Avatar has to be one of the most anticipated films of the year. With rumours of it becoming the most expensive film ever made, and suggestions that the ambition and scope of this 3-D/IMAX sci-fi epic exceed anything so far created in film, hopes had been pushed sky high.
Of course, after the predictable PR move to release some footage early, the film suffered from a few detractors. With sweeping CGI landscapes inhabited by big blue amphibious-looking cat-man many were worried that James Cameron may have spent a fortune on a dud. Broader questions such as ‘how immersive can CGI landscapes be?’ and ‘can an adult audience buy into the performance of CGI lead characters?’ also sprung to mind.
It is my pleasure to report that Cameron has largely succeeded in answering this questions with an emphatically inventive world that hosts a story that is to environmentalism what The Ten Commandments is to Old Testament Christianity, Ben Hur to slavery or Zulu to Imperialism. Addressing themes such as man’s exploitation of the environment, and appropriating sentiments and ideas from films as diverse as Dances With Wolves and animated kids classic Fern Gully, Cameron paints a sweeping story which works on a number of levels.
The gist of the story runs thusly: Jake Sully, a disabled former marine, is heading to Pandora as part of a mission to engage with indigenous people and learn more of their ways. He is replacing his recently deceased brother as part of a group of scientists who will operate ‘Avatars’ of the indigenous Na’vi in order to learn their ways. The group is working for a mining corporation on the planet, which needs the Na’vi to move their home so that more of the precious mineral they seek can be extracted. Needless to say, the proposals are not met fondly and diplomacy is essentially doomed to failure. However, not all men adopt the hardline tactics of the militarists in the mining corporation, and Jake’s work with the Na’vi could pave the way for his own personal redemption, and that of humanity as a whole.
The Na’vi are essentially noble savages of the classic archetype, with an added spiritualism that shares something with the Fremen of Arrakis (remember Dune?) and a unique connection with the world around them. The interaction between the various creatures of Pandora, and indeed the planet itself, are the best thing about this film. The ‘neuron-like’ connections between every living thing make for some awesome scenes, as well as the predictable musings about our own interaction with the natural world, and those whose cultures respect rather than exploit it.
Cameron’s trump card in selling his slant on the natural world, however, come in the stunning visuals. His work on undersea documentaries has clearly informed some of Pandora’s creations, which all explode with colour, vitality and life. What’s more, the landscapes offer a jaw-dropping spectacle that I never expected from a CGI film. The forests all pulsate with a carefully orchestrated life force, while the floating ‘Hallelujah’ mountains offer a fantastical element that you need to see in a sci-fi film of this scope.
The action sequences are likewise well-crafted and, importantly, the CGI characters never feel fake or unreal. I sat for the entire film without ever feeling outside of this place, and that is possibly the highest praise a film of this type can be given.
Assessing whether or not Avatar is the ground-breaking film it was touted as is, at this stage, not easy. I’d venture to suggest that the new cameras developed for the filming process will allow much more creativity in the formation of actor-driven CGI characters, but the rest of the graphics and even the 3-D, though both excellent, do not significantly overshadow recent peers.
Regardless of whether or not Avatar will adopt a big place in filmic history, it succeeds in its most important tasks: it is enjoyable, it looks great, and there is plenty of action and excitement to maintain the tempo throughout its mammoth 162-minute duration.