Friday, 1 January 2010

Film Review: Avatar

It takes a special kind of film to make a $250 million budget look like pocket money compared to box office receipts, but Avatar is just that.

It crashed onto our (specially commissioned 3D) cinema screens on a wave of hype not seen since the likes of The Dark Knight. The new film from the director of Aliens, Terminator and, to a lesser extent, Titanic? In production for 14 years? Groundbreaking new technology? Avatar is so much the sum of James Cameron’s endeavours, so much the fruit of his talent, sweat and obvious passion for the technology and his story that it’s almost as if everything he made up to this point has simply been a rehearsal. He wrote the original script in 1994, developed an entire language and culture for the Na’Vi that inhabit it, and has been waiting for technology to play-catch up ever since.

And catch-up it did. The human brain has long accepted that the CGI it sees on screen - the fog at distance, the almost imperceptible cracks and lack of definition that make up the virtual masking tape and tissue paper of modern day graphics - is not real. Not anymore. Your eyes will give up looking for cracks 3 minutes in. Watching Avatar in 3D is like viewing a film in high-resolution after years of peering at them on a mobile phone.

The hyper-real jungle landscape of Pandora is lush and vibrant, while the non-human species, the Na’Vi, look as if they truly exist, which is the highest praise one can lavish on CGI. Action scenes are impossibly fluid, and it’s not just the big set-pieces that are wonderfully rendered. Everything is. At one point, faint in the background of a particularly dramatic scene, we see – through a window - a hat knocked from a flinching marine’s head by the jet wash from a CGI fighter plane.

The technology isn’t there simply to make Cameron look good. It serves the story too; one that we’ve seen before, but which is no less entertaining for that: Jake Sulley (played by Sam Worthington, who looks unnervingly like a hybrid of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) plays a paraplegic marine sent to the planet Pandora in the year 2154 to take part in the Avatar programme. He’s a genetic substitute for his PhD twin brother, who spent years preparing for the job but died before he could start. The planet Pandora is a vast, beautiful jungle world inhabited by a lithe, blue-skinned race of 10-foot giants called the Na’Vi. In a concept not entirely dissimilar to that of the Matrix, humans can take control of specially bred Na’Vi bodies – or avatars - via their mind, while their human bodies lie prone in the lab. Na’Vi are better, faster and stronger than humans, and taking control of one looks like a lot of fun, especially for a paraplegic. The Na’Vi eventually take to Jake because he has a good heart, but he is tasked by the evil Company to convince them to leave their sacred tree, which is rooted on top of a particularly valuable mineral resource.

Jake, marine and no PhD, is caught between learning about the Na’Vi culture (especially one female in particular, played by Zoë Saldaña), and persuading them to abandon their homeland on behalf of the muscle-brained and aggressive Col. Miles Quaritch. Quaritch sets a deadline for this, and when it passes, he unleashes a visually-arresting firestorm that sparks the intense, gripping final third of the film. Avatar is over two-and-a-half hours long, but doesn’t drag once. You get the impression Cameron could have kept up the excitement as long as he wanted.

A strong environmental message runs throughout Avatar; humanity is mining Pandora because its minerals can be used for energy back on an Earth which has finally used up its own resources. Avatar borrows much of this message, and its imagery, from the environmentally-friendly Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke. Avatar was released just as the Copenhagen Conference was foremost in most people’s minds, but the extraordinary fantasy world planted right between the Green message and the audience means it’s not forced upon us. And often judged for contemporary relevance, morality, politics, or a thousand other criteria, it is frequently forgotten that the reason people see films is primarily for entertainment. Audiences want to be thrilled and exhilarated, and if they forgot this, Avatar reminds them. It takes the plodding malaise borne from years of sub-standard sci-fi and fantasy films and fires a CGI rocket up it.

Avatar is the best picture of 2009 (which may not be the same as the best film – time will tell how the graphics translate to DVD), and it is both technically-groundbreaking and emotionally-engaging. You should see this film, because, for better or worse, it’s how all films will look in 10 years. Watch it in the cinema while you can.

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