Director: James Cameron
USA, 2009, 165min, rated 12A
Screening: IMAX Waterloo, 6 January 2010
From time-hopping sci-fi franchises to mega budget histori-fiction romance-cum-disaster epics, James Cameron’s always been a profitable if fairly hit and miss filmmaker. His latest offering, Avatar, takes this formula to a whole new level, hitting big with an incredible new 3D cinematic process, but aiming low with a family friendly, finger-wagging science fantasy eco yarn peppered with well-trodden narrative clichés.
It’s the year 2154 and mankind, having squandered the earth’s natural resources, is plundering the galaxies for more. On the distant moon Pandora, the valuable mineral unobtanium (a vital source of energy, apparently) has been discovered and is being mined by the RDA corporation, supported in their efforts by an army of ex-marine mercenaries and small team of scientists – led by Sigourney Weaver’s Dr Grace Augustine.
Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a species of ten foot tall blue-skinned cat-people who live in close natural harmony with their lush and bounteous planet and bear a ludicrous Jar Jar Binks-esque similarity to some super spiritual African jungle tribe. The story’s conflict lies with the Na’vi’s resistance to the aggressive mining programme of RDA, the fact that the biggest source of unobtanium lies directly beneath their sacred village, and the efforts of Sigourney Weaver’s scientists to win the Na’vi’s ‘hearts and minds’ before the marines destroy them.
The plot centres on Jake Scully, a paraplegic ex-marine sent to Pandora to replace his dead brother as a member of the ‘Avatar’ team. Sigourney Weaver and friends have developed a way to connect with the Na’vi by creating a team of genetically-engineered human-Na’vi hybrids (Avatars) controlled through some sort of virtual reality telepathic mind displacement by genetically matched human controllers. There’s certainly a lot more fiction than science going on.
And it basically gets sillier from there. However, it doesn’t much matter, as from the opening scenes of Scully waking from cryogenic sleep to the final – and all-too inevitable – epic battle sequence, this is film best enjoyed with the mouth hanging open and the brain disengaged. Avatar’s not a movie most people will be rushing to see for its narrative complexities and scientific foresight; it’s all about the spectacle, and my word does it deliver on that.
James Cameron has developed a new digital HD stereoscopic version of his Fusion Camera System to create Avatar. The results are a stunningly deep and absorbing visual experience that both delivers on this long-promised format and ushers in a new era of cinema. Not only is this 3D technology as revolutionary to the cinema experience as the first talkies or the advent of colour, but the fact that it (temporarily) eradicates piracy and will have people flocking back to the cinema is going to be a major boon for the industry on the whole.
Much of Avatar takes place in the lush bioluminescent forests of the imagined Pandora, and it’s here that Cameron is able to employ the new 3D technology to its best effect. The depth of field that the new process brings is quite extraordinary, and there are plenty of moments when you really feel enveloped by the scenery, as foreground elements seemingly extend out and surround you.
But overall, aside from some seemingly heartfelt jibes at US foreign policy and the profit-at-any-cost aggression of the military-industrial complex, Avatar is a film that is all spectacle and very little else. For all the hype and money, Avatar is little more than an enjoyable and exceptionally dynamic thrill for the eyes and ears. It exists purely in the moment (albeit a 2 hour, 45 minute moment) and leaves you with little more to take home once the credits have rolled than a worthy-but-flawed Roland Emmerich-esque warning, to relinquish our dependency on technology and reconnect with mother earth.
by William Thomas