FILM REVIEW: Avatar
12A • 161 mins • 17 December
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi
Star Wars, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, The Lord Of The Rings… Now Avatar can be added to the exclusive club of movies that have lifted special effects to the next level. Returning to the director’s chair for the first time since he sank the Titanic 12 years ago, James Cameron has created the ultimate cinematic spectacle, a movie that nails 3D, motion capture and all the little bits in between so successfully that the rest of Hollywood is going to be playing catch-up for years.
It’s a magnificent technical achievement, a movie of such vast scale and ambition that you have to watch it on the big screen, preferably the largest, most advanced one you can find. Even the most state-of-the-art home entertainment system on the planet will struggle to do this justice when it arrives on Blu-ray and DVD – it’d be like listening to Sergeant Pepper on a tinny mobile phone speaker.
Various filmmakers have dabbled in 3D, but this is the movie which finally proves that cinema – essentially a two-dimensional medium – can create a thoroughly convincing illusion of depth. The dense forests on the alien world of Pandora look so real that you feel like someone’s smashed a rectangular hole through the cinema wall and opened a window onto another planet. It would only take the addition of smell-o-vision to make you want to climb through and feel it for yourself, the effect being so good that Cameron never has to resort to cheap parlour tricks like throwing a spear at your eye or a unleashing a stampeding monster in your direction. This is 3D that enhances, rather than becomes a part of, the story.
But Avatar doesn’t need the extra dimension to look stunning. As George Lucas did in the Star Wars prequels, Cameron tries to pack every corner of every frame with exotic flora and fauna – except here they feel like integral parts of a massive ecosystem rather than a director playing around in a CG toybox for the hell of it. Following the characters around Pandora is an utterly exhilarating experience, whether it’s flying on a winged steed amongst vertigo-inducing floating mountains, or watching the might of the Earth’s military forces delivering death and destruction. The level of detail is almost exhausting.
The movie’s biggest triumph, however, is the motion-captured Na’vi. While Pandora’s ten-foot-tall, blue indigenous cat people looked rather underwhelming in publicity material, in their natural habitat they’re a revelation. The effects guys at Weta have captured the human actors’ features and nuances so flawlessly that the Na’vi look like completely real living, breathing creatures. No cold, dead, Polar Express eyes here. Even though most of their original performances are buried somewhere on a hard drive in New Zealand, leads Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) are fantastic: Worthington a credible hero as the paralysed human marine whose mind is downloaded into a Na’vi “avatar” to interact with the natives, Saldana even better as the local girl he falls in love with – she’s great because she plays the role as a genuinely alien being, rather than a human pretending to be extra-terrestrial.
Avatar’s problem is that it’ll automatically get a star docked as soon as it arrives on the small screen – and that’s why it doesn’t quite live up to the massive pre-release hype. The story’s more than engaging enough to hold your attention over close to three hours, but its beats are so predictable and derivative (Cameron even borrows heavily from his own movies) that it never goes anywhere particularly surprising. Nor is it quotable or popcorny enough to be the sort of movie you can see yourself watching again and again, as you would, say, JJ Abrams’s Star Trek. The final act descends into a rather clunky mix of incongruously gung-ho action – old Cameron habits clearly die-hard – and heavy-handed ecomessage. And Leona Lewis’s Celine Dion-channelling theme song, “I See You”, has wandered in from the wrong movie.
But just because Avatar ends up short of classic status doesn’t mean you don’t owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen. If you do, James Cameron will take you to places other filmmakers can only dream of. It may not be the future of cinema, as we were led to believe, but Avatar is still a little piece of movie history.