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): Not content with being the King of the World, director James Cameron now sets his sights on King of the Universe with his science-fiction / romantic epic, Avatar.
A pro-environment, anti-imperialism parable that references the Vietnam conflict and the recent Iraqi war while borrowing the essence of the Pocahontas legend, Cameron’s lovechild is more of the same from the director of Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989) – the corrupt, heartless tentacles of corporate greed conspire with the military machine to exploit an alien race, and one moral crusader is the only hope.
In this case, the good guy is Jake Sully (an okay Sam Worthington), whom we meet via a not-entirely convincing voice-over as he recaps the terrible moment he became a paraplegic. The upside is that he is still alive while his twin brother is not; it was to be his brother who would have led a scientific mission onto the planet surface of Pandora, to help convince and relocate the native population, known as Na'vi, so that the mining company could extract billions of dollars worth of 'unobtanium’.
Sharing the same genetic code as his brother, Jake can assume his brother's role as operator of his own avatar – a genetically-manufactured Na'vi that will gain the tribe’s trust and seek a diplomatic resolution to the commerce-vs-nature conflict. But Jake is also a marine and is soon sought out by oh-so-gung-ho Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang) who, encouraged by the company’s weasly executive Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), wants to use Jake to betray the Na'vi, ferreting information that can be used against the tribe when the inevitable conflict arises.
Which is all fine with Jake, until he falls for the spiritual warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the tribal elder Eytukan (Wes Studi) and soothsayer Moat (CCH Pounder), who saves him from the jaws of some nasty Pandoran fauna (a vast collection, and a highlight of the film). Now torn between his allegiance to the military, his newfound diplomatic chums Dr Augustine Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), and the vast Na'vi population, Jake must have the courage to do what is right, in order to save a planet’s population.
Cameron, a self-proclaimed egotist and critically-acclaimed visualist, doesn’t do things by half – if Titanic (1997) didn’t prove that, the photo-realistic detail in every undetectable pixel of Avatar will. The film is an absolute triumph of technology and redefines the very edge of what Hollywood's technicians can do (or Wellington's, in this case – Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital was a major contributor).
However, James Cameron the script-writer needs to grow up. It’s 23 years since Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez chewed tobacco and mowed down the xenomorphs on planet LV-426 in Cameron’s screenplay for Aliens, yet the marines in Avatar speak with the same gruff tone, like the soldiers in those old WW2 Commando comics. Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quartich is a huge dollop of testosterone that illicitted some unintentional giggles; he’s matched snarl-for-snarl by Sigourney Weaver, a far better actor who, as the ballsy seen-it-all scientist in charge of the Avatar program, comes close to stealing the show.
Cameron fans will instantly recognise that Weaver is not the only Aliens-inspired influence. Avatar is littered with recognisable nods to Cameron’s breakthrough film – the personnel powerloader that featured so memorably in that films climax is 'reimagined’ as a military weapon; the whole 'exploiting a planet for its resources’ plotline evokes both Aliens and Ridley Scott’s original, Alien (1979). The fluorescent landscape of Pandora mirrors the interiors of the mothership in Cameron’s The Abyss, too. Seems everything old is new again.
Absolutely central to maintaining one’s interest amidst the thunderous noise and alpha-male posturing that consumes the film’s indulgent 163 minute running time is Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Giving the first truly resonant motion-capture performance, her journey is the pulsating heart of what would otherwise be an enjoyable if dismissable $350million Boys'-Own outer space adventure. The love she begins to share with Jake and the sense of betrayal she makes real when his double-life becomes apparent is played out with purity; her physicality in the role is striking and beautiful. If Avatar is to score outside of the tech categories at next year’s Oscars, it will be in the supporting actress category for Saldana’s Neytiri.
There are plenty of 'Wow!" moments in Cameron’s Avatar – 'Wow, look at the spaceships!; 'Wow, look at the huge beasties!"; 'Wow, look at the eyes...". But there are way too few truly human moments in the film to make us care. Cameron has done such a good job making the imaginary world of Pandora real, he has forgotten to ensure the real world of his characters lives exist at all.