By now you must know all about the numbers; the years, the money, the technology and the sheer hard work that went into making Avatar, James Cameron’s first feature film since Titanic. And by now you are either a complete recluse with no interest in seeing movies (who has safely decamped to a winter stronghold to wait the Avatar hype-storm out), or, like the rest of us, you have made plans to see it. So the question you are asking is not so much, “Should I see Avatar?” but, “Does Avatar live up to the hype?”
Is this the great leap forward, in terms of moviemaking technique, visual splendour, and immersiveness that we have been told it is, a game-changer in the way The Matrix or Star Wars or even The Jazz Singer were before it?
And the answer, in all honesty, is: not quite.
To the lush and deadly moon of Pandora — six years by spaceship from a dying, poverty and problem-ridden Earth — comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), ex-marine, recruited in place of his dead twin brother to fulfill a mission that only he is eligible for. Sam, being the identical genetic match for his sibling, is to ‘drive’ an Avatar, a hybrid creature made to resemble the sentient humanoid race that is native to Pandora, the Na’vi. While fellow Avatar pilot and scientist Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) needs the program to further study the race’s rich culture and better navigate the realm of Pandora (toxic to humans) the last-minute substitution of the decidedly un-scientific Jake presents an opportunity for Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to get military eyes and ears on the situation.
Soon Jake finds himself among a tribe of Na’vi who live in an enormous, mountain-sized tree, learning their ways, but also providing intelligence to Quaritch who does, no doubt, have more sinister plans in mind. For the great tree the Omaticaya clan live in happens to sit right on top of the richest deposit of unobtanium on the planet, the real reason such a mass of humans and machinery have come to Pandora.
Yes, it actually is called ‘unobtanium’ in the film — this is said so with a straight face, and no, they never tell you what the precious mineral actually does. They might as well have called it MacGuffinium.
Clocking in at a frankly overlong 161 minutes, and having nothing in the way of subplots, Avatar takes its time introducing us to Pandora; its flora, fauna, landscape and people. The name of the game here is creation, in more than one way; every single aspect of this world has been painstakingly brought to life onscreen by an army of artists and technicians, and for the first half of the movie you are content to go on this colourful safari of an imagined world. You ooh and aah at the floating islands and the cute spiral lizard things, the disco-glow of the night-time forest.
Let me get one thing out of the way: for all the visual spectacle, it is categorically not a revolution in CG. It is merely exactly what we, in 2009, should expect to receive from hundreds of people from the top studios in the world working for years and at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
Nor does the 3D significantly impact the viewing. There are plenty of unexpectedly pleasing moments, when embers float across the screen, or when a character soars through the air on the back of a large, er, thing, but it is a significantly less impressive employment of the technology than Pixar’s Up from earlier in the year, which managed to convey a sense of scale and magnitude that this just doesn’t in its cluttered visual style. It is especially apparent that 3D isn’t all there yet whenever the scene shifts to the blander grey tones of the human bases, where shapes are more conventionally defined, and much is captured on a 3D camera rather than computer generated. Lateral movements cause significant, distracting visual tears, and overall the pictures are both flat (characters look like cardboard cutouts) and soft compared to the more fine-tunable CGI forests and Na’vi creatures.
Let’s just say that if you can’t see it in 3D, you aren’t missing as much as you would think.
And getting back to creation; its more metaphysical interpretation is also at the heart of this tale, with the Na’vi hammering on about living in harmony with nature, in the way that all mystical semi-nude forest-dwelling folk that white men end up meeting often do. It is inevitable then that the term ‘going native’ will crop up, and from then on it’s spears and arrows vs machine guns and flamethrowers as Avatar piles on spectacle after spectacle, action sequence upon action sequence towards its conclusion.
Taken individually, all of these sequences (and there are a lot of them, all through the movie) are well put-together and rarely confusing or bland, but after your fifteenth sweeping shot of blue people on flying, er, things, it does get a bit tiresome. In between there are the requisite attempts at warming your heart with scenes of tribal bonding on both the Na’vi and human fronts, but if anything they’re just filler between the action scenes.
Oh, but there is this wonderfully hamfisted ‘love scene’ (and I use the term very, very lightly) that makes the love scene in Cameron’s unproduced Spider-Man treatment (you know the one) seem positively masterful by comparison.
But pah to logic and reason — you don’t see Avatar for that (hey wait, I did!). Nor, it would seem, do you see Avatar for great performances. The animation and performance capture on the Na’vi is evocative and well done, with easily interpreted expressions and emotions registering on their faces, but for the most part the acting is unremarkable. Sam Worthington (he who is in everything of late) does a decent job of endearing you to Sully in both human and Na’vi avatar forms — his solid voice-work plays a major part in the latter — but as the time goes by his accent goes from vaguely American to almost completely Australian by the end (going native in a peculiar way, that).
The Na’vi are all ‘ethnic’ sounding, speaking in the now de rigeur way that all tribal people in movies do. They also speak in their own language (again, created specifically for the film), but watch out, because at least in my neck of the woods it was subtitled in Arabic, not English. Despite this the film is not at all indecipherable, which makes me wonder about that Na’vi language being there in the first place.
But if anything, I feel for Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang, two very gifted actors saddled with some truly flat characters and often hilariously corny dialogue. Weaver takes the serene elder lady tack, and one wishes she would show up more often in movies. But it is Lang who chews the screen up, his Col. Quaritch a shiny, tanned, perpetually buttock-clenched caricature straight out of a 1980s G.I. Joe cartoon. It’s a role that brings intermittent pop to the otherwise sedate humour of the movie, and it takes and actor of his talent to both go with the madness and make it seem effortless.
It’s the one fragment of the unexpected in what is otherwise and entirely predictable, and almost entirely banal experience. Because at the end of nearly three hours, after countless jaunts through Pandora’s forests, its exotic mountainsides and its people, I was not happy. All those years, and all that money, and all that effort, for this?
Cameron has stated that the inspiration for Avatar comes from “every single science fiction book I read as a kid”, and that fact does show in the finished product. It’s an unoriginal story that plays out exactly as you think it will, with every character stereotype from scene-chewing army bad guy to haughty tribal warrior-princess, amoral capitalist company man and plucky maverick female pilot thrown in. Every plot point you can expect to happen will come along and play out in exactly the way it is expected to, without irony or wit or even heart.
This is a movie where we are expected to give the story and writing a pass because the next dazzling action sequence is just around the corner, but I’m sorry, I won’t.
A movie should be more than just a visual thrill-ride, more than an adolescent, condescending parable about strip-mining the planet, killing the sexy, magical natives, and about how we could and should all just get along with Mother Pandora. The standard refrain of feeble writers is that Science Fiction is not about the future, it’s about the present.
Forgive me, but Science Fiction actually is about the future, and if you want to say something about the present have the guts to write a story set in it, rather than a half-baked, logic-challenged future where humanity may have achieved extraterrestrial colonies, massive robotic mechs, hybrid human-alien bodies that can be interfaced with from seemingly anywhere, but whose deadliest weapon seems to be two shipping pallets of dynamite hand-dropped by jet plane.
Avatar‘s greatest achievement then, is the generation of near-impenetrable hype, a religious fervour in people who haven’t even seen it yet that I have almost never encountered before. To employ another common refrain, “It’s only a movie!” — except this time, that statement is both true, and not so; Avatar just isn’t movie enough.
There has obviously been a lot of pain and effort put into creating Avatar — a lot of work — and all of this is let down by the man at the top, not the hundreds of talented artists working for a pay cheque.
Because, as a movie? It’s just plain lazy.