So here it is, both my Christmas Day post and also the review I’ve most been looking forward to for the longest time – Avatar. What’s most shocking is that I didn’t hate it, despite every contrary thing I can come up with, it really is groundbreaking. Unfortunately, it’s still a James Cameron movie.
Centering on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who takes the place of his twin brother Thomas on his mission to a planet called Pandora, populated by the indigenous Na’vi who live in absolute harmony with nature. Sadly for the locals their village of Hometree sits upon a huge deposit of unobtainium, a precious alloy that the corporation in charge of the mission want at all costs. Science and military butt heads as to what is the best approach, with the scientists occupying the bodies of human/na’vi hybrids called Avatars seeking a peaceful solution, while Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his militia are prepared for war. Jake is taken in by the Na’vi and allowed to train as one of them, something that gains him the anthropological respect of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) whilst being exploited for tactical information by Quartich. Within a short time he becomes one with the indigenous people and enemy of his employers upon realizing that he cannot be responsible for the destruction of this world, even if it means a cure for his paraplegia.
It really is obvious even from reading a condensed version of the plot that the story is one giant conceit, a series of narratives stitched together from other movies like Dances With Wolves or even Disney’s Pocahontas. Themes that range from environmentalism to colonialism are explored but poorly so, none fully cemented due to Cameron’s usual awkward, clunky dialogue and the lack of any central vision.
Characterisation is another huge hurdle that the writer/director never manages to overcome, the human cast being relegated to stereotypes needed to push what exists of a story forward. The only significant input is with the Na’vi, given their own language and culture that only further illustrate how poor the development of the other cast is, so much so that the best acting comes from Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri (the local equivalent of a Princess or Chieftain’s daughter) who overcomes her lack of dialogue with vigor and a large degree of physicality.
That a completely CGI character could even do so, is only testament to the technology and visuals in the piece, which are nothing short of awe inspiring, moving on from the Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum in leaps and bounds. Each character, even in larger scenes populated entirely by animated figures is distinct, with its own personality and markings, driven by something altogether human rather than AI. Again however, these visuals are also part of the film’s flaws – Cameron spends so much time showing us the lush environment that he envisaged that pacing is non-existent, with large portions of it feeling like needless (albeit beautiful) filler material, further propelling the other issues to the fore. With a running time of roughly two and a half hours, fatigue sets in, like being shown too many scenic photos from a friend’s holiday; some heavy duty editing would have saved it from attack on many fronts.
It might seem like an all out attack in how many issues are evident, but overall the visuals do manage to give us an insight into a fully realised world not seen before. If Cameron had spent some of that time waiting for the technology to catch up with his vision looking at the basics of his story and editing it down to what drives the story rather than what drives the technology, this would be an example of art, rather than the simple examination of aesthetic. Cameron is safe, for now, but when the inevitable sequels come knocking (come on, we’re lucky he could only sink that bastard once), it would be best he remembers that you can put pearls on a whore, but she’ll still be a whore; no matter how good the CGI may be, it can’t cover up a bad story.