First the good news. James Cameron’s 'Avatar', his first big film since 'Titanic', 12 years ago, is visually stunning cinema. New ground has been broken in the art of the 3-D film. This is a fact which cannot be denied, except by those film viewers who are so jaded they will try to convince you that they are unimpressed (they're lying.) The bad news - at least for Cameron - is that his film is not quite the masterpiece he set out to make. Believe me, no one spends so much money (more than , according to one estimate) or spends so much time (the project was first conceived in 1995) to make a merely good film. There is no doubt in my mind that Hollywood's most commercially successful director set out to make nothing less than an epic, one that would rival the 'The Matrix' trilogy, the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, or even his own 'Terminator' films. He came close, but still no cigar.
But let’s give the director his due. 'Avatar' is bold and beautiful. It’s almost too rich to take in and appreciate on one viewing. And to its credit, even though it’s a big budget Hollywood film driven by CGI special effects, it’s not afraid to include relevant social and political commentary in it's storyline. Cameron is the Frank Capra of our time, a populist patrician lecturing us on the evils of capitalism while using the technologies and organisation of capitalism. Yes it's bread and circuses for the masses. But it's bread and circuses (and in 3-D to boot) with a relevant message.
Set in an unspecified future, Avatar’s action takes place on a faraway jungle-like planet called Pandora, where the Na’vi, a tribe of 10ft blue people with tails, live in close harmony with nature. Their world is threatened by a greedy American corporation which plans to extract the valuable minerals found there. It will go to any means to do so, including the use of military force. (Sound familiar - think Viet Nam.) Attached to the corporation is a group of scientists led by Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who want to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the problem. From the safety of their ship, they interact with the Na’vi via artificial bodies known as avatars. The avatars only come alive when the human controller is sleeping. When one of Grace’s team dies, his brother Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic soldier, takes his place. Although he's ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, Jake is actually working secretly for the hawkish creep Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). His job is to collect as much information on the Na’vi as he can for use in a forthcoming attack.
Through his avatar body Sully charges off to Pandora. There he falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the warrior daughter of the leader of the tribe. Despite his pleas for tolerance and understanding of the Na'vi, the corporation decides talking time is over and moves in for the kill. The Na'vi naturally resist, despite being equipped with only the most primitive of weapons. You can guess who leads the resistance.
The curious thing about Avatar is that, for all of its state-of-the-art technological wizardry, there is something rather dated about it. Take the whole idea of avatars. The prospect of humans inhabiting surrogate bodies to travel in other worlds or cyberspace was an exciting concept for novelists and film-makers back in the 1990s. One of these creative artists was Cameron himself! Since then we’ve seen numerous avatar-driven films and even computer games like Second Life.
Then there are the CGI special effects themselves. Cameron’s avatars have a degree of human realism and dramatic expressiveness not previously seen in films of this type. But this could be the result of a deception here; I can't say for sure, but it appears to me that in the extreme close-ups of the blue people, real human actors are actually being used. In the rest of their scenes they have that rubbery, unnatural quality that we associate with CGI generated creatures. Cameron has said that, ideally, the audience would not be able to tell the difference between real actors and the CGI avatars. Sorry, James, but you're not there yet. (Perhaps it will never be possible to completely replicate the nuances of the human face. I for one hope this is so. I'd hate to see real actors replaced by animated images.
Avatar’s political thrust also seems dated. Avatar's political thrust also seems dated. Cameron's vision of rapacious corporations destroying habitats and native people in the name of profit might have resonated in the Sixties when LBJ was waging that nasty-little-ole war in Southeast Asia. Substitute VietNamese for Na'vi, and you can clearly see the parallel - complete with helicopter gunships! Today however, we’re all Na'vi, and it’s the entire planet that's facing extinction, thanks to greedy scumbag corporations.
Still, the great challenge for Cameron was to create a whole new world of visual wonders — and he succeeds spectacularly, with a mix of strange animals, plants, and (of course) blue humanoid creatures. And his Floating Mountains are as beautiful and surreal as any sight from 'Lord of the Rings'. The entire alien landscape reminds me of a Roger Dean record album cover from the Seventies. When all the hype and hullabaloo about 'Avatar' 's special effects calms down, we will be left with a film that’s certainly no masterpiece, but still well worth seeing.
I give it one (blue) thumb up.