Written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver.
When a film is hyped up to be the biggest cinematic event of the decade, with the general populous drowning in a sea of advertising and promotions, I find it very tempting to take a negative view straightaway, dismissing said movie as a load of overblown nonsense. However, after hearing good things from critics and my friends, I thought I'd give Avatar the benefit of the doubt. I'm glad that I did.
Set around 150 years in the future, the narrative of Avatar takes place on the planet of Pandora, a lush jungle world teeming with technicolour plant life and wonderfully exotic creatures. It is also home to a primitive race of tall, blue-skinned aliens called the Na'vi, who exist in a symbiotic relationship with the natural world of the planet. This way of life is threatened however, when the humans arrive with all their hi-tech, smoke-belching machinery and do what we do best, ravage the planet for its nature resources. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former-marine who has been recruited to fill his twin's place in the Avatar programme, a scientific experiment that allows people to swap their consciousness into a genetically engineered Na'vi body. Sully begins his mission of integrating with the natives so as to understand them and help the humans co-exist peacefully with them, but the mining company and military presence on Pandora have other ideas, leading to a struggle which could bring about the extinction of the Na'vi way of life.
Let's start off with the negatives and then work our way through to the positives. Firstly, Avatar's plot is paper-thin, you can almost still see where it was scribbled on a napkin and then never redrafted, which is surprising seeing as James Cameron had the idea for the film ten years ago. After the first few minutes it's fairly obvious where the plot is heading, and to Cameron's credit, the film doesn't disappoint in as far as it goes exactly where it says it is. It does feel however that the story was never scrutinised in much detail. Things like the invaluable mineral found on the planet being called 'Unobtainium' feel half-baked, as if the name was thrown around in the planning stages and no-one could be bothered to think up anything a shade less overt. Another weakness with the narrative is how derivative it is. The 'white man goes into foreign culture, initially doesn't understand it but eventually masters it and saves it' plot is seen in pretty much the same form in The Last Samurai, which itself is a copy of Dances with Wolves. Also some of the story-telling elements have been covered before, such as the use of the forest as a natural data bank to store the Na'vi's memories, an idea that occurs in Kevin J Anderson's Hidden Empire series. The concept of floating mountains is also previously covered ground, seen in the video game Final Fantasy XII and Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky in almost exactly the same guise. So while Avatar doesn't have a necessarily bad storyline, it doesn't push the boundaries in any way.
The characters themselves in Avatar also present part of the film's weakness. Drawn from stock archetypes, it is once again very apparent from the start how they will act. This is not to say however that the performances are bad, they're actually pretty good for the most part. Sam Worthington does a solid job as the film's jar-head turned eco-warrior protagonist, as does Sigourney Weaver as Dr Grace Augustine, the prickly but morally-centred lead scientist. While she plays a completely computer-generated character, Zoe Saldana doesn't let that stop her from delivering an engrossing portrayal of Neytiri, the beautiful (if you're into blue-skinned aliens) and deadly Na'vi huntress. Giovanni Ribisi is also very believable as the selfish corporate boss concerned only with collecting the minerals regardless of the cost, as is Stephen Lang, playing the battle-scarred army colonel who just wants to crack some Na'vi skulls. However, all these characters have been seen before in one guise or another, adding to Avatar's missed opportunities for heading into new grounds instead of sticking to well-trodden paths.
Right, we've got the bad stuff out of the way, let's get onto where Avatar succeeds as a film. It won't come as a surprise when I say that Avatar looks absolutely, jaw-droppingly amazing. But don't get me wrong, I'm not just referring to the visual effects, which are second to none. The most impressive visual aspect of the film for me was the creation of the planet itself. The plants and trees are incredibly beautiful, full of vibrant colours and mysterious shapes. The creatures of Pandora move with grace and realism, making you feel like you're watching a David Attenborough nature documentary not a science fiction movie. The Ikran, huge dinosaur-like birds used as hunting mounts, are particularly impressive as they swoop and dive majestically throughout Pandora's sky. The Na'vi also follow this same realism, looking and feeling like a real civilisation, whose world the viewer is drawn into, witnessing their customs and rituals, and on some level becoming a part of their society just as Jake Sully does. No wonder people are suffering from post-Avatar depression when Pandora would be such an amazing place if it actually existed! As I already stated, the computer-generated aspects of the film (which is 40% live-action, 60% CGI if I remember rightly) are sculpted to perfection. However I do have a slight issue with the fact that in some ways this film is just that; a visual-effects exercise. Due to the saggy storyline and two-dimensional characters, it does feel a little like a computer game or just an exploitive way to boost the sales of 3-D cinema tickets, as there wouldn't be much point in watching Avatar in normal cinematic dimensions. But I found that the other aspects of Avatar's visual presentation impressed me so much that this scepticism was easily brushed aside.
While James Cameron's story-creation may not be up to scratch, his storytelling definitely is. Avatar demonstrates that he still knows how to write epic action screenplays. In particular the battle sequences at the end of the film, with the mechs and helicopters of the humans facing off against the Na'vi warriors wielding spears and bows, are perfectly paced and keep the viewer on the edge of their seat with excitement. The music and sound effects also add to this, creating the perfect aural backdrop for the entirety of the film.
While Avatar advances towards perfection in some areas, some fairly large flaws hold it back. Amazing visuals and flashy action can't be a replacement for an original and immersive plot. This isn't to say that Avatar is bad film, far from it. While all the hype surrounding the film may not be necessary or deserved, but I will say that I was very impressed and thoroughly enjoyed it; and that's what it's all about.
If you liked this, then try: The Alien Series, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Terminator Series and Titanic.