AVATAR is the much hyped new film from writer-director and special effects obsessive James Cameron - the man who brought us TITANIC, ALIENS and TERMINATOR. Let us say that James Cameron has consistently pushed forward the technology of film, and has produced consistently thoughtful sci-flicks. Indeed, I would argue that he deserves more kudos than Spielberg - creating fewer but more consistently entertaining and polished blockbusters. But let us also admit that Cameron is the master of hyping himself, and has saddled us both with Celine Dion and with a 130 minute movie of arse-numbing proportions.
First, the praise. AVATAR is a technical marvel. Not because it does anything new - rather, it pulls together all of the advances of the last five years and pushes them further and does them better than anyone else. The 3-D is immersive rather than trying to shock us. The CGI is photo realistic. The characters and animals have weight and heft. The natural science detailing on the plants and animals is breathtaking. Fantastic creatures seem real. It is easy to mock a director who goes to the lengths of actually inventing a new language for his fictional race, the Na'vi. But it works. Much like LORD OF THE RINGS, AVATAR works because it makes us believe in an alternate world, and through believing, we care about its future.
AVATAR is also tightly structured and directed so well that it maintains momentum throughout its runtime (which is not to say it couldn't have done with being a good forty minutes shorter). Cameron may be a master of CGI but he never forgets that story comes before technical wizardry. The movie plays a three-act drama. We are in a dystopian future where humans live on a dieing world, and have colonised a planet called Pandora, in order to mine a precious metal, whose main deposits lie underneath the "hometree" of the indigenous Na'vi people. In Act One, the audience invests its sympathy with the hero and heroine. A disabled jarhead pilots an avatar Na'vi body in order to infiltrate the tribe and negotiate a relocation by any means necessary. Problem is, he becomes fascinated by their respect for nature and falls for a Na'vi chick. In Act Two, the stakes are established. The army, impatient for profits, decimates the hometree, scattering the Na'vi people, and destroying their trust in the Jarhead. The science team establish that the whole ecosystem of the planet is connected and a powerful source of energy. In Act Three, we have the dramatic climax and resolution. The Na'vi regroup and with their human allies take on the colonials.
The strength of the AVATAR story is that James Cameron knows who to weave successful aspects of genre fiction into his more modern allegory of environmental degradation and ruthless military exploitation. We have a good old-fashioned romance between the jarhead and the Na'vi chick. We have a coming of age story, as the jarhead learns the rules of the new world. We have a buddy movie as the jarhead bonds with the science officer. And finally, we have a spiritual story of redemption. I love the fact that Cameron is willing to tackle both issues of science, politics and religion in the same film - to that end, it reminded me a lot of the better aspects of Ronald D Moore's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.
Given all these positives, it isn't a surprise that I had a good time watching this flick, even though it did seem just too long to spend in a cinema for what should just be a bit of entertainment, albeit intelligent entertainment.
But there are negatives. AVATAR features some of the most hokey dialogue and two-dimensional characterisation seen on film since STAR WARS. And maybe that's no coincidence. Maybe when a writer-director is having to balance different genres, a large cast, action, technology and romance, it's just too much to ask to have good dialogue and nuanced characterisation too? But then again, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA did, by and large, pull that off. One of the strengths of that series was its ability to present conflicted characters who changed, evolved, and felt three-dimensional. By contrast, in AVATAR, you're either a righteous hippie earth-child or a cigar-chomping, profiteering rat-bastard. And characters say the stupidest things. Towit, jarhead to Na'vi chick: "why didn't you kill me?" Na'vi chick to jarhead: "Because you have a big heart." I mean, no-one, not enough imaginary aliens, speaks like this! There's also something slightly hypocritical in a movie that thinks nasty evil people who blow shit up are bad, but nevertheless wants us to be excited by a final act which is basically about people blowing shit up in more and more noisy ways.
Ultimately, AVATAR is such a feat of imagination that, like STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE, it survives the hammy dialogue and weak characterisation. It's nice to spend time in this world. It would've been even nicer to have been all done in two hours.
AVATAR is on global release.