Film Review – Avatar

Avatar delivers a subtle and tantalising 3D experience, but it is undermined by weak characterisation, unimaginative dialogue and a clunky plot.

James Cameron delivers a spectacular new 3D world in planet Pandora, where a phenomenal amount of time has been spent creating an entire world of flora and fauna that is at times, simply breathtaking. My initial fears of a garish blue and purple world of token strangeness were banished. Surely inspired by Cameron’s underwater filmmaking in the ocean depths, the forest world of Pandora at night comes alive in a pulsing array of plant bioluminescence, from the veins of the native Na’vi tribe to the patches of lichen that glow under individual footsteps. This is a movie, in part, about the wonder of a complex ecosystem.

The plot is one we are familiar with from many stories; the military man who forsakes his  artificial and mechanised world to join one more attuned to nature. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine paralysed from the waist down, recalled into service to replace his deceased twin brother who was a research scientist in an ambitious interplanetary military force active on Pandora. The expedition is to acquire vast quantites of a desperately needed, naturally occurring mineral, ‘Unobtanium’, from a site occupied by the primitive tribal society of the Na’vi; a blue-skinned, eight-foot tall warrior race who worship a feminine deity that they believe embodies the planet’s life-force. Previous negotiations have failed, so Sully is given an ‘avatar’ body, a hybrid lab-concoction of human and Na’vi DNA, which he controls remotely from inside the military base. This enables him to breathe Pandora’s otherwise toxic air, and to integrate into Na’vi society with a view to convincing them to move their entire village so that mining can commence. He is introduced to the tribe by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the accomplished daughter of the tribe’s shaman. Sully undergoes tribal rituals to become one of them, and inevitably feels a conflict between his affections for Neytiri and her people, and his human, military objectives.

Cameron has spent some ten years realising a 3D world driven by a mysterious life-force, peopled by a race that has its own, convincing language, but this concept is pushed into the background to present us with a very ordinary love story between the principle characters of Sully and Neytiri, and the consequent ‘going native’ of Sully. Now this would work if there was a substantial character arc from Sully the military grunt to Sully the eco-warrior, but he just isn’t ignorant or callous enough at the beginning to render the change meaningful, and so we are left with a very long movie, about something completely unrevolutionary. Not what we were promised. There is an interesting scene where lead scientist, Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is examining the neural communication between plant roots that could form the basis of a theory that Pandora is a giant integrated, organic network. But this plot point is shoved into the background, quite literally, as the camera and sound follow Sully into the undergrowth. The emotional consequences of Sully a acquiring a second-life, being transformed from a paraplegic to a fully mobile person again, when the opportunity to do just the same back on Earth is promised, is never examined beyond a few lines that get drowned out by clichés.

So I begrudgingly accepted the Disney storyline of ‘boy meets princess and learns to respect the planet’, only because of the phenomenal technical artistry of the film’s landscape. Apart from one love scene of surprising tenderness and innocence (I am a soft git at heart), I was filled with adrenaline but no emotion during any of the scenes of destruction and desolation. 

The dialogue is a lazy blend of military grunt-speak and rabble-rousing Braveheart speechwriting that left me unmoved, when I should have been empathising with the characters. Such a shame that after all the efforts to immerse me in the film with accomplished 3D technology, one is instantly thrown out again by banal screenwriting.

Recently I posted on this blog a Fox marketing ‘documentary within a film’ featurette narrated by Weaver’s character. Now make THAT into a feature-length IMAX 3D documentary Mr Cameron, and you’ve got the movie you should have made. At present it’s the world that’s wonderful, not the characters within it. 

Make no mistake, this a movie you should absolutely go and see. But it is a spectacular experience for the eyes, not for the heart.
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