Avatar – Treading old ground and breaking new.

Posted on January 15, 2010

James Cameron’s much anticipated science fiction epic Avatar has finally hit theatres, and depending on what side of the fence you sit on, it’s either Dances With Wolves in space, or Pocahontas in space, or Fern Gully in, er, space…or, if you believe the hype, it is the film that will revolutionize the way we make and watch cinema, the very future of filmmaking.

Frankly, I had my doubts before seeing it. I’ve been a Cameron fan since The Terminator and Aliens, but I also thought that he lost the plot with The Abyss, in which he managed to patronize us with stereotypes and hammer us with a not so subtle environmental message delivered by cutsey aliens. You see where I’m headed with this? Couple this with gimmicky 3D and cartoonish CGI, I was certainly setting my expectations low.

Of course, I should have set them to stunned. Avatar is pure brilliance. Cameron gives us a rich, beautifully realized and rendered world with the forest of Pandora and its inhabitants. The 3D only manages to enhance the stunning and seamless CGI, and the mocap Na’vi  are  fully fleshed out and utterly photorealistic.

But the humans aren’t about to be overshadowed by the effects here. The performances from all the cast are first rate. Sam Worthington really delivers and manages to make you believe not only in his Na’vi avatar, but also his broken, disgruntled grunt. Zoe Saldana shines as Neytiri, his Na’vi love interest, helping us and Jake see the beauty of Pandora, and letting us feel her emotional heartbreak as it crumbles all around her. Sigourney Weaver is back on top form, part Ripley, part Dian Fossey, balancing strength and beauty as only she can. But the surprise turn is from Stephen Lang as Col Quaritch, who manages to make his despicable (and remarkably badass) marine commander a believable and three-dimensional character, even without the special glasses.

It’s true, the plot isn’t exactly new, and neither is its message – not even to Cameron. The heavy-handed stereotypes I feared are all present and correct, and sometimes you feel as though you’re being choked to death as the importance of “the message” is rammed down your throat, along with the frankly overwhelming amount of bioluminescence. (Everything bloody glows on Pandora; It’s a miracle anyone can see anything.)

But it just soars, and soon you forget the slight embarrassment you felt for Cameron when he unveiled his giant cat-smurfs to the world. Suddenly you are flying with them, sharing their love of their stunning planet.

Much criticism has been leveled at the parallels to the Iraq war and that the film is intrinsically anti-American, but I think this is slightly wide of the mark. Certainly there are similarities, but it has more in common with the darker pages of our history with the Native Americans or Australian Aboriginals. If anything this film is anti-human, and you end up feeling slightly grubby and ashamed as you leave the cinema and head back into the concrete jungle, having spent just a few hours in those of Pandora.


Posted in: ***