Back in the summer, we all had a chance to go and see nearly 20 minutes of James Cameron's Avatar. Bold claims about Cameron's film being the dawn of a new cinematic age were, and continue to be, made. I came away from that preview distinctly underwhelmed and unsure that the film was going to be able to live up to such hyperbole. Now that I've actually seen it - and seen it in on an IMAX screen in 3D, as no doubt Cameron would have intended it to be seen - I'm still not convinced of Cameron's opinions of his own genius nor of the media hypocrisy to be found in the majority of reviews for the film. Why reviewers won't actually own up to the film's very obvious faults and the imperfections of the 3D techniques it employs continues to baffle me.
I'll agree that Avatar isn't completely the turkey we suspected it would be. It's a visually impressive experience but it's a hollow one. The word 'game-changer' keeps being bandied about. Well, yes, I can see it having an enormous influence on the 3D and effects heavy films of the future. However, Cameron has failed to make a good film despite having all the toys at his disposal that money can buy. It is the work of a technician, an obsessive attempting to see how far he can push the technology. The fact that his actions also shore up a multi-media industry that's still got a complex about film piracy and is also determined to find a way to thwart them and get bums back on cinema seats is one that Cameron clearly didn't overlook when Fox backed his film.
Let's get the first problem out of the way. The 3D certainly isn't what it's cracked up to be. Whilst it is some of the most impressive use of the format that I've had the chance to see and Cameron's special stereoscopic cameras have upped the game considerably (or changed it if we're sticking to the party line), I spent a great deal of my two hours and forty minutes constantly having to adjust the focus of my eyes and getting irritated by the motion judder still inherent in the image during fast movement. It is not perfect by any means but I will say that much of the film is an exciting and often impressive visual feast in 3D. However, that isn't completely to do with the 3D and everything to do with impressive visual effects. The film's visual potency lies in the leaps and bounds that it has made in creating realistic motion-capture characters. So, technically whilst I think 3D is still a gimmick, Avatar is gob-smackingly good to look at and the interaction between human and animated characters in a blend of location shot footage and photo realistic computer created jungles is justifiably stunning.
Secondly, 3D's gimmickry will only work when you've got a good script to marry it to. Avatar's script is really the weakest element of the film. Cliched and derivative, it is uniformly poor. The story is pretty simple and is rather slim to hang a 160 minutes of narrative on. Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine, is recruited by The Company to complete the task his brother was originally contracted to do. He arrives on the planet Pandora and is asked to go undercover to spy on the native inhabitants, the Na'vi. The Na'vi are very tall blue humanoids and to infiltrate them Jake has to be connected to an avatar, a synthesised body made of Na'vi and human DNA. The Company wants to relocate the indigenous tribes because they're sitting on a huge deposit of an energy producing element called 'unobtainium'. The plot descends into a Dancing With Wolves pastiche where Jake goes native, falls in love with a female Na'vi, Neytiri, joins the tribe in order to save them from nasty, white capitalists who want to plough over their rain forest and rape their 'earth mother'.
It uses every cliche in the book. Cameron even picks over the corpses of his previous films; the tough but sensitive female fighter pilot; the slimy Company man who won't listen to the warning from the scientists studying the Na'vi are both straight out of Aliens for example. As well as the rather earnest green platitudes about learning not to abuse the environment and being at one with Mother Nature, it's a very crude white man's racial fantasy to give the white protagonists an ability to shed their skin and 'black up' to become the Other. The viewer will find it easy to identify with Sam Worthington's character Jake Sully, as the skeptical white man, who dumps his capitalist/materialist American marine brainwashing to fulfill a rather predictable colonial fantasy of going native and leading his tribe against the aggressors to assuage us all of our centuries of colonial guilt.
The acting is reasonable considering that the characters are, forgive the pun, less than three dimensional. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver all acquit themselves well enough but Stephen Lang as the gun toting Colonel Miles Quaritch is the biggest cliche of them all, a black hole of a performance that drags everyone else down to his scenery chewing level. Trouble is, he has no actual scenery on which to dine, it being virtual and all, and therefore he takes chunks out of his fellow actors as he ends the film literally as an unstoppable killing machine, raving and ranting and lacking any conviction. He's a very silly character and makes George Bush and Dick Cheney look positively sane. The other element that grates here is James Horner's score. Sadly, it too is a grab-bag of recycled elements, mainly his old scores for Aliens, Willow and Titanic, and the film stumbles on several occasions when the score distractingly indicates the horror that Celine Dion might at any moment suddenly burst into that song on the soundtrack. Even sadder, Leona Lewis gets that job over the end credits.
Whilst I can't see this turning into a huge hit of Titanic proportions, Avatar will no doubt be very successful. However, it will win no plaudits as an example of a story well told, performed or directed. Eye candy of a highly calorific nature, it is an amazing virtuoso technical exercise but cinema is as much an intellectual engagement with narrative as it is one concerned with visual spectacle and Avatar is simply a gaudy dumb-show without that engagement. The future of cinema, perhaps not, but for the video gaming industry I'd bet it's a red letter day.
Avatar (Cert 12A. Released December 18th 2009. Directed by James Cameron)