controlled body resembling that of the indigenous Na'vi population. Jake's DNA leaves him the only suitable candidate to take over his brother's mission to infiltrate the Na'vi, but after falling for beautiful native girl Neytiri (Saldana), the cards are dealt for a climactic fight between species.
As an example...
"Our only security is pre-emptive attack. We will fight terror with terror." - Colonel Miles Quatrich
"I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace. Sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up." - Jake Sully
What the others say
"Twelve years after Titanic, which still stands as the all-time box office champ, Cameron delivers again with a film of universal appeal that just about everyone who ever goes to the movies will need to see." - Todd McCarthy, Variety
"A titanic entertainment - movie magic is back! A dozen years later, James Cameron has proven his point: He is king of the world." - Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter
So is it any good?
With a ten-year development process, talk of 'game-changing' effects and the potential replacement of actors with computer likenesses, Avatar arrives in cinemas with the baggage of a dysfunctional family. James Cameron, however, won't be needing post-traumatic therapy, as his alien fairytale-cum-green manifesto is, on several levels, an outright triumph.
It's not without its flaws, with a gruelling running time and a plot reeking of cheese and heavy-handed allegory. But, in visual terms - those by which it should be most keenly judged, given all the talk of never-before-seen imagery - it's a magnificent achievement. Action scenes of the quality you'd expect from Cameron are immersive to the point of terrifying while the 3D is so convincing that you feel the humidity of Pandora's phosphorescent jungle, or the vertigo of diving off a floating mountain on a winged beast.
The highest praise for Avatar must be reserved for its revelation of the future. The first flight into Pandora creates the same awesome chill as that original viewing of the Imperial Star Destroyer in A New Hope, the spine-tingling tracking shot up the brachiosaur's neck in Jurassic Park or Gollum's Two Towers schizophrenia. The fact that an audience can feel a beautiful neon planet at their fingertips creates wonderful, hugely exciting possibilities for the world's most imaginative filmmakers. It's no surprise that messrs Spielberg, Jackson and Del Toro are already devotees of the 'Volume' motion capture platform. Cameron's promise that actors would, in the future, be able to take roles regardless of a character's age or gender had seemed a brave but surely false boast. But the Na'vi avatars of Sam Worthington et al are rendered so convincingly, both otherworldly and unmistakably human, that you can see his point.
It can't be all about the visuals, of course, and the look of Avatar doesn't entirely redeem its failings. It might be set in a fictional faraway realm but the earthly parallels are evident - almost to the point of frustration, in fact. The Na'vi's way of life and beliefs bear numerous similarities with the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines and, as the incoming troops leap from 22nd century helicopters like grunts in 'Nam, or Lang's splendidly evil Colonel Quaritch talks of "shock and awe", some viewers will sigh with exasperation: 'Alright, I get the point!'
The Na'vi's ability to communicate with their past and planet through the energy of a tree network is an intriguing concept - and one that can be further explored in the likely sequels - but the cod mysticism that surrounds it can grate at times. The glow of the Pandoran forest is serene enough without sub-Circle of Life claptrap while a later celebratory scene could evoke unfortunate memories of the horrendous Zion rave horror of The Matrix Reloaded. And, surely, it's bizarre that in the 15 years since Cameron's original script outline, the team couldn't come up with a better name for the valuable mineral that the hilariously literal Unobtainium.
But all the pulpy, expositional dialogue, all the "treehugger crap" - as Jake initially dubs it - all the thinly veiled subtext of the script, is forgivable. Entirely. The action sequences remain first class, with a 20-minute closing battle surprising in its brutality, and the photorealism on show means nothing will ever be the same. The cons are always substantially outweighed by the breathtaking glimpses of the future from the film's design. While James Horner's mostly stirring score takes a dip into twee as Jake and Neytiri run through the jungle, it's yet another example of a scene so kaleidoscopic and exhilarating that you want to join them in leaping between branches and learning an alien tongue. The unfortunate 'meet-cute' of Jake and Neytiri's first encounter undermines the jawdropping wonder of what's gone before but a superb Saldana saves the day, excelling in an emotionally wrought performance that confirms the potential of the performance capture techniques.
Were the long wait and the millions of dollars worth it? Undoubtedly. Over a decade after defying critical cynicism to release the most successful film of all time, James Cameron has surpassed himself. He's still the King of the World and with the help of a prodigiously talented royal court, has created a magical and captivating new world that must be seen to be believed.