- 13 December 2009
- By John Howell
After finally getting a chance to experience James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar, my feelings are entirely divided. On one hand James Cameron’s extravaganza is a visual masterpiece. The inhabitants of Pandora are fully realised creations - colourful, vibrant plants and animals jump out at you, mesmerising in their movements and detail. Futuristic visual display panels, beautifully constructed spacecraft, and high tech military air and land machines are all believable and captivating on multiple levels. Floating mountains, tangled forests and evocative landscapes are beautifully rendered. It doesn’t take long to realise that you are experiencing a film unlike any other. Oscar winner Cameron has spared neither time nor money in realising his vision.
First conceived 15 years ago, Cameron has delivered a fully immersive jaw dropping environmental morality tale. The estimated US$500 million and years he spent have not been wasted on the film’s look. CGI has never looked so good. The technical wizardry Cameron and his team display in Avatar is likely to set the standard for every science fiction film released over the next 20 years. The robotic, human controlled 14-foot walkers are particularly impressive. Their movements majestic and dangerous. The native inhabitants, the Na'vi, will overwhelm you with their lifelike facial expressions and features. Main characters Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Doctor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) in virtual form are instantly recognisable. Watching Jake Sully emerge from a river in his blue avatar demonstrates the jump Cameron has made in special effects. To achieve such an effect believably in the past would have been impossible. In Avatar the visually impossible is par for the course.
"Avatar is the most challenging film I’ve ever made,” said writer-director Cameron. Looking at the finished work it’s unlikely you’ll disagree. From someone who worked through the troubled production of his previous epic, Titanic, though, this is an even more impressive statement.
The overwhelming visuals however may be one of the reasons this film fails so badly in other departments. With all the time spent on crafting the look and building the technology to realise his 3D character and landscapes, Cameron has neglected to craft a story, characters or dialogue with any real depth, mystery or power. As has been noted time and time again (even by Cameron himself) it’s not enough to have the best looking movie in the world if you don’t have a compelling story and characters to back it up. It’s here that Avatar falls short.
Avatar’s main characters are cardboard cut-outs, seemingly added later after deciding how great the creatures, plant life and military vehicles and landscapes would look. Most characters are clichéd, shallow and unsurprising. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is a one-dimensional evil corporate guy. He’s just there for the money. Sigourney Weaver is the moralistic scientist whose pleas are ignored by the corporation. She’s smart but no one listens. The only character that gets any real character development is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who has come to Pandora at the request of the military after his smarter twin brother was killed. He’s there to work with the natives, to gather information for the military and get them to move from their natural habitat, which is inconveniently the source of a valuable rock. I get a sense though that the only reason he does get character development (at least more than an outline) is because he spends his time at the centre of the action for the entire film.
The story too is clichéd, shallow and unsurprising. The dialogue never rises above the level of a computer game or TV show. The script is amazingly clunky in its setup. Everything is spelt out clearly from the outset. Apart from the stunning visual sequences, the story offers no surprises. There are no twists and turns in the plot, and no suggestion that Jake Sully will fail in his efforts once he finally supports the natives. Instead of leaving it to the viewer to experience and interpret, we are told in exacting detail what avatars are, what the evil human corporation is doing on the planet, how the natives think, etc. There’s no sense of anticipation. Everything in the plot is telegraphed verbally long before it happens both with an unsubtle narration from Jake Sully and in some cases bland, cringe-worthy dialogue. When one of the Na'vi tells Jake Sully about a red dragon creature only ever ridden by legendary figures from the Na'vi’s past, you known damn well that Jake in his Avatar body will manage to ride it before the final credits roll. Perhaps that’s why, when he does, it takes about 3 seconds of effort. There’s never any doubt that Jake will eventually take the side of the native population or that the military will try to stop him at every step of the way. There’s too much exposition, no doubt and no mystery.
"My goal is to rekindle those amazing mystical moments my generation felt when we first saw '2001: A Space Odyssey,' or the next generation's 'Star Wars.', Cameron originally revealed when promoting the film. Unfortunately though, I don’t think he has succeeded.
Compared to a film like 2001, for example, Avatar is seriously lacking. Like Avatar, Stanley Kubrick’s film had ground breaking special effects sequences (for its time), but unlike Avatar it also had a plot layered with new ideas, mystery and intrigue. What exactly is the monolith first found on the moon? Why did Hal, the shipboard artificial intelligence, lose its mind and start killing crewmembers? What happened to David Bowman at the end of the film? What did he become? Some of 2001’s dialogue was decidedly average like Avatar, but at times it was fantastic (“Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid.”) and there were so many wonderful moments and intrigue 2001 has been a subject of discussion for decades.
Another problem is the Na'vi. While they are meant to represent a completely alien culture, I found myself thinking of them more and more as Native American Indians wearing blue paint. They were much too human to be alien. There were Indian war cries, bows and arrows, and they all galloped around on alien creatures obviously horses (no doubt horses were used as a template for the original CGI models). It was also annoying when all the main Na'vi characters end up speaking perfect English. Sure, apparently Sigourney Weaver’s character Doctor Grace Augustine had taught them in the past, but come on. It’s oh so convenient.
Visually Avatar truly is an epic. The level of detail Cameron and his team have added makes this a visual masterpiece beyond belief. On every other level though to me the movie felt like a failure. If you’ve watched one of Avatar’s trailers, you know exactly what it’s about, what will happen and how it will end. It’s a great visual ride. Intellectually though, Avatar is a barren landscape. For those of you who have watched the film, the easiest way to convince you is to think about how you would have had remembered Avatar if it had featured only passable special effects. What if the same story was played out using only average 20th century CGI and in 2D instead of 3? How would you respond? I know I’ll get some flack for saying so, but apart from technical achievement, I doubt this film will be remembered with much enthusiasm. The environmental message at the heart of the film although relevant and agreeable to a modern audience faced with devastating climate change is told in a plain, obvious and simplistic fashion. Although most reviewers seem happy to rate the film highly on the basis of eye candy alone, I was hoping for something more.
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