Few films arrive as burdened by expectation as James Cameron’s sci-fi epic, Avatar. Years in gestation, the film cost anywhere between US$200m and $400m to produce, depending which source you believe.
It’s Hollywood’s biggest bet to date on three-dimensional (3D) cinema — and if it’s a success the floodgates could open for a string of big-budget blockbusters made for 3D screens. Happily, Cameron has delivered a film worthy of the hype, one that is as much of a blockbuster landmark as the director’s Aliens and Terminator 2.
Avatar is set on a mineral-rich planet called Pandora that human invaders are targeting for strip-mining. Standing between them and their prize are the Na’vi, an aboriginal race that lives in harmony with the forest and its creatures.
Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a soldier who lost use of his legs in action, and Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) are among the humans tasked with infiltrating the local inhabitants using “avatars” — replica Na’vi bodies that they can control from afar. But everything changes for Sully when he falls in love with Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana of the recent Star Trek reboot).
It’s a familiar story, with echoes of Return of the Jedi, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas and even Lawrence of Arabia — but told using special effects that raise the bar for any popcorn film to come.
The humans in the film are sidelined by the world of Pandora and its inhabitants. Hostile but gorgeous, the verdant rainforests of Pandora teem with exotic plant and animal life. It’s not just the technology that brings them to life that impresses, but also the art direction.
From its floating islands, bearded with vines and drifting on magnetic currents, to its luminous plant life and imaginative bestiary, Pandora is a living, breathing alien world that is always convincing.
There are many scenes that inspired the same awe I felt when I saw the camera in Jurassic Park sweep over a herd of grazing brontosauruses. By the time that Pandora’s lush forest collides with the steel and fire of the colonisers, you’re fully emotionally invested in it.
By Cameron’s own admission, today’s technology makes it fairly easy to show a flock of dragon-like mountain banshees tearing into a swarm of military helicopters in an exciting battle scene. Turning actors masked under computer generated imagery (CGI) into believable characters is a harder task.
The stars of the film are the Na’vi, blue-skinned humanoids that stand 2,7m tall. Cameron used the latest motion-capture technology and CGI to bring them to life. The lifelike facial expressions and body animations make them feel as real as any CGI creations to date — they’re even better than Peter Jackson’s Gollum and King Kong.
The few 3D films I’ve seen so far have left me unconvinced about the revival of the technology. Avatar, however, is a huge step in the right direction. Most 3D films feel like two-dimensional (2D) movies with some appendages protruding uncomfortably from the screen.
Avatar, by contrast, envelopes the viewer in a 3D world that is consistently believable. Cameron has wisely stayed away from the gimmickry found in most 3D films. Avatar is light on flaming debris hurtling towards your point of view and spear tips thrust in your face. It’s the first time I’ve walked out of a 3D film feeling that I would’ve missed out if I’d seen the 2D version instead.
Avatar isn’t without its problems. The rather wooden Jake Sully is about as generic a movie marine as I’ve ever encountered, while the typecast Michelle Rodriguez as a butt-kicking soldier chick is less a character than a plot device. It’s nice to see Weaver on screen again — she has many of the film’s best lines — but even she doesn’t have much to work with.
The quality of the storytelling and dialogue doesn’t always live up the spectacle on the screen, but I found the display so impressive that I didn’t care. For most its 160-minute running time, Avatar’s stunning vistas and epic battles offer enough technical wizardry to keep viewers engrossed.
A lack of truly memorable characters and great one-liners means that the film might not age as gracefully as Terminator 2 or Aliens. But take along a sense of wonder, put your brain in neutral and enjoy Avatar for what it is: the best thrill ride that you’ll find in a cinema this Christmas season. — Lance Harris, TechCentral