James Cameron is something of a cinematic legend; his past movies have included the first two Terminator films, Aliens and the Abyss, as well as countless others, and have grossed in excess of 1.2 billion dollars in the United States alone; so it’s no surprise that his first feature film since the release of the stupidly successful Titanic (released way back in ’97) was going to generate a huge amount of attention and be expected to be everything that the big screen has been missing for the past 12 years.
With that said, the big question on everybody’s minds (more important than what is Avatar actually about) is; ‘does Avatar live up to the hype, and is it worth seeing?’
The answer is a resounding yes, as not only does it manage to captivate audiences for its entire three hour runtime with a brilliant yet simple storyline and well crafted characters, but not since Terminator 2 has a film been this revolutionary in terms of technology, or as likely to shape the way that films are made and watched in the future.
The film is set in the year 2154, on an alien planet (technically an Earth like moon) known as Pandora, and as the film opens ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is just arriving there for the first time and is instantly offered a rather unusual job; controlling a hybrid made from a mixture of human DNA and the DNA of the Pandoran natives, known as the Na’vi.
The hybrid itself is known as an Avatar, and was designed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) as a means of communicating with the Na’vi, as relations between the humans and Pandoran natives became extremely strained after the humans offended the primitive Na’vi culture by destroying and generally being disrespectful to the forest in their quest to gather a rare mineral known as unobtanium.
Jake relishes the chance to control his Avatar, as it works like a more intense version of a virtual reality video game that actually allows him to move and feel as if it were him, and even gives the wheelchair bound hero a chance to walk and run. However, walking and running into the forest soon gets Jake into trouble and he is left alone and stranded in hostile territory with no knowledge of the planet he is on whatsoever.
Within hours Jake is set upon by various creatures, and rescued by a Na’vi woman known as Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who, despite having a clear dislike for him and instantly spotting him for an imposter, believes that her Goddess, Eywa, wishes him to survive. After escorting him to her peoples village and convincing them that she recognizes Eywa’s will, she begrudgingly accepts the task of educating Jake (the first warrior human they have met) in the ways of the Na’vi.
It is during this education that the majority of the film takes place, as Jake attempts to provide a diplomatic link between the Na’vi and the human population on Pandora, whilst simultaneously spying on them and passing detailed information about their community and fighting capabilities onto the Colonel in charge of the human expedition (Stephen Lang), who is not only expecting and planning for a future war, but actively seeking it.
With the basic story established by this point in the film it becomes abundantly clear where it is heading, and has a distinctly Pocahontas theme to it; an explorer out of his depth, but engrossed in a foreign culture, befriends and grows closer to the native princess, who in turn falls for him, all while outside forces plot against each other and place an extreme amount of pressure on the pair’s relationship.
Although the basic premise of the story has been tackled many times before, and in many different settings, it is Pandora, the planets landscape, cultures and creatures, which really set Avatar apart because it is something completely new, something which no cinema audience in the world has ever experienced. And it is noticeably clear that James Cameron cared about creating not only a visually stunning world, but one that has a rich history and a realistic feeling landscape and wildlife; he actually spent months creating the Na’vi culture and language so that it would feel both real and established, creating a race that could have believably evolved to the state at which he presents them.
However it isn’t just the Na’vi that were created with a passion, as the whole landscape pops in every scene, with every lush forest landscape, every floating mountain, and every giant cliff edge, combining to create a world that gives the audience a sense of wonder and spectacle that that been absent from cinema for so many years.
What’s also amazing is not just the thought and care that went into creating this entire world, but how realistic it looks and feels, as does everything on it, including the mountains, trees, indigenous creatures, the Na’vi and the Avatars themselves; because as the Avatars were created from human DNA they look like the people that control them, and with both the Na’vi and Avatars the actor who plays each part is recognizable from their counterparts facial features; when Sigourney Weaver controls her Avatar, or CCH Pounder’s Na’vi character is on screen both can be recognized, although it does take some working out.
That is one of the main reasons that Cameron decided to wait to make Avatar (the project was originally in development before Titanic), because he needed the technology to catch up with his vision of the film, and it is clear from the finished result that waiting really has paid off. Although in actual fact Cameron didn’t simply wait to make it, and actually helped design a 3D camera that would suit his purpose, because no others were up to scratch.
The cameras and overall style of the film are also likely to shape the way motion pictures of the future are made, because this is the first feature film where viewing it in 3D didn’t seem forced, gimmicky, or as is often the case a last minute tacked on extra with little to no payoff, in fact the 3D elements perfectly suited the setting and genre, for once adding to the experience and not simply attempting to shock, as things don’t tend to jump out of the screen, but depth perception is greatly improved. 3D isn’t an extra here, it is part of the film, it’s how it should be watched, and Avatar is, quite literally, what 3D was invented for, fitting perfectly within the surreal world of Pandora and excellently enhancing the experience.
No other film that relies this heavily on computer generated effects has ever looked so good, and although every shot is more beautifully crafted than the last it is clear from start to finish that this is a Cameron film, because it doesn’t simply abandon story or characters for a short-lived wow factor, instead every perfectly crafted frame is essential to the story and filled with plenty of heart.
The character driven focus is essential to the film, and the staple of a Cameron epic, as Avatar’s lengthy runtime (three hours) means that audiences need to be thoroughly engaged from start to finish, but thankfully there is no danger of drifting off while watching, as the entirety of the film is useful and story driven, establishing relationships, building a culture, and showcasing months of diplomatic relations between two races from different planets as well as their inevitable clash.
The clash also gives Cameron an opportunity to create some more of the intense and expansive action scenes for which he is so famous, and he does not disappoint as there are some truly epic battles on Pandora, and even though they are conducted on such a grand scale, unlike most modern films, they don’t abandon emotion, tension or the characters story, just to create an aesthetically pleasing shot, although every shot is more than aesthetically pleasing, and downright mesmerizing to watch.
Mesmerizing is a word that perfectly sums up Avatar, the latest film that is sure to cement James Cameron’s place in cinematic history. Sure the plot is overly predictable, there’s the odd cheesy moment in the script and it does take three hours to essentially tell a story that Disney told in less than an hour and a half, but Avatar is simply brilliant, and truly revolutionary, as not only is it the only real argument for converting to 3D so far, but the CG is seamless and hyper-realistic, there’s a true sense of awe and a feeling of believability when watching, and the cinema sound is as good as the Terminator 2 track was during its theatrical run; the best there’s been for years.
Avatar is sure to stand the test of time, as its engaging story and well rounded, and acted, characters are guaranteed to draw crowds in their droves and keep them coming back, enticing a whole new generation into the world of sci-fi. The only disappointment is knowing that the Blu-ray release cannot possibly live up to the cinematic experience, as it is bound to lose an awful lot during the transition to small screen, but hopefully the same amount of effort will be put into releasing the Blu-ray as the theatrical cut, and not simply have it rushed out.
In a few years from now people may ask was Avatar better than Star Wars? And the answer won’t be yes… instead people will reply ‘What’s Star Wars?’ An obvious candidate for film of the year that shouldn’t be missed by anyone.