When his twin brother is killed, disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully is recruited to aid a mining expedition on the distant jungle moon of Pandora as only his DNA will bond with the alien hybrid body, known as an Avatar, that allows humans to breathe the toxic air. With orders to infiltrate the Na’vi, Jake finds himself falling in love with native girl, Neytiri, and complications soon ensue…
Avatar is unequivocally, completely, 100% the film that has been percolating in James Cameron’s head for the last fourteen years. It is not, in all probability, the film that you had in yours when you first heard that the man who directed Aliens and The Terminator was returning to sci-fi with a movie so ambitious that he had to build the technology to make it happen. If you can let go of your version and embrace Cameron’s – if you’re not, in other words, one of those splenetic internet fanboy types who’ve apparently made their minds up about Avatar before seeing it – then Avatar is a hugely rewarding experience: rich, soulful and exciting in the way that only comes from seeing a master artist at work.
Let’s address the Big Question first: to use the key phrase so often used in connection with the movie, is it a game-changer? Yes, and no would be the cop-out answer, but it’s also the truth. Avatar employs technology necessary to render its largely computer-generated, 3D world that will give directors, including but not limited to Cameron, one heck of a sandbox to play in over the next few years. That’s how the game has changed off screen.
On it, it may not be a game-changer, but no director to date has built a world of this scale, ambition and complexity before, and Avatar – much as the arrival of Raymond van Barneveld forced Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor to up his game – will have rival directors scrambling to keep up with Cameron. Avatar is an astonishing feast for the eyes and ears, with shots and sequences that boggle the mind, from the epic – a floating mountain range in the sky, waterfalls cascading into nothingness – to the tiny details, such as a paraplegic sinking his new, blue and fully operational toes into the sand. The level of immersive detail here is simply amazing.
And Cameron plunges you straight in, not even giving you time to don water wings. In a dizzyingly fast, almost impressionistic opening ten minutes, we’re introduced, in no short order, to everything you need to know for the next 150: about Pandora’s climate and largely deadly population, about Jake Sully’s situation, about the Avatar programme and the ruthless plans of the human invaders (led by Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch and Giovanni Ribisi’s Selfridge, a clear nod to Aliens’ Carter Burke, one of several touches reminiscent of Cameron’s earlier masterpiece). And then we’re off and running, literally, into an action sequence where Jake-Avatar barely survives encounters with unfriendly local wildlife that would make Ray Mears cream his shorts.
And it’s here where Cameron begins the detour from the all-out actionfest that many might have expected, choosing instead to slow things down over a three-month time period in which Jake – hair and beard markedly growing in the live-action sequences – immerses himself in the Na’vi culture, and gradually finds himself losing his heart to their ways and practices, and, in particular, Zoe Saldana’s fierce warrioress, Neytiri.
The lack of a ticking clock plot device here may deprive Avatar of momentum or drive through its middle-section, but it’s also part of Cameron’s agenda. After all, he’s also the guy who directed Titanic, and Avatar isn’t just about spectacle and stupendous action (though we’ll get both in spades), but a love story. We need hardly be surprised by this – every Cameron film, even True Lies, has a love story at its core – but the surprise here is how effective Avatar’s central coupling is, the emotion between Jake and Neytiri earthed by Weta’s astonishing digital effects. You can safely stow away all that spurious crap about videogame-style effects, or blue Jar Jars: this is truly next-level stuff, which doesn't smother Worthington and Saldana under a pile of pixels, but rather teases out and enhances the emotion in their excellent performances.
The Na’vi, each of whom has clearly distinct features (no small feat for a clan of some several hundred creatures) may not always seem photo-real, but they do seem – and this is crucial – alive and extremely expressive, helped by the fact that the dead-eye problem, which has plagued mo-cap movies since their inception, has been well and truly solved.
Worthington, fully justifying all the hullabaloo about him with a controlled, charming and physical performance (both in and out of his Avatar), may have a magnificent Lee Marvin leading man monotone, but an even bigger asset is his soulful eyes, a quality that is retained and magnified in the larger peepers of the Na’vi. Jake and Neytiri’s burgeoning love is contained in the intricacies of detail in the eyes – a flicker of longing here, a widening of the pupils or a rolling tear there, that further aids the illusion that these conglomerations of ones and zeros actually exist. It’s a genuinely engaging relationship – just because they’re aliens doesn’t mean they have to be alienating.
Mind you, despite all the advances and groundwork laid, we might be not quite ready to see two CG characters effectively dry-hump each other. That’s just wrong…
But, as much as technology aids and defines Avatar, it’s also a love letter to humanity and the glory of mother nature. The analogy with the Vietnam and Iraq wars is obvious, but Cameron, in siding with the insurgents (hardly an all-American move, but then again he is Canadian), is also asking fairly complex questions about what it means to be human. “How does it feel to betray your race?”, Sully is asked at one point, but by then, Cameron’s point has been made: the humans here, Sully and an assortment of ‘good’ scientists, led by Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine, aside, are the monsters; avaricious, rapacious, planet-killers. There’s never any doubt that Cameron considers the Na’vi to be more human – freer of spirit and emotion, more connected to the world around them.
At times – and this is perhaps Avatar’s biggest flaw, even beyond that bloody awful Leona Lewis song which mars the end credits – this manifests itself in New Age-y, hippy-dippy language and images that suggest that Cameron is one mung bean away from dropping out, man, and going all Swampy on our asses.
In truth, the big idea here, that Pandora is a giant mass of connected energy and emotional synapses, isn’t really all that far away from Lucas’ The Force, and works just fine in the context of a sci-fi fantasy, which Avatar undoubtedly is, but there’s a fair amount of unintentional laughter to be had from watching hundreds of Na’vi, swaying like extras from the Zion rave scene in The Matrix Reloaded, surrounding something called The Tree Of Souls and banging on about becoming one with Mother Eywo. If there’s one element of Avatar that the made-their-mind-up brigade will use to mercilessly beat the film with, even more so than the somewhat prosaic plot, it’s this.
But it’s hard to imagine even the most jaded and cynical having any issues with the last forty minutes, in which Cameron uncorks the action and shows all the young pretenders – the Bays and the Emmerichs and the Von Triers – how it’s done. The human attack on Pandora and the subsequent fightback, led by Avatar-Jake, is a largely sustained setpiece of quite staggering scale, imagination and emotion that manages to compress both the truly epic – a human attack on a Na’vi landmark that recalls 9/11 in its devastating imagery – and the thrillingly intimate, as Jake finally faces off against the excellent Stephen Lang’s Quaritch, a scenery-chewing bad guy so badass that he can breathe the Pandoran air without a mask.
It’s a relentless sequence which, while not quite matching the emotional punch of Titanic’s three-hanky conclusion, will still leave you dazed, confused but exhilarated, a feeling that will be enhanced further if you can - and we really, really recommend that you should - catch it in 3D, where Cameron’s unparalleled and meticulously constructed use of the technique expertly envelopes you in the beguiling, exotic sights and sounds of Pandora, a planet (or, to be precise, a moon) that throbs and hums and teems with life and energy in three dimensions.
It’s a world, not to give too much away, that Cameron clearly fully intends to return to and further explore. When he does, our bags are already packed.
It’s been twelve years since Titanic, but the King of the World has returned with a flawed but fantastic tour de force that, taken on its merits as a film, especially in two dimensions, warrants four stars. However, if you can wrap a pair of 3D glasses round your peepers, this becomes a transcendent, full-on five-star experience that's the closest we'll ever come to setting foot on a strange new world. Just don’t leave it so long next time, eh, Jim?