When a film has been more than a decade in the making and costs close to $250m to produce, living up to the hype is always going to be a tough job. James Cameron’s 3D, effects-laden Avatar manages to do so in most regards but falls flat in others.
The premise is relatively straightforward. It’s the year 2154 and with the Earth dying, humans are trawling the universe for alternative fuel. The answer is found on a remote planet called Pandora, inhabited by blue humanoids, the Na’vi – an intelligent albeit primitive people living in perfect harmony with nature. However, the main fuel deposit is located directly below where the Na’vi live. As the atmosphere on Pandora is not breathable for humans, scientists have bred hybrid creatures, avatars, which humans can "drive" and Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine, has been tasked with infiltrating the indigenous population to get to the fuel and save the world. But there he meets young female Neytiri (Saldana) and, well, you can probably guess the rest.
As you can see, the story isn’t so much an allegory for the white man’s rape of native America as a straight lift. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem – simple plotlines often make for the best films. What is a problem is the sledgehammer nature of the message. SAVE THE PLANET! DON’T KILL THE NATIVES, THEY MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING WE DON’T! GREED IS BAD! If there’s one thing Cameron can’t do it’s subtlety. And if there’s another (and there is, more than one in fact) it’s screenwriting. The sooner he gives up and hires someone else to do some dialogue for him the better. “You are not in Kansas anymore! Time to bring the pain! I wanna be home in time for dinner!” Some of it is physically painful to witness. Oh, and the fuel is called unobtanium. I mean, for crying out loud.
For a film boasting its 3D/RealD credentials so forcefully, it is hugely ironic that the characterisation is so dreadfully one dimensional. Stephen Lang’s warmongering Colonel is a cartoon of a man, all muscles and testosterone and barking. None of the Na’vi have much of a personality, only Sigourney Weaver’s scientist has any real humanity and she is reduced to a bit part. So if it’s depth of character you’re after, look elsewhere. By now you might be wondering why I’ve given this four stars out of five.
Well, most of them are for how the film looks. Aside from when it’s pure live action, at which point there is some blurring when people move (they really need to fix that), the 3D is pretty impressive, with depth of field captured expertly but with relatively few things-flying-at-you-out-of-the-screen moments. The most amazing element of Avatar though is the world of Pandora itself. It is a quite stunningly realised place, a kaleidoscope of spectacular colours, textures, sounds and creatures. At times it feels like you’re either in or watching a video game and while this may not sound great, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the detail and the splendour of the world Cameron and his visual arts team has created. As a result of this beauty, it’s easy to be carried along by the wonder of it all and forget the many flaws. It really does take you to another place and in that regard is the most immersive experience I’ve ever encountered.
However, I’m not convinced that it will stand up to repeat viewings. It’s so derivative that there is almost nothing original in Avatar at all (special effects aside) and the list of influences is probably much longer than this: Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, Ferngully, the Terminator films, the Alien films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Abyss and even Titanic. The music is distressingly similar and there are several sequences reminiscent of the 1997 Cameron film. But, that was a huge success and this will be too, even in spite of the amount it cost to make. Avatar is always great to look at and although it’s about half an hour too long it is never boring, which is quite an accomplishment given its numerous failings. So while it’s no classic as a film, as pure entertainment it delivers in spades. I just wish he’d let someone who can write get involved, then we’d have something genuinely brilliant.
SECOND OPINION | Stuart O'Connor **** With all the hype surrounding Avatar that we've had to put up with this year, most people were expecting to be disappointed. I can honestly say that I wasn't among them. Although I'm not the biggest fan of either Titanic or The Abyss, to my mind Cameron has made three of the best sci-fi/action films ever: the first two Terminators, and Aliens. So I felt pretty sure that he wouldn't let us down with Avatar – and he hasn't. Although the story itself is derivative and unoriginal, that really doesn't matter when a film looks this good. Visually, Cameron and his team have managed to create an entirely believable world, stunningly realised in pretty much perfect motion-captured CGI. It's also the closest we've ever come to seeing a fully-immersive video game translated to the big screen. But where Avatar blows everything else out of the water is with its 3D – it is, without a doubt, the best that we have ever seen in the cinema. Nobody, except perhaps for Pixar, has ever managed to make 3D as good as we see in Avatar. I can't wait to see what Cameron does next.