17 December 2009

Dances With Smurfs?

The hype behind James Cameron's first film in 12 years, Avatar has been fairly massive. The Titanic director has been pioneering 3D since 2005 and promising a total game-changer for cinema in the form of his latest big-budget epic, but I confess I've been skeptical about that. 3D thus far has been little more than a gimmick, and I don't think Cameron has made a decent film since Terminator 2. The trailers for Avatar didn't impress me either. The first teaser had a bunch of CGI money-shots with no discernible plot or dialogue except the words "This is great." Thanks, James, but I'll make my mind up for myself. The second trailer was more plot-heavy, but as Eric Cartman observed in a recent South Park episode, it looked like Dances with Smurfs more than anything else. Now of course, the film has finally landed in cinemas worldwide, and I've been to give it a look.

I'll point out in advance that I've now seen Avatar in both 2D and 3D, and the latter still adds nothing. Although Cameron has used it more competently than any of the releases this year that pipped him to the post in terms of release date (except Disney and Pixar's output), 3D is still a gimmick. It's not really much more immersive in 3D, because credit where credit's due, the film is immersive on the merits of its cast and script. However, if you've been holding out on seeing your first 3D film in the cinema, this is probably the one to go for. For weary veterans of animated films and horror remakes, plump for 2D, cos it looks just as good. And so without further ado, I'm going to give the film a review. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Avatar is all about Jake Sully, a crippled Marine who is drafted into a 22nd century science experiment ran by his late brother on the planet Pandora. The principle is that Jake's mind would be remote-beamed into a hybrid body, cloned from his brother's tissue and that of the native Na'vi. The Na'vi are hostile to the encroaching humans, and the idea is that the avatar bodies would be able to negotiate a diplomatic understanding between the two species. Because if they can't, the Ahab-esque Colonel Quaritch will send in the troops in the name of the dying Earth, aiming to dig out a rare mineral called Unobtainium. No, that is what they really called it. However, Jake goes native when he falls for a real Na'vi, Neytiri, and begins to question his calling in life.

I went into the cinema with low expectations for the film, and I'm pleased to say from the off that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I stand corrected from all my assertions that this would be visuals at the expense of narrative. It'd be naive to say that the opposite is true- the very theme of Avatar is seeing everything, (something I suspect Cameron hoped would be epitomised by the 3D) so even when the narrative's foremost, it's about visuals. And the visuals are pretty staggering- in the assault of quick shots in the teaser trailer it was easy to dismiss the floating mountains of Pandora as "just floating mountains". But think about it for a second- floating mountains! We finally have time to savour those trailed visuals, and it's a tremendous feat of special effects. I've never been a proponent of style over substance- my favourite special effects in films were all done practically rather than digitally, especially in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I was relieved that there was something more solid to the film than just the computer generated creatures and vistas.

There's a shot of a six-legged horse galloping along while on fire somewhere in the middle of the film that just about sums up the approach to most of the creatures in Avatar. Cameron can create anything with CGI, so he has, just for kicks. But in the Na'vi, we have something a little more special. They're cat-faced, ten feet tall and blue, and yet they're our protagonists. The bad guys are us- humanity and its greed, represented with scene-stealing vigour by Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi. This subversion of the usual human-alien dynamic (see War of the Worlds, and every other alien invasion film) only works for a (mostly) human audience because the Na'vi are written and performed so well. Zoe Saldana gives a motion-captured performance as Neytiri, and in a narrow field for standout female roles this year, it's one of the best of 2009. It's through her that you empathise with the Na'vi, even over the aforementioned brilliance of Stephen Lang's downright awesome Colonel Quaritch.

Sam Worthington is central as Jake of course, and he's as excellent here as he was in Terminator Salvation, only better here because he has a coherent script and a director who doesn't credit himself as "JCam"or some shite like that. I've been taking the piss out of his Next Big Thing label a bit because it was borne solely out of early buzz for this film, but I have to admit that Worthington has a very engaging screen presence, both as an action star and as an actor. He has some good support from Lang and Saldana, not to mention an emotive and memorable turn from Sigourney Weaver as the Avatar project's director, Grace. The role is just as much a showcase for her snarkiness and biting humour as it is for her instant empathy with her audience. I'm stressing these points because I feel it's easy to get swept away in the visuals of Avatar and not give due credit elsewhere.

As you might expect if you're even slightly aware of who I am, I don't think Avatar is without flaws. James Cameron hasn't made a film shorter than two hours long since The Terminator, and this film's 162 minutes carries more than a little flab between setpieces in the second half. I have to say that for the most part, it flew by, but my expectations of Cameron made those flabby bits drag a little. Mostly, these parts are concerned with the film's mixed message. The director's trademark worship of military hardware is increased tenfold by the futuristic setting, and yet there's a slightly hypocritical anti-war message at the centre. You can't convince me that you want to save the trees, on Pandora or anywhere else, when the very next shot is essentially saying "LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT GUNSHIP! BOOM BOOM BOOM, KABOOM! WAR IS AWESOME!" and decimating CG forestry. There's also a clumsy war-on-terror subtext in Quaritch's motivations and in the general Unobtainium scramble. And that's the other big flaw- that stupid name. I think they only mention it once, but they can surely come up with a better name than that for a McGuffin? That said, I wish oil was called Unobtainium instead- the alleged ulterior motives for the war in Iraq would have been laughed out of Bush's Cabinet room.

All of this aside, I wouldn't want to damn with faint praise by saying that this is Cameron's best film since Terminator 2, because in the 18 years since that came out, he's only made two films, and they were True Lies and Titanic. Nuff said. Instead, I can favourably compare this to Aliens. The two films ostensibly have several elements in common, like the non-descript evil corporation going into space in the name of greed, the wise-cracking and quotable Marines, the AMP mechs, and of course Sigourney Weaver. But more than that, it's a damn fun film to watch, a world away from the schmaltzy-ness that looms throughout Titanic and the utter lack of entertainment value in the bloated and self-indulgent True Lies. It's a game-changer in respect of the visuals, because special effects have now been advanced spectacularly by Avatar. There haven't been battle sequences this good on film since the Lord of the Rings trilogy closed off six years ago, and crucially, the effects complement the narrative rather than vice versa.

As I've said before, this has been a dog of a year for big-budget action blockbusters- summer of this year was an awful time to be at the cinema with the exception of Harry Potter and Star Trek, both of which were 2008 films delayed to this summer, and District 9, which was comparatively cheap to make anyway. In Avatar, we finally have the first, and probably last, bonafide, big-budget cinema experience of 2009. It's by no means a great film, but it should be applauded for not relying entirely on its groundbreaking visuals. It's probably not going to win an Oscar for Best Picture, for instance, but it's sure to clean up in the Visual Effects category. It will be a while before we'll see a cinematic event as big as this again, so make sure you see it there, because only time will tell if this holds up as well on DVD and blu-ray...


Year's end is approaching faster and faster, and I'm now going to race to catch up on the films still playing- Nativity! and Planet 51 specifically- and the last week of the year brings a wealth of releases too, including Sherlock Holmes and Nowhere Boy. Reviews of those are sure to be up in the next two weeks, along with the long promised Special Project for this blog. Watch this space!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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