I must admit, I was cautiously optimistic in my approach to seeing Avatar. I love sci-fi movies and have enjoyed most of James Cameron’s work (True Lies, Titanic, Terminator) but I was also a bit put off by how much he was talking up the film and also with the premise. I was looking forward to a science fiction epic but not so much a science fiction epic starring ‘sparkly blue cat people’.
I saw the film with friends. We’d arrived early and managed to get four tickets together by the skin of our teeth. I went to Chermside V-Max – the biggest and best 3D cinema I had come across so far in the greater Brisbane area. We sat through what must have been over half an hour of advertisements (on top of a three hour movie) which included a Coke-Zero ad telling us to go see Avatar. By the end of the film I was impressed, but I also didn’t have any particular overwhelming feelings towards the film.
The most disappointing thing about this film is the plot. It was decent, for sure, but it was certainly nothing original. It was a story that had been told before. Big bad people attack humble native people, in this case for a precious mineral absurdly named ‘Unobtanium’, and they fight back. Add in a very basic romance plot and an obvious political message and here you have Avatar. It was certainly a story that could have been told in less than three hours. I don’t advise going into this movie expecting a rollercoaster ride, it stays on pretty much the same note for the first three quarters of the movie and only has one or two climactic scenes towards the home stretch. Though the first three quarters are still rather interesting, focusing on a relationship between Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and how he becomes accepted into the Na’vi society. While the Na’vi and the “good guy” characters are decently developed for a Hollywood movie the villains suffer in comparison. Stephen Lang portrays a very basic strong-headed, gun-toting and mug-sipping Colonel Miles Quaritch and Giovanni Ribisi represents the corporate sleaze-bag Parker Selfridge. While the film is a step forward in certain ways, plot wise it is still very basically Hollywood.
Performances were strong all around with Sigourney Weaver standing out as a gruff yet endearing Dr. Grace Augustine who has a very strong emotional attachment with the Na’vi and is constantly butting heads with Colonel Quaritch and Parker Selfridge; while Michelle Rodriguez and Joel Moore give strong sidekick back up to Sam Worthington’s Jake Scully. Sam Worthington plays a surprisingly charming crippled marine who infiltrates the native population and falls for one of the Na’vi. My only problem with Worthington’s performance is that he didn’t quite get the Australian fluctuations out of his American accent. I did manage to solve this in my head by convincing myself that he must have been an American-Australian army brat. Also, future! The most impressive performances were definitely given by the Na’vi characters particularly Neytiri. It is a big win for James Cameron’s new technology to be able to render characters that can portray such a great range of emotion.
On that note, we get to the technical side of the film. The new technology, while not necessarily as ground-breaking as James Cameron would want us to think, is definitely a giant leap in the right direction for 3D animation. The environment, animals and characters were rich with detail and looked convincing, at least when shown on their own. However, when the rendered creatures (Na’vi) were in the same shot next to a human actor it was still quite obvious that this was still CGI and that broke the immersion for a short while.
The luminescent environment bordered almost too much on magical but really did manage to show off the pros of this new film-making tool. One of the things that got to me though is that with such a tool James Cameron could literally create anything he wanted. He had a whole alien world to create with nothing but his imagination limiting him, however everything he created in this world was already something, or a mixture of something we have on earth. He had multi-limbed monkeys, hammer-head Rhinoceros’, shark-skin giant pumas, dragon-cassowaries and a variety of other mixes of what we already have. I don’t know what he was thinking but if I was creating an alien world I would come up with something that was, well, alien. Even the forests and environment were too rooted to earth-based ideas to be all that impressive. They did glow in the dark though.
Though the technology James Cameron has developed is impressive, the world he created is beautiful but lacking in imagination. Overall, while there are strong performances all around and a solid story that manages to keep your interest for its overly long time-span; it still suffers from two-dimensional villains and mediocrity.
Avatar is in cinemas now through 20th Century Fox.