Avatar is the story of a wounded ex-marine, thrust unwillingly into an effort to settle and exploit an exotic planet rich in bio-diversity, who eventually crosses over to lead the indigenous race in a battle for survival.
* * * (3 STARS): It’s been 12 years since Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time, permitted James Cameron say what he’d long thought: that he was king of the world. Enough time has passed that you may have forgotten what you actually get from the combative, ambitious filmmaker – technological innovation, so-so dialogue, a sweeping but predictable emotional chart and a commitment to pulling out all the stops. His new film, the much anticipated Avatar, has all those qualities in spades, which is only natural now that he intends to be king of another world.
Give him credit: he doesn’t fiddle about at the beginning. It’s 2154 and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has arrived on Pandora, a planet in the Alpha-Centauri star system. A former Marine now in a wheelchair – he can’t afford a new spine – he’s replacing his twin brother, killed in a robbery gone bad, who spent three years training to inhabit an artificially created, remotely controlled body that resembles the planet’s indigenous population, the Na’vi.
Jake is thrown into the story as quickly as the audience. Within minutes he’s inside his elongated blue body, ecstatic at being able to use his legs, and meeting various stock characters who work for the mining company intent on upending the Na’vi to mine their sacred lands. There’s the amoral businessman (Giovanni Ribisi’s Parker Selfridge), the gung ho head of security (Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch) and the devoted botanist (Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine); you may wonder when the hooker with the heart of gold is going to make herself known.
Cameron plainly has higher priorities than detailed characterisations. Avatar is his take on the future of cinema, a breakthrough film in terms of combining motion capture technology, digital effects and live action. The best compliment to pay is to simply note that these various operating systems were seamlessly integrated and unobtrusive – you quickly stop wondering how Cameron did it, and just note what he did (it’s much the same with the added 3D effects), as the trippy, fantastic Pandora is revealed to Jake, who arrives a soldier but is soon swayed by what he witnesses from inside his new body.
Pandora is stunningly picturesque, with massively oversized dimensions, and full of predatory creatures, each larger and fiercer than its predecessor. Jake barely survives his baptism – 'I don’t have all night," he tells a pack of marauding hounds surrounding him, sounding like the typical Cameron protagonist – but it gets him in with the Na’vi, specifically Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a princess who must educate him, via his avatar, in the hope of forging an understanding with the otherwise aggressive 'sky people".
With its meeting of modern and traditional cultures, complete with a romance, Avatar is informed by the story of Pocahontas, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Michael Mann’s take on Last of the Mohicans. The brush strokes are very broad, to the point where you wonder if the story is merely a backdrop for the logistical challenges of bringing the film to life.
The obvious theme is of ecological preservation – Pandora is really one vast single ecosystem – with an added impact of showing an insurgency from the viewpoint of the natives. The Na’vi, with their bows and arrows, are no match for gunships and soldiers inside exoskeletons (the machines being one of several echoes from Cameron’s Aliens, another is the corporate servant Parker, reprising Paul Reiser’s venal Carter Burke), and American military might is casually excoriated throughout the film.
Cameron may well have cast Worthington for his gruffness and steely demeanour. If Worthington’s Jake can be overcome by the beauty of Pandora, then there’s a good chance that anyone watching will be too. That said, there’s not really room for nuanced performances. Cameron may have developed an entire language for the Na’vi, but he doesn’t bother to explain why for example Michelle Rodriguez’s gunship pilot, who is little more than her usual cocky screen attitude, would suddenly fall in with Jake in trying to help the displaced local populace.
Avatar is very clear on where it’s heading; it’s the path there that Cameron is truly dedicated to. It’s naturally overwhelming, to the point where you hope to see a rat or a cockroach, something dirty and plain instead of iridescent insects or another intricately designed beast with too many teeth. After the extensive pre-release campaign – the Cameron profiles have a more complex narrative than the actual movie – what’s actually revealed is a film both new and naggingly familiar, an adventure made for multiplexes.
It’s neither a masterpiece nor a bomb, and it doesn’t feel connected to our times in ways that The Dark Knight did. Twelve years is a long time, but perhaps Avatar’s ultimate purpose is that it gets Titanic off James Cameron’s back. Hopefully now he can come back to Earth.