Dir: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana
On the distant planet of Pandora, inhabited by the Na'vi, the human race is trying to mine the valuable material unobtanium. Unfortunately, the largest deposit is right underneath a native colony. Paralysed marine Jake Sully (Worthington) is recruited for the Avatar project - an experiment in placing human minds in Na'vi bodies - so that he can persuade the Na'vi to leave. He soon finds that his mission will not be as simple as he thinks...
'Avatar' arrived in a storm of publicity and hype; James Cameron's first film in ten years, a cinematic revolution, the film that will justify and perfect 3D technology, the greatest action film of the decade. Indeed, it has just been awarded the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Does it succeed? As always with this question, the answer is a little from column a, and a little from column b. In this case though, the answer is weighted in favour of no.
However, in the areas it succeeds in, 'Avatar' is a triumph. Technologically speaking, this is a genuine revolution. I'm not ashamed to admit that I spent the first twenty minutes of the film quite literally staring at the screen with my jaw dropped. 'Avatar' is a beautiful film. Pandora feels like a genuinely alien world, and the creature designs are stunning. The horse and eagle equivalents will get the most attention of the indigineous wildlife, of course, but my personal favourites were the little bugs that started spinning away when touched. And of course, the Na'vi are superbly realised. Not quite photo-realistic (nothing in the film is) but still beautiful. Furthermore, the 3D is well used - this is not a gimmick, with no trick shots of things flying at the audience. This is a fully developed, subtle 3D world. It's astonishing.
Sadly, this does not extend to...well, to any other aspect of the film. For a start, the script is shockingly derivative. There has been much made of the plot similarities between 'Avatar' and 'Fern Gully' and 'Pocahontas'; but there are innumerable scenes and characters that are straight out of other films. The big finale, for instance, is essentially an amped up version of the battle between the Ewoks and the stormtroopers in 'Return of the Jedi'. Cameron even filches from his own films; the corporate villain, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribsi), is essentially Carter Burke from 'Aliens', and Michelle Rodriguez's Trudy may as well have been given a heavy machine gun and renamed Vasquez for all the difference it would have made in characterisation.
But of course, characterisation isn't the main issue here. The cast are largely required to play archetypes - Jake is the flawed hero, realising what's really important, Trudy is the rebellious jock pilot, Weaver's Dr Augustine is the gruff doctor more interested in her work than anything else, and Stephen Lang's evil colonel is the bigoted psychopath who only wants to kill his enemy. None of the cast deliver a bad performance, per se - it's simply that they have nothing interesting to work with. Saldana's Na'vi princess, Neytiri, is the only stand out performance, appearing truly alien.
The script is unmemorable, with the exception of one line near the end, and due to the fact that we've seen most of the story before, it doesn't really hold interest. There is far more attention paid to the themes, whichh would be fine were they not so badly handled. To be fair, there's nothing wrong with the messages themselves - collaborations between corporate interests and military organisations are bad, and it is important to know who you really are, and what is really important. But the idea of the military being a bad thing is somewhat undermined by the fact that this is a James Cameron film. Anyone seen 'Aliens' recently? Or either of the first two 'Terminator' films? This is made worse by the care and detail lavished on the military hardware, just as impressively designed as Pandora and its inhabitants (although much of it is a "homage" to the walkers of 'Matrix Revolutions'), and the fact that the two biggest threats of the film are destroyed by Jake climbing on top of them and blowing them up. The plot plays out like a gorgeous video game. The final straw is the religion of the Na'vi, which while fine in theory, comes across as ludicrous on screen.
Truthfully, 'Avatar' is not a bad film. It is just that with the exception of the technoligical and artistic sides, there is nothing special about it. The script is average at best, the acting is fine, the plot is predictable. It is entertaining, to be sure, but far from deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it.
However, Cameron does deserve a great deal of credit for his innovations in cinema technology. 'Avatar' may be an average film, but it is an exceptional tech demo. If this is the future of cinema, then the future is bright. But next time, can it be tagged to a decent film please?