Cast : Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao, Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso.
Synopsis: Crippled former marine Jake Sully takes his dead brothers place on Pandora, an alien world rich with a very expensive mineral. Sully is seconded by the military detachment to relocate a colony of natives, by becoming one of them himself in the form of an avatar, a “remote control body” that he can use to communicate with them.
After his self-congratulatory (and somewhat cringe-worthy) exultation of success with Titanic’s sweep at the Oscars, James Cameron could be forgiven for taking things a little slower. In the years since (hard to believe it’s been over a decade since the famed director’s last dramatic cinema effort!) James Cameron has continued with his pioneering development of technology to help him tell the story of Avatar, a 3D event film that has been near on 5 years in the making, and estimated to have cost 20th Century Fox the best chunk of $US500m. The problem with taking things slower, developing ideas and concepts in your own time, is that it allows a build-up of tension within the fandom that ensures that no matter how high you strive, no matter how hard to push yourself, it’s never going to reach the level of quality those not in the loop are expecting. Look what happened to George Lucas and his Star Wars series: after the enormous hype and build-up to The Phantom Menace, Lucas could never even attempt to match what was expected by the general public.
To say the expectation for Avatar was enormous is to say that the Pope is “a little bit religious”. As such, a gross understatement at the very extremes of the concept. I guess the main thing people want to know first up is, is Avatar worth the wait?
The answer is, quite frankly, yes and no. In terms of spectacle and epic, wide-screen storytelling, Avatar takes some beating. In terms of story, the key component that drives any film, Avatar is sadly lacking, or at the very least, exhibits traits of other, more emotionally convincing, films. James Cameron has, for all intents and purposes, stolen the script of Dances With Wolves and re-purposed it to suit his momentous return to cinema, albeit with larger canvas and brush strokes a mile wide. For that reason, this film will only ever be a secondary retelling of that story, and not a unique snowflake the fans will redoubtably cry out for. Essentially a tale of lost humanity, of moral ethics and “doing the right thing” against better judgement, Avatar manages to not only excite and amaze with its technical skill, but it captivates the eyes with depth of detail and imagination. Yes, truly Avatar will become the new benchmark for cinematic prowess, much as Star Wars did back in the 70’s, Jurassic Park did in the 90’s, and the Matrix Trilogy did in the Noughties. As we close the book on the aptly termed “Noughties”, we look towards the new decade with some hope for cinematic storytelling, as the wave of 3D magic sweeps across technical boundaries and into public consciousness. Indeed, as I write this, the 3D specs for BluRay have only recently been decided upon, ensuring that the full hi-definition BluRay impact of Avatar (as well as the myriad other 3D films currently in release and in production) will enjoy a life that, until now, has only been hinted at in the realms of science fiction.
Avatar takes us to the planetary moon of Pandora, a lush, jungle-type world similar in many ways to Star War‘s Endor, although this world has significantly more creatures and plant life, almost a veritable Garden Of Eden if you will. Pandora, we soon learn, is rich in a mineral that is quite valuable to mankind, “unobtanium”. Okay, so you may giggle like I did when I first heard that was the name of the mineral, but the name in itself is irrelevant. What is relevant to Avatar is that the largest known deposit of unobtanium on Pandora is beneath an enormous tree-like monolith broaching the surface of the jungle-scape, and which is home to a tribe of the local inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi. The Na’vi, at the time the film begins, are known to the humans, and vie versa, although the Na’vi do not enjoy their world being invaded. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who we see cremating his twin brother before accepting a posting to Pandora for a research team, arrives on Pandora under the impression if he serves the mission, he’ll receive new limbs to replace his paralyzed legs. It appears in the future, medical care for all comes at significant cost. Jake meets Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the leader of the research team on Pandora, who regards the paralyzed replacement as something of a hindrance. Augustine’s team have been using genetically modified human-Na’vi bodies, or “avatars”, controlled by uplink from a base location, to interact with the local aboriginal population, to gain their trust and try and persuade them to relocate to a place far from where the mining corporation wants to dig. The mining conglomerate, RDA, is growing increasingly impatient with the fact that their production of mining unobtanium is being held up by what they perceive as a group of savages. The administrator of the Pandora expedition, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) decides that unless the avatar-humans can get the Na’vi to relocate peacefully, they’ll use their considerable force to do it anyway. So, the race is on to get the Na’vi to see reason and move.
Jake, who is essentially a newcomer to avatar technology, becomes lost in the Pandoran jungle, surrounded by beast of all shapes and sizes (and tempers), before being rescued by female Na’vi Naytiri (Zoe Saldana), who takes him to her tribe and is told to teach him their ways. Neytiri is reluctant to do so, but eventually forms a bond with Jake’s avatar, and he slowly begins to integrate into their world. However, the bombast of the militaristic RDA operation nearby continues to put both Jake and the Na’vi in danger, and the moment arrives (as it so often does) when Jake must decide between the Na’vi and his fellow humans. From then, the battle for Pandora, and ultimately the unobtanium, begins in earnest. Leader of the mercenaries RDA are using to enforce their will, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang), takes his personal vendetta against Sully into the deep jungle, and this battle is the significant turning point in the conflict.
Frankly, as I watched Avatar I was torn between admiration for the spectacle, and outright disgust that Cameron could steal the same storyline as another (Oscar winning, no less) film, and get away with it. If I was Michael Blake, I’d be asking for royalties from Cameron for pinching many of the ideas in Dances and using them flagrantly throughout Avatar. Dances With Wolves tells of a former Confederate soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), who travels to a remote outpost in the Wild West and discovers a tribe of Indians, befriending them, and eventually fighting against the white enslavers for the more fruitful, emotionally nourishing life of the local tribesman. Of course, Dunbar meets an Indian woman, falls in love with her and pursues her, much to the initial disgust of the fellow Indian tribesmen. Yes, in Avatar, Jake Sully falls for the beautiful Naytiri, and pursues her, much to the disgust of her fellow tribes-people. The churlish, yet friendly, Indian Chief character in Dances appears again in Avatar, in the form of Wes Studi’s Eytucan (which is an ironic twist, considering Studi has Indian background himself, and appeared in Dances With Wolves as well…..!!!!), the tribal chief of the Na’vi. Also, similarly to Dances With Wolves, Avatar’s main story point is the relocation of the indigenous population for the purpose of commercial gain by intruding white folks. Even Jake Sully’s military background smacks of Dunbar’s former Civil War glory. Truthfully, Cameron’s story is weaker emotionally than Blake’s script for Dances, the reason for which I lay at the fact that Avatar is set in a world so far removed from our own that we are removed so far from the reason to care about it. That, plus the avatar creatures are so different from our human form that it’s a lot more difficult for us to engage with them as characters we should feel for. Of course, we should feel for them, after all, our commercially belligerent brethren simply want to walk all over them with little recourse to opposition. But as characters, they’re simply figments of the imagination, and although the analogy of many indigenous peoples of Earth being overpowered by white supremacy throughout history remains pertinent, it’s less powerful in such an alien landscape.
Where Avatar succeeds, though, is in it’s depth of scale and sheer volume of imaginative design. Pandora, as a world, is simply amazing. The CGI and computing power used to create such a diverse, living alien landscape is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s hard to believe that this entire world exists inside a computer somewhere, such is the level of craftsmanship and detail in every single frame of this film. Plants, trees, wildlife, amazing landscapes and vistas sweep across the screen in an almost bewildering cacophony of colour and movement. Every single frame of Avatar’s jungle sequences is so realistically depicted, so filled with alien life and growth, it’s almost impossible to describe. It’s so beautifully rendered, at times you have to subconsciously remind yourself that you’re watching a computer generated sequence, not something shot on the Warner backlot. The detail in the landscape and effect of the film only serve to add to the emotional content of the film, although still hamstrung by the clichéd plotting, it almost appears effortless on the part of the guys sitting at their computers thinking this stuff up. With such a broad canvas to use, Cameron could be forgiven for indulging in a little showing off. Some of the film’s less rambunctious sequences are a little slow, somewhat plodding, mainly due to the fact that it, after all, is only CGI, and not the real thing. Audiences, especially jaded audiences brought up on a diet of The Phantom Menace and its computer overkill ilk, are looking for something more than simply a great looking film. They want a great looking film and a story that moves them. The hoary chestnut of “hero goes native” has run it’s course, and you can almost see the twists in the narrative coming a mile away, regardless of how cool the background is.
It’s a little to do with the actors as well, I suggest. Cameron has filled his cast with capable performers, Aussie Sam Worthington among them. Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana (who, for those not in the know, played Uhura in the most recent incarnation of Star Trek), Michelle Rodriguez and CCH Pounder have all cut their teeth in great films in the past; they’ve proven their quality. And yet the same issues that befell The Polar Express, Beowulf, Final Fantasy and even the most recent film version of A Christmas Carol, again bring Avatar undone somewhat. The characters in their avatar mode, and the Na’vi, simply aren’t human at all, and this precludes us bonding emotionally with them as we would one of our own kind. They’re almost humanistic, which isn’t enough to connect with me. Cameron tries to bridge the gap somewhat by having Sully alternate between his waking human state and the mindset of his avatar, however it becomes a little clichéd by films’ end and by the time the final explosion, gunshot and scream of anguish perpetrate across the screen, you’ve given up hoping of originality and simply start staring at your watch waiting for the inevitable plot developments to occur. And they do occur. All of them. Worthington is a rock solid actor, although his emotive range seems stuck somewhere between zip and nothing, more glower and glare than heart and care. The avatar, the CGI element of his narrative, gives more emotive qualities than he does himself. Which, considering the entire film rests on his shoulders, is a little disappointing. Sigourney Weaver seems to be merely cashing in on her past relationship with Cameron, her save-the-whales-and-trees approach to the situation is 2 dimensional at best.
Perhaps the best part of Avatar is the revelatory performance of Steven Lang as the violent-seeking Colonel who goes hard at his mission to achieve success, no matter what. Lang chews through his sequences, his gung-ho attitude and surly, hard-bitten demeanour a perfect foil for the peaceful Na’vi, as well as the antithesis of all that is wrong with humanity as a whole. Lang devours his part, making up for some wooden acting with sheer bravado and screen charisma. He makes a truly awesome (and frightening) villain for the film.
James Cameron, much like Spielberg and other directors who push boundaries of what’s attempted in film (a la David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and, God forgive me, George Lucas) has redefined his career forever with Avatar, set up the bar to a new height of cinematic achievement. However, much of this achievement is undone by a lackluster story-line, which feels like a pretty solid let-down after the years of waiting. Where Cameron’s strengths are, the film is pure cinematic nirvana: the action sequences and specific effects moments are a delight to watch. However, much like Titanic, Cameron often has a tin ear for dialogue, and there are moments in Avatar where the script feels like it was written by a three year old. It’s these moments that ultimately undermine what could have been a truly revolutionary film, a film that really does change the way we view film. Gobsmacking 3D effects aside, the heart of this story simply isn’t strong enough to fully support the absolutely stunning effects and landscapes around it.
If you go see Avatar, see it in the magnificent 3D format for which it was originally intended. I recommend you see it, if only to see for yourself just what half a billion dollar budget can buy you on the big screen. It’s a terrific example of entertainment simply for it’s own sake, a trifle of a story that has been told before (and better) with brilliant design and production values to salvage things. Avatar is most definitely a must-see, but I doubt in the years to come the story will be looked upon as favourably as it does in the heat of new-release fervour.