Wednesday 6 January 2010

Film Review: James Cameron's Avatar

"Despite his broken body, Jake Sully, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair, remains a warrior at heart. He is recruited to travel light years to the human outpost on Pandora, where a corporate consortium is mining a rare mineral that is the key to solving Earth's energy crisis. Because Pandora's atmosphere is toxic, they have created the Avatar Program, in which human "drivers" have their consciousness linked to an avatar, a remotely-controlled biological body that can survive in the lethal air. These avatars are genetically engineered hybrids of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora... the Na'vi.

"Reborn in his avatar form, Jake can walk again. He is given a mission to infiltrate the native alien race, who have become a major obstacle to mining the precious ore. But a beautiful Na'vi female, Neytiri, saves Jake's life, and this changes everything. Jake is taken in by her clan, and learns to become one of them, which involves many tests and adventures. As Jake's relationship with his reluctant teacher Neytiri deepens, he learns to respect the Na'vi way and finally takes his place among them. Soon he will face the ultimate test as he leads them in an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world."


Well, it took me a month, but The Speculative Scotsman is a difficult sort to tempt into a proper cinema. A 46" series 6 Samsung LCD TV with 5.1 and some massive old speakers see to my particular needs just fine. Sadly, Avatar is not yet available for consumption at home - that is unless a dodgy-quality downloaded cam copy will see to your needs. And readers: you must resist.

If I could only offer you a single piece of advice about this film, it would be to see it on as big a screen as you can feasibly find, and in 3D, while you still can. Then, perhaps, you might like to see it again. More than a decade in the offing, Avatar represents an experience that will not easily be matched in the next ten years - and not in terms of its undeniable aesthetic splendour alone.

The time Cameron and his team have taken to dream up the Na'vi and their planet Pandora has absolutely paid off. Never in my life have I seen a world and a people other than our own realised so spectacularly. From the wonderful interplay of Pandora's ecosystem to more practical concerns such as power and transportation, it seems that every last detail of this fantasy to end all fantasies has been plotted out in some epic story bible.

Cameron is a master of that eon-old adage that advises creators of any sort of narrative - be it cinema or literature, genre or otherwise - to show rather than tell. All things considered, there's really precious little exposition to explain Pandora before you finally set eyes on the place. And it's a dazzling sight, when you do, but that's what $300m and a great director nets you: what I loved above all the other more eye-catching aspects of Avatar's lavish world were the little things. The radiant flora and the purposeful fauna, similar to and yet infinitely removed from our own; the flaring lights that meet the feet of the 12-foot tall Na'vi as they dance across the forest floor; the tragic ashen rain that sets off the action-packed third act.

Avatar certainly embraces spectacle, but what's more, it invites speculation, and that's no mean feat. In a world so thoroughly thought out by Cameron and his team, it's a wonder that there's any room left for that beloved staple of individual fantasy: your own imagination. Nevertheless, your mind will run riot with the possibilities of it all. The film hardly has enough time to adequately showcase a specific group of Na'vi in a small region of Pandora's rainforest; the inquisitive mind can only boggle at the notion that the rest of this incredible world is out there yet.

There's so much more to say about Avatar, so much more to praise. The score by frequent Cameron collaborator James Horner is emotional without being intrusive; every cent of the staggering budget is right there on screen for you to revel in; the design of strange species and stranger environments alike is spot-on; and Mauro Fiore's cinematography is seductive, seamless - truly, this is a striking piece of cinema.

Although a few characters border on the cartoonish at times, the cast are largely pitch-perfect. Zoe Saldana stands out in particular as Neytiri, a subtly drawn Na'vi princess and love interest for paraplegic protagonist Jake Sully. Despite more votes of confidence than most actors receive in their entire careers, newcomer Sam Worthington still hasn't had the chance to show his full range of capabilities, and his performance in Avatar, heavily disguised either by paralysis or a countless billion pixels, won't change that. That said, he's a perfectly adequate leading man and audience surrogate.

There are flashes of Aliens in the mercenary interplanetary marines and their mecha, strains of Titanic in the forbidden romance between Jake and Neytiri, and the startling visual stylings of Pandora's environment bear some resemblance to those encountered in The Abyss, but the similarities never detract from the fact that Avatar is an entirely unique experience.

If a comparison simply must be made, Dances With Wolves is perhaps the most apt such touchstone, and Cameron matches it effortlessly. I won't even dignify all this Ferngully nonsense, except to say that old favourite has not aged gracefully. And for all the CG, the abundance of concerns about green screens, blue people and the uncanny valley, I have a feeling that this particular masterpiece absolutely will.

A few of its main story beats are telegraphed too clearly, and certain characters are rather forgotten in the greater struggle between the Na'vi and the invading human army, but Avatar, ultimately, is three incredible hours of slack-jawed, heart-felt fantasy. His time away from the big screen has made it easy to dismiss James Cameron as one of the great filmmakers of our era, but this piece of cinema is all the reminder The Speculative Scotsman needs. Avatar is every bit the game-changer he's been promising this past decade. If it takes another ten years to get the sequel right - and thankfully, we have every reason to believe otherwise - then by God, man: have at it!


  1. great review mate.

    liking the site too!!!

    maybe I could go another showing of Avatar after all...

  2. I loved this movie too. I saw it on an IMAX 3D screen and I found myself forgetting I was in a theater and not on Pandora. Those floating mountains were breathtaking . . .