Joel David Moore
VIDEO FEATURETTE: Avatar
There’s never been any denying James Cameron’s ambition and creative vision, nor his unerring ability to spend budgets totalling the GDP of small nations on his films. The writer-director’s name has become a byword for state-of-the-art visual effects, particularly with Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Abyss.
More than a decade has passed since Titanic reaped him a trophy cabinet of awards, including 11 Oscars, and the title of highest-grossing movie of all time. Since then he’s ventured ever further with special effects research and development, particularly the possibilities presented by new 3-D technology. A variety of projects in this field has meant that Avatar is his first feature film in 12 years.
Like every film Cameron makes, Avatar is epic in length, visually stunning, laughably gung-ho and brimmed to spilling with every latest technology that can be brought to bear. Also like everything he does, the script serves as a rudimentary vehicle to get from one visual set-piece to the next and the cast play entirely supporting roles to the bombast exploding all about.
Avatar‘s story takes place on Pandora, a mineral-rich moon populated by 10-foot-tall blue beings known as the Na’vi, and a sundry range of fierce-featured beasts that pounce, flap and hiss. A human colony has formed for the purposes of mining the moon’s mineral deposits; the mining corporation has incepted a programme to gain the trust of the indigenous people, with the ultimate aim of removing them from their land and exploiting the materials within it. This programme, using genetically engineered “avatar” bodies that allow humans to walk amongst the natives in familiar form, seeks to work with the Na’vi and gain their trust. But it is rivalled by the trigger-happy military’s preference for controlling and defeating the natives with a show of “shock and awe”.
Much of what follows in the film’s 161 minutes veers perilously close to po-faced cod-philosophy on how everything connects to everything else. There are few jokes and little subtlety, and scarcely any backstory to explain the motivations of the characters. There is, however, plenty in the way of monster trucks, spectacular explosions and astonishing visual set-pieces created with Cameron’s patented motion-capture techniques, all interlaced with that most successful of Cameronian script devices, the improbable love story (cf. Titanic).
This being a James Cameron film, we’ve reached this far without mentioning the cast. Aliens heroine Sigourney Weaver is by some margin the best known of the ensemble troupe and, as Dr Grace Augustine, the scientist in charge of the Avatar programme, she combines the quasi-eccentric ecological touchstones of her Dian Fossey character from Gorillas In The Mist with the moral compass elements and fear-no-evil heroism of Ellen Ripley. But in common with the rest of the cast Weaver finds herself in a supporting role to the special effects.
As paraplegic jarhead Jake Scully, sent to Pandora as the Avatar programme’s latest driver, Sam Worthington gets to illustrate the transformation from boneheaded fire-on-orders marine to Na’vi-embracing do-gooder. Jake’s love interest, the shapely Na’vi girl Neytiri, is portrayed entirely in CGI by Zo Saldana to feisty and sympathetic effect, while George W Bush’s representative on Pandora, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the 2-D baddie hellbent on little more than firing his gun and flexing his battle-scarred muscles. Around these principal protagonists revolve an assortment of cipher-geek scientists, Michelle Rodriguez’s Vasquez-like tom boy helicopter pilot and the Na’vi hierarchy, the latter rabbiting away in their very own devised language – another impressive facet to the film.
For almost the first hour, the visual feast is so overwhelming – especially in 3-D – that the story and its characters are secondary while one absorbs the rich detail. Avatar is for sure one of those films that can likely be watched again and again, each viewing revealing something different. Giant lizard vs helicopter dogfights, walks on bioluminescent plantlife and all manner of other Na’vi scenes really do stagger, and Cameron’s fast-paced, action-led camerawork tie them together impressively.
Whether Avatar is aimed at graphic novel geeks, gamers, action aficionados or a broader base of potential fans, it does have something for everyone, even if whatever ecological message it might’ve hammered home gets a little compromised along the way. Yet whether anyone wants to be preached at in a cinema about the environment by anyone other than Al Gore remains a moot point. This is, first and foremost, entertainment.
In that context, ultimately Avatar is a benchmarking visual feast, surely on for Oscars in the technological fields. But given that it took four years to make, a little more time spent on the human aspects of what make a film script work – backstories and motivations, for instance – would surely not have broken the bank.