James Cameron’s Avatar may not change your life, but it will likely make your day. The director’s long-gestating opus has finally arrived, nearly crushed by overwhelming hype, nay-saying critics and a price tag the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP. Considering that his film is not a disaster is astounding enough bearing in mind the uphill battle Cameron has fought these past few years trying to get it to the big screen. I am happy to say that you may now raise your lowered expectations and submit yourself to the visceral onslaught that is Avatar, one of the most gripping action films of the year.
The year is 2154. The ecological environment of Earth has been crippled by humanity. Paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is given the opportunity of a lifetime when he is invited to join the Avatar Program on Pandora; a not-so-distant planet with an environment inhospitable to humans. You see, the shareholders of Earth (some subtle political commentary from the always restrained Jim Cameron) want to mine the rich and gorgeous planet for a powerful element called … get this … unobtainium (another delicate Cameron touch). Sadly, the indigenous population of Pandora, known as the Na’vi, get kind of irritable when their home planet is ransacked by humans.
Enter Professor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her Avatar Program. Participants learn the native language and are given their very own Na’vi body to operate, so that they might connect with the locals. Jake signs on, at first simply to have a new body with working legs. He is given a mission separate from Augustine’s peace-keeping intentions: gain the trust of the Na’vi tribe and relay information back to Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and money-hungry corporate jerk Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), to aid the humans in a future invasion of Pandora. However, Na’vi Jake strays from his mission when he meets (and subsequently falls for) the lovely Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and her proud people.
OK, so the story is nothing special. It’s (as the critics feared) Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves. And frankly, the dialogue is clunky. But there is a ferociousness in the storytelling that is unique to Avatar; it sets it apart from your typical eco-drama. When the film concludes with an eye-popping battle sequence, that ferociousness is only amplified. You can feel Cameron’s anger and his passion every time a Na’vi roars. The most exhilarating moments are those when you can feel the director urging his actors to let go completely, to become furious, and to unleash hell.
This brings us to the Cameron’s greatest achievement: his use of motion capture. I’ve long been a critic of this filmmaking tool. I only recently blamed the failure of A Christmas Carol on Robert Zemeckis’ insistence on employing this mo-cap technology. I stand by that comment. However, in the same way that mo-cap stole the soul from A Christmas Carol, it is mo-cap that aids in the baring of Avatar’s heart. Cameron understands this technology better than anyone and when he uses it to take us into the world of the Na’vi, the film truly comes alive. The performances of Worthington and Saldana as the Na’vi are surprisingly subtle. Sure, their characters are often at centre of the action, but these actors recognise the importance of every one of their movements. Their performances, assisted by this mind-blowing technology, are the best part of the whole shebang.
As is consistent with ridiculously expensive blockbusters, there are elements of the film that come up short when compared to the jaw-dropping special effects – and do not be mistaken, the special effects, particularly in the depiction of Pandora, are absolutely breathtaking. Proceedings get off to a shaky start with Sully bombarding the audience with information through narration in the opening minutes. His motivation for joining the Avatar program is never made apparent, and the film’s true villain (Selfridge) isn’t quite as ominous as I would have appreciated. The narrative is also a little bloated (like another Cameron film). These are just some of the reasons Avatar is not a perfect movie. But it was never going to be. However, its technological achievements are tremendous, and it is certainly one of the most enjoyable sci-fi action films of late. Most excitingly, it welcomes the cinema’s best action director back into the public consciousness. Although, I guess he never really went away. He’s just been busy with this little film called Avatar.