In the famous words of one American icon, “I have a dream…”, Hollywood got all giddy and happily jumped aboard the James Cameron vision express with his latest epic, Avatar, even though the blockbuster film-maker of Aliens, Terminator and The Abyss has been less than influential (studio-translated, ‘mega profitable’) on the movie scene over the past decade since ‘that weepy boat tragedy’, Titanic. Unless you’ve been on Mars, you haven’t been on faraway moon Pandora, and heard about the troubles between the warmongering and greedy humans and the beautiful, coltish-looking, blue-skinned indigenous Na’Vi population. This is where the grand Cameron fantasy takes place in the year 2154, and it’s a stunning ride of vivid, awe-inspiring intensity that is undeniably unique-looking, as production designs go.
Whether Tinseltown has been wise in indulging Cameron is by the by – the curiosity in the film will help recover some of the studio spending. Avatar is arguably the most imaginative live-action film to date with 3D effects so subtle that anyone seeing it in 2D will not experience anything less magical. But it does have to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated, just not necessarily on an IMAX one. Thankfully, the vast arsenal of technology does not override the performance-capture performances from the leads that eerily bring to life each facial expression and nuance, including central character Jake Scully, a wheelchair-bound marine who is chosen to control his dead brother’s engineered hybrid (human and Na’vi DNA) ‘Avatar’ body through a form of telepathy, played by rising Terminator star Sam Worthington. A credit to the almost seamless blend of reality and effects that Cameron has WETA to thank for is Sigourney Weaver as visionary, fag-puffing scientist Dr Grace Augustine’s final moments under the spiritual ‘Tree of Souls’ that reinforces how cutting edge this production is – although ‘revolutionary’, as Cameron claims, may be a little audacious, given recent performance-capture offerings like A Christmas Carol.
Cameron’s battle cry sounds firmly for Mother Nature throughout every luscious scene in Avatar in an unashamed manner that has had some mocking his tree-hugging, hippy tendencies – even his Na’vi attempt to reach out and educate us before it’s too late. That said concerns for the environment are now universally felt, regardless of whether these are played out on Pandora that does not look that alien in hindsight, apart from some ultraviolet touches that lift the vegetation textures out of frame. In addition to the rich tapestry of foliage and looming mountainous landscapes and waterfalls that hang like Dali-painted rock sculptures from the sky, Cameron has created whole new species of prehistoric- and underwater-styled creatures to delight in, influenced by his passion for deep-sea marine life that would make David Attenborough a little green around the gills.
References to man’s obsession with mining natural resources are not lost either, as the humans try to solve their eternal energy crisis by plundering the rare mineral ‘Unobtainium’ from Pandora’s core, resulting in displacing the Na’vi and the tragic devastation of their Home Tree community. Global corporate power is still alive and well in the 22nd Century. The over-simplified political connotations are equally evident as the nature ones, with the gunship finale reminiscent of another Vietnam, and the toppling of the Home Tree and its subsequent, rushing cloud of enveloping ash not dissimilar to 9/11 footage. This is where the film reverts back to ‘action epic’ type and reinvents the wheel, given Cameron’s great ‘revolutionary’ claim, with the genocidal, two-dimensional military villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by a pumped Stephen Lang – like life-sized Chip Hazard from Small Soldiers, spouting groan-inducing, Uncle Sam-styled rallying one-liners. There are also moments of déjà vu with some of the military hardware borrowed from Aliens, such as Quaritch’s robotic ‘AMP Suit’ that is similar to Ripley’s in her alien fighting scenes.
Cameron does not miss a controversial trick in stirring up anti-invasion (post-Iraq) sentiments, too, going back as far as European colonisation of the indigenous Americans. Whatever Cameron says, his Na’vi quite literally represent the latter, living in a tribe, chanting in a tribe, throwing spears and arrows, living off the land, and believing in spirits like the jellyfish/fairy-like ‘Woodsprite’. Their horseback skills are demonstrated on the back of ‘Direhorses’ and flying winged creatures called ‘Banshees’ that they must connect with, mentally, in order to tame to ride. The story also flags interracial unions between the human/Avatar, Scully, and the spirited tribal leader’s daughter, Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana, who sulks like a teenage Xena, Warrior Princess and growls when things don’t go her way. The whole message is one of unity that is the Cameron-desired harmonious effect, or one that will spark scoffs from the more cynical among us.
Cameron’s claim that Avatar is the most challenging film that he has ever made is imaginatively correct. This sumptuous feast of visual vitality absorbs the viewer completely and has the necessary ‘wow’ factor and thrills. This alone is deserved of any cinema entrance fee. Narrative-wise, it can be a little preachy and convoluted in places, plus eyes-to-the-ceiling obvious in others, such as the call-to-battle scenes, but you are wooed back onto the side of Na’vi because of their gentle and graceful nature. For Cameron fans and cinema aficionados it is a must-see epic of epics for effects alone, but also because Cameron has another Avatar 2 story waiting in the wings…
By L G-K