MOVIE REVIEW: '
By Paul Byrnes
Genre Animation, Drama
Run Time 161 minutes
Country United States
Director James Cameron
Rating Three stars
AMONG its vast ambitions, Avatar is partly about colour. It is James Cameron's first movie since Titanic went down 12 years ago, so you can bet he has a lot to say, but the primary directive might be to make a film so beautiful in its use of colour that it restores our faith in movies. He wants us all to emerge thinking "I've never seen that before". He's trying both to invent new technologies and tame them as he goes – avoiding the George Lucas syndrome, where the technology swamped the stories in the later Star Wars movies.
Cameron has made Avatar in 3D because he wants to show the future of action cinema. Along with colour, he wants depth, so that the experience is enveloping. Fifty years ago, 3D was a new way to achieve cheesy thrills – the spear was coming right at you. Avatar has few of these directional gags. It is now possible to make movies that feel as if you have a virtual-reality module on your head. Sound and vision come from all around – almost (even in 3D, the screen still has a limit).
That does mean that Avatar is an overwhelming sensory experience. The colours are extraordinary, the depth breathtaking. More important, the range of emotions in the CG characters is more subtle and surprising than has been possible before. The only limit is Cameron's imagination, which is fertile but finite. He seems incapable of really challenging the audience, in case they won't part with their 10 bucks. He wants to be Kubrick but he hasn't the cojones.
Sam Worthington gives a strong performance – unlike some of his co-stars – as Jake Sully, an ex-marine. He is sent to the verdant planet Pandora with a mining team from Earth, about 100 years in the future. The trees here can reach a kilometre into the sky; the landscape is like a Chinese painting – all mountains and rivers, mist and pinnacles. Beneath are deposits of "unobtainium", that old sci-fi term for some fabulous material we don't have. The problem is the forest is inhabited by stubborn indigenes, the Na'vi. They are twice our size, lithe and gorgeous with blue skin, a tail and ears that twitch as they talk. They don't like us knocking down their forests. The mining trucks return with arrows in their tyres. Pandora's atmosphere is poisonous to humans, so the miners have developed a hybrid life form to try to pacify the Na'vi.
These avatars – grown from a mixture of human and Na'vi DNA – must be "driven" by a human in a state of deep sleep. Sigourney Weaver plays Dr Augustine, the chain-smoking scientist running the avatar program, and Sully is her newest driver.
Secretly, he is also reporting to Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) the military head, who wants to know about the Na'vi's weaknesses, so he can blast them out like they used to do with the "gooks".
Jake's early scenes in the forest are magical. In the body of his avatar, he marvels at the giant orange-glowing spiral ferns, the iridescent blue plants, the purple birds that look like flamingoes with teeth. He has a face-off with a hammerhead elephant that has two sets of eyes, and is chased by the ravening dogs of night. He is rescued by a beautiful Na'vi woman warrior, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who introduces him to the tribe. Visiting this 3D Garden of Eden is lovely; it's like a forest painted by Van Gogh or Gauguin, or the bastard child of Salvador Dali. But is it fascinating surrealism or just overblown design – a big technicolor yawn?
The key point in any science-fiction story is not to cross the line of ridiculousness, which is to say it must retain a hold on our emotions. That point is different for everyone, but some people reached it early at the preview screening. Some will go with the film's overall message about conserving our forests; others will collapse into giggles at the sometimes strained and campy world of forest nymphs battling a military commander straight from a GI Joe comic. If the first part is all idyllic and Amazonian, the second half is all army and Armageddon.
For all his command of the dynamics of action, Cameron has a conventional sense of story, a desire to keep us comfortable. His script is numbingly derivative. Its execution may be glorious, taking us no place we've ever been, but the story takes us every place we've ever been. The sources include the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard and James Fenimore Cooper, particularly The Last of The Mohicans; the Disney cartoon utopias of Pocahontas and Bambi; the dystopian space worlds of the Aliens series that Cameron helped to create; the internal narrative intimacy of films such as Apocalypse Now and Dances with Wolves, where the narrator is a lonely soldier far from home. If Cameron were more prepared to challenge our expectations, Avatar might have been what he intended. Instead, it's a beautiful folly, a technical wonder that represents a failure of nerve.
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