Thursday, 17 December 2009

Take me to Pandora. Now!

Avatar Poster
Seeing is believing on the world of Pandora. A recurring theme in Avatar is of seeing what is real and important around you. The Na'vi greeting is 'I see you' and the film is bookended with Jake Sully opening his eyes. Another theme is the world of dreams vs. reality. You can wake from a dream in to reality but can you wake from reality to live a dream? Characters are constantly being told to wake up and to see things they can't or won't see. And the Na'vi refer to human driven avatars as 'dreamwalkers.' It is James Cameron's way of saying to humanity, "Wake up and look around you. Look what you are doing to your home." It ain't a subtle message but it is one worth giving.

I had faith in James Cameron and he didn't let me down.

Avatar is a great movie and something to be experienced on the biggest screen possible in perfect quality 3D. The lush, intricate and stunningly beautiful bioluminescent world of Pandora is realised in huge sweeps and in minute details. Cameron takes us on a wondrous journey through this world, through its seas and skies and floating mountains and colourful rainforests as if he’d taken a natural history camera crew to a real and previously undiscovered location of infinite beauty and danger. It’s hard to imagine that this is all just ones and zeros on lots and lots of hard drives somewhere, as the world of Pandora feels genuinely alive. With its varied flora, fauna and wildlife all bound together in a complex ecosystem, this new world is a truly beautiful, hostile and thrilling place.

And then, on top of that, Cameron only goes and gives us the best and most believable CGI characters yet created.

The Na’vi are simply amazing. The level of performance capture and photo realism is far beyond anything previously managed with the dreaded dead eye that plagues most synthespians nowhere to be seen here. Quite the opposite in fact as the Na’vi’s eyes burn with feeling. But the technical side of their creation would mean nothing without the performances of the actors playing them. And they do great work especially the fabulous Zoë Saldana who makes leading lady Neytiri the single greatest synthespian character ever. And I don't care what anyone says, I say Neytiri is beautiful...even if she is eight feet tall and blue. Zoë's gestures and movements - be it subtle eye work, a twitch of a cheek muscle, a trembling lip, a ferocious snarl, a tiny giggle - are all captured perfectly. After a short time I totally forgot I was watching a CGI character. Neytiri is brave and ferocious yet gentle and wise. She is patient, funny, caring and ultimately forgiving. And Saldana nails it perfectly. Blue cat lady or no, how could any man not fall in love with her? The humans are all fine too with leading man Sam Worthington doing a solid if unspectacular job. Better is the legend who is Sigourney Weaver playing a scientist who runs the Avatar program and Stephen Lang as the nasty ‘shock and awe’ mercenary Colonel in charge of security at the human base and who's just itching for a fight.

Storywise Avatar is nothing original. The Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Ferngully comparisons are all valid. But that’s fine as Cameron borrows elements from lots of other things too including Frank Herbert’s Dune and most notably to me Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales of pulp sci fi fantasy in which human soldier John Carter gets mysteriously transported to Mars (or Barsoom as it’s known locally). On Mars Carter falls in love with a beautiful alien princess, becomes a great warrior, unites separate factions and leads them to fight off invaders and other threats. Just as in Avatar. Make no mistake Avatar is most assuredly pulp sci fi drawn from everything that James Cameron has read, watched and digested since he was a small boy. Cameron also borrows from his own back catalogue too. The hardware in Avatar is very Aliens inspired and the final intimate good guy vs. bad guy showdown is highly reminiscent of a certain legendary sci fi heroine encased in yellow metal telling a scary monster to “Get away from her you bitch!”

No matter what recycling is being done here (very fitting considering the films eco themes) Cameron is a consummate storyteller who can pull it all together in to a sparkling new, well-told package. He is also an unashamed romantic. All of his films have a love story at their core. They have heart and a passion for something but aren’t exactly what you’d call subtle in their ideas, themes and messages. Jim likes broad strokes and wears his heart on his sleeve. He says as much. But his broad strokes are always so much better than anyone else’s while being coloured by the finest of paints. Whatever you might think of his films this stuff comes from deep down inside of the man. He lives and breathes it. Nothing is done cynically. In Avatar what we get from Cameron is a huge and gorgeous pulp sci fi movie that tells a familiar cautionary tale about a ‘superior’ race exploiting and ultimately threatening to destroy a more ‘primitive’ indigenous race to selfishly take what it is they have. The eco message in the film is big and blatant. It is made clear that in this future humans have all but ruined Earth yet have learned nothing and are quite happy to do the same to another world. “On their world nothing green remains. They’ve killed their mother and now they want to kill ours,” says a Na’vi. Not subtle but poignant and, sadly, likely to be true if we carry on the way we are. So the story isn’t original or subtle. But what it is, though, is expertly told and emotionally engaging. And this makes it feel fresh. I swear the destruction of a tree (a very big tree) has never been as devastating as it is here. It’s a horrible, mindless, cruel image that evokes memories of 9/11 and other similar atrocities. A reminder of just how callous and cruel humanity can be.

Avatar's structure follows Cameron’s usual steady, methodical plotting and storytelling style. A patient build up with time to meet the characters and get to know a bit about who they are and what they are after. All the while enough information is given in small enough chunks to be easily absorbed. Elements are set up throughout the film, which come in to play later on and pay off handsomely. His pacing is spot on. At two hours forty minutes Avatar never feels like a long film as all too soon we have come to the giant finale. And what a finale it is. It’s an epic, mythic showdown; a massive battle between human gunships and Na’vi flying on dragon beasties in the skies while on the ground infantry and powersuited human mercenaries battle Na’vi armed with only bows and arrows and some charging creatures. It is huge scale but filmed exactly how something like this should be filmed - meaning not with crazy random destruction and epileptic editing ala Transformers 2 (I hate that film). Nope, this battle is structured and has clear goals and obstacles with clever tactics being employed. It is also personalised so we follow the characters we care about and will them on to win, or at least to survive.

Other technical aspects are top notch. The production design is intricate and detailed, as you’d expect from a Cameron film. The cinematography by Mauro Fiore is beautiful with muted blues and greys and deep shadows for the humans while being lush, colourful and glowing for the Na’vi. James Horner’s score is fine and services the story nicely. He does do his usual trick of cannibalising past themes here and there – a bit of Star Trek 2, a bit of Aliens. Was that Titanic? But it sounds nice and is fairly unobtrusive. The main theme (which forms the basis of the theme song ‘I See You’ sung by Leona Lewis) is a pretty piece of music and is used to good emotional effect throughout.

So, anything that I didn’t like or that bugged me? Very few films are perfect and you can usually find things that niggle in most. Avatar is no exception. If I was to nit pick then some of the (human) dialogue gets just a tad cheesy at times. Also some of the characterisation felt a bit lacking. I really wanted to know a bit more about what made Jake Sully tick, why Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot acts as she does. But more importantly I wanted more time finding out about life among the Na’vi. Jake stays with them for three months but most of that is in montage. Could we not have had more of him spending time amongst The People and forging deeper bonds so we get to know more about them as individuals? We do get to know the big and important stuff while rightly focussing on Jake’s burgeoning relationship with Neytiri. So I guess I’m just being greedy here. I’d have loved to have seen more day to day life amongst the Na’vi. Seeing their kids at play, how their families functioned, Jake making some friends’ maybe.

To sum up - I loved every second of Avatar and can’t wait to see it again. The way I measure the personal success of a film is by how I’m feeling near its end. If I truly love a film, then when I’m watching it I’m hoping for it not to end, dreading leaving its world behind. Not many films get that reaction from me. The last one being Let The Right One In. Avatar is beautifully made pulp sci fi, a lush imaginative epic with a soft heart and a thumping fist. It is broad strokes story telling, which is what James Cameron does. And he does it so very, very well. Long live the King of the World.

Get me a seat on the next shuttle back to Pandora.


  1. One of the best movie experiences I've ever had.


    Before I comment further, I want to check out the movie regarding three issues.

    1/ The pacing.
    2/ The score & sound mix.
    ...and the one I'm most certain about...
    3/ Sam Worthington.

    We will see...

  2. And now...

    1 Yeah, the pacing is spot on. In fact I think there should be even more character stuff!

    2 The sound mix is supurb, although the score isn't great. It does have a memorable theme, just not as strong as Cameron's previous Horner collaborations.

    3. It's a better more subtle performance than I initially give him credit for. And I can accept his wavering accent (as you would Mel Gibson, Sean Connery or Arnie). But he's a still little dull.