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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

AVATAR (2009) - James Cameron

Twelve years ago, James Cameron released what was to become the biggest grossing film of all time, Titanic. Unfortunately, box office receipts and 11 Oscars don’t necessarily add up to a decent film. Titanic was shite. For the next few years, it seemed Cameron was obsessed with the sunken ship, and filmmaking became a side-line to his obsession. Rumours persisted that Cameron was working on a film that would change the face of cinema. It’s been well over a decade, but that film has finally arrived. Avatar.

It’s 2154. Humans have spread out into the galaxy. The RDA Corporation have set up shop on Pandora, a moon of the planet Polyphemus. RDA are after a mineral that exists on Pandora named Unobtanium. However, the indigenous species of Pandora, the Na’vi come between RDA and their mineral. In order to understand and come to some sort of agreement with the Na’vi, RDA has setup the Avatar Program. Jake Sully is the brother of one of the scientists in the Avatar Program. When his brother is killed, Sully is offered the opportunity to take his brother’s place. He steps up to the challenge and is approached by the mercenaries hired to protect RDA to infiltrate and influence the Na’vi. But Sully meets Neytiri, a princess of the Na’vi. She is charged with teaching Sully the ways of the Na’vi, and Sully soon finds himself torn between his job and the natives of Pandora.

It’s almost impossible to know where to start with Avatar. It’s not easy to just call it a film. It’s a whole lot more than that. These days, it’s almost unheard of to have a movie experience in the cinema. Everything is made to make money. We occasionally get a film that has love, care, blood and sweat pumped into it, and those films always stand out. But Avatar seems to transcend even that. It’s a film that not only tells a story, but literally creates a world, it’s inhabitants, flora, fauna and mythology. Cameron is known for his attention to detail, technical ability and immersive worlds. But here, he’s outdone even himself.

The story is pretty much what you’ve heard of by now. It’s Dances With Wolves in space. It’s not that original, you know from the first half hour where things are going, and you’re not surprised when they get there. And usually, this would piss me off to no end. But Avatar is so much more than that, that all story faults can be forgiven. At the heart of it, Avatar is an invader goes native story. The characters conform to archetypes and there’s a clear line between good and evil. There’s a lot sitting on Sam Worthington’s shoulders. For a man who a year ago was relatively unknown, it’s a pretty hefty cross to bear. And while not reaching Daniel Day Lewis heights of acting prowess, Worthington does a pretty good job of being the man with the moral dilemma.

Zoe Saldana is quickly becoming the thinking-person’s sci-fi girl, and she does a great job as Neytiri. Despite that she’s about 12 foot tall, blue and looks like a cat, the combination of Cameron’s technology and Saldana’s performance creates a fully rounded and believable alien character. Cinema depends on connecting with a character. In Wall-E, the audience connected with a pile of circuits and wires. Here, it’s hard not to connect with this alien. Sigourney Weaver is the veteran in the young main cast. Having worked with Cameron before, Weaver clearly knows what the director wants and delivers a very solid performance. But for me, the stand-out performance was Stephen Lang’s Colonel Miles Quartich. Quartich is a man of ambition and singular vision. He’s remorseless, violent, seething with menace and an absolute joy to watch. He’s the perfect foil for the Na’vi.

But the real star of the film are the visuals. Avatar is unlike anything you’ll have seen before. Everything in the film seems to have been meticulously thought-out and created with the highest possible attention to detail. Pandora is incredibly stunning. It’s absolutely believable and somewhere you will completely forget is created by technology. The ideas that go into creating the world are incredible, yet logical if you go so far as to thing of the physics and evolution that might be involved in such a place. I’ve seen the film twice now. The first time I watched it, I was so immersed in the visuals that I felt like I had been in the cinema for a week. Which is not a bad thing. Like Weaver’s character, I wanted to take samples, observe the wildlife and learn more about Pandora. The second time I saw the film, the entire thing flew by. It’s a very well paced piece of science fiction.

3D is quickly becoming a staple of cinema. For better or worse, it doesn’t look like the format is going anywhere any time soon. I was previously unconvinced, enjoying the few films that were presented in 3D, but ultimately dismissing it as a fad. Having seen Avatar, I can safely say 3D definitely has a place in the film industry. The 3D in Avatar is simply mind-blowing. Despite one or two moment, it’s not about stuff pointing out of the screen. Avatar shows the 3D can give depth to the screen. At the beginning of the film, there are a few 3D moments thrown in there to make you aware of the 3D. But soon, it becomes just part of the film. It’s been said before, and I scoffed. But it’s true. Avatar is the next great step in film.

Every time James Cameron takes a step forward in technology, the industry sits up, listens, and then follows suit. Avatar isn’t a step forward. It’s a massive leap forward. The twelve years Cameron took to make the film was worth every day. And I can finally forgive him for Titanic. Cameron’s back doing what he does best. Science fiction. In a resume that already includes The Abyss, Aliens and Terminator 2, Avatar takes it’s place among Cameron’s finest films. It’s not just a film. It’s an experience.


*I really wanted to give this a 10. But the story is a little weak. Otherwise, it's the finest example of what a combination of film and technology can achieve.


Aidan said...

In a statement to rival my "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than Temple of Doom", Titanic is a way better film than Avatar. And I quite enjoyed Avatar. The technology behind the film deserve ten stars but the film is a solid seven.

There's no dramatic sequence in Avatar to rival parts of Titanic like Rose trying to kill herself, or the dining hall sequence where Jack sits in with the higher classes. And no action sequence that can compete with them both being chased by Cal through the sinking ship, or the actual sinking itself.

Peter Slattery said...


The only thing I enjoyed about Titanic was the scene where Billy Zane picked up the little girl and said 'I'm all she's got.' In fact, if you took Cal out of the film, you'd take out the only interesting part!

You and I will never see eye to eye on this one, Aidan!

Aidan said...

"I have a child!"

That is a pretty good scene alright. Better script. Better structure. Better action. Better acting. More memorable moments. And the one reason why Titanic is better than Avatar... At no point do they utter the words, "shock and awe" before practically turning to the audience and winking. In 3D.

Peter Slattery said...

I will admit, the script for Avatar wasn't exactly Citizen Kane. But the schmaltz and ludicrous melodrama of Titanic felt like nails on a blackboard. I'm just surprised Cameron didn't have someone running up to the camera and bellowing 'OH THE HUMANITY!' every five minutes while the ship sank. Also, we know the ship is going to sink. It shouldn't take an hour and a half to get to that point. It was Lady And The Tramp on a boat with more death.

teehanwolf said...

yeah it was a pity th story is weak - aidan has some good points