Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Sunday, October 5, 2014


Year: 2009
Running time: 162 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovani Ribisi, Laz Alonso, Joel David Moore

Jake meets his avatar for the first time.
James Cameron has long been a director associated with excess. His sequel to Alien remains one of the most over the top actioners Hollywood has ever put out, topped by only a few, including Cameron’s own T-2: Judgement Day. The Abyss is one of the most legendary shoots in Hollywood’s history, full of stories of Cameron’s giant ego and quick temper bludgeoning the cast and crew in the director’s attempt to attain his own excessive perfection. True Lies got into the record books by being the first film with a budget of more than $100 million. He returned to the water with Titanic, the first film to make more than $1 billion at the box office. Say what you like about Titanic and its unconvincing melodrama in the overlong first half; when the iceberg hits and the ship goes down, there’s no denying Cameron’s stamp is all over it. For years, Titanic was the film that ate the world, its $1.8 billion gross putting all other contenders in the shade. It’s fitting then that the film to finally take Titanic’s crown is the next Cameron effort. Avatar smashed even Titanic’s impressive gross, taking almost $1 billion more than The Boat Movie.

The story had been bouncing around Cameron’s head for years, while he patiently waited for the technology to catch up with his imagination. He eventually tired of this and decided to design and build said technology himself. The cameras, the technique, all the tools used to make this film are newly designed from the ground up. There is a wealth of articles out there going into great detail on every aspect of the technology, from the 3-D cameras, through the CG effects to the motion capture work. While I’m not going to go into great detail on this, suffice to say it is an incredible achievement, that, quite possibly, nobody but James Cameron could have managed. It’s rumoured that all this caused the budget to swell to $400 million or more (more conservative estimates put it at a still not inconsiderable $250 million or thereabouts), and there is no doubt that every single penny of that is up there on screen to see.
Neytiri goes to war.

So the tools to tell the story are nothing short of revolutionary, but what about the story itself? Well, it isn’t bad, as such, but it is rather clichéd and not wholly original. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a soldier of the distant future who’s lost the use of his legs. When his scientist brother dies, he is offered the chance to go to Pandora, a moon that is home to the N’avi, a race of blue, cat-like humanoids. In order to understand the Na’vi and to build peaceful relationships with them, genetically grown avatars are used, in which a human’s mind is transferred to a waiting Nav’i host (the avatar). The moment when Jake stands up on Na’vi legs and, feeling dirt between his toes, is giddy with delight is a lovely touch, and shows early on that the technology works beautifully – Worthington’s features emote perfectly on his Na’vi face, and there really is no understating the effectiveness of seeing it for the first time. Jake and his fellow avatars are under pressure to befriend the Na’vi quickly, because the eventual goal is to convince them to move home to allow the mining corporation that has set up on Pandora to dig up the ‘Unobtainium’ (should’ve called it ‘MacGuffinium’). Following a promise to be given the use of his legs back, Jake is convinced to act the scientist and peacekeeper, but report back to military bigwig Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) with tactical information.
Stephen Lang's Quaritch: Scenery-chewing villain extraordinaire.
Jake proceeds to fall in love with the Nav’i people and one of them in particular (Neytiri, played by the ever-incredible Zoe Saldana) and ends up fighting for them against the invading humans. With almost 3 hours to fill, the plot is a fair bit more detailed than that, but essentially this is Dances with Blue Cat People. I think the well-worn narrative clichés actually worked in the film’s favour and helped it to gross the huge numbers it did. The story type is popular for a reason – people like it, and with the huge risk Fox and Cameron were taking (this was no sure thing by any means) a well-liked story idea gave it a better chance.

Some of the dialogue is clunky, especially the direct references to the recent Iraq war – the phrase ‘shock and awe’ coming out of a character’s mouth is particularly cringeworthy, and the hippyish love Mother Nature stuff (and this coming from a bit of a hippy vehemently opposed to the Iraq war), but then dialogue has never been Cameron’s strong point.

Pandora's floating mountain range: spectacle upon spectacle.
So it’s not the unoriginal story, or the clichéd characters that make Avatar so impressive, it’s the canvas on which that story is painted. It isn’t a case of style over content, because as mentioned, there is content, and most of it is pretty good, just unoriginal. But when Jake, stranded on Pandora at night, sees the bioluminescence of the plant life for the first time, it is so striking, that’s it’s really like nothing I’ve seen before. And there is much more; the creatures (which form part of a conceivable ecosystem designed from the ground up by Cameron), the perfection of the CG Na’vi, the devastating scene in which the Na’vi’s home is destroyed, and, most of all, the astonishing climactic battle in the air and on the ground. It’s a feast for the eyes previously unimaginable.

Avatar is also that very rare thing – a film that is improved by the use of 3-D. It’s not in your face or gimmicky, but is employed subtly to give a feeling of depth to the environment, with Cameron’s advanced technology ensuring there is no motion blur, even in the busiest sequences. It is one of the only examples where visuals are more important than story – we know the story by heart, it’s the manner in which it is told which is new and exciting here.

Visually revolutionary with a central story idea that is very much been there, seen that, the effort that has gone into making this is Herculean, and as such it deserves to be cherished.

Score: 9/10

Avatar was a huge hit critically as well as commercially, as evidenced in these reviews by Chris at Empire and Roger Ebert, but even the self-appointed King of the World can't please everyone - Sukhdev at the Telegraph was much less impressed.