STARRING: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Peter Mensah, Laz Alonso, Wes Studi, Stephen Lang, Matt Gerald

2009, 161 Minutes, Directed by:
James Cameron

It is no coincidence that director James Cameron shares the same initials with the other JC . . .

After all, here is a truly visionary film-maker who has been behind some of science fiction cinema’s most bona fide classics. Films such as the first two Terminator movies, Aliens and, yes, even the flawed original theatrical cut of The Abyss, which was a one-of-a-kind experience.

Like The Abyss, Avatar is also a one of a kind experience. However, like Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it cannot realistically live up to fan expectations as well as its own hype. After all, Avatar, as you probably know by now, is the director’s first movie in almost 12 years – the director’s first since a little movie you might have heard of called Titanic . . .

James Cameron promised audiences a 2001: A Space Odyssey for this generation, but Avatar is closer to Star Wars than 2001. 2001: A Space Odyssey practically reinvented the visual tropes of the science fiction genre – it was a wholly original work that gave us workable spaceships and enigmatic alien presences instead of the flying hubcaps and green-skinned aliens that came before it. The movie’s movies influence can still be felt decades later in efforts such as Wall-E and, yes, even Avatar.

There is nothing in Avatar that is astoundingly original and fresh in the same way that 2001 was back in 1968 (a year before the moon landing). That said audiences who found 2001’s art movie aesthetics off-putting will enjoy Avatar much, much more.

In contrast Avatar is more like Star Wars, which cleverly mixed existing visual ideas such as the spaceships from 2001 with anything from Marvel’s Doctor Doom to Disney’s Snow White. Much in Avatar is familiar, which is why the movie’s first trailer was met with such disappointment in some quarters earlier this year. Those blue-skinned aliens (already disparagingly referred to as Smurfs by some SF fans) are a staple of clichéd fantasy art. The lizard-flying thing started with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern decades ago. Even those mountains hanging in mid-air are a clichéd anime staple.

Then there are the moments of self-plagiarism: the military hardware will be familiar to anyone who has seen Terminator (those heli-flyers) and Aliens (the colonial marines and exoskeletal suits). Cameron can’t even resist brining in a smarmy corporate yuppie that is a dead ringer for Burke, the smarmy corporate yuppie from Aliens.

The plot is Dances with Wolves . . . but with tall blue aliens instead of Native Americans. It is a movie in which we, the humans from Earth as T. Bone Burnett called us in his song, are the alien invaders.

"Avatar is part National Geographic TV special, part Guns 'n' Ammo bumper edition . . ."

In the distant future an alien world called Pandora is the only source for an extremely rare mineral known as unobtainium (whoever gave it that name must have seen 2003’s kooky science fiction disaster movie, The Core). The only problem is that a tribe of primitive aliens known as the Na’vi are living right on top of the richest deposit of the mineral – and they won’t budge!

Yup, Pandora may be an extremely hostile planet populated by all kinds of nasty, vicious beasties, but the Na’vi has involved into a bunch of tree-hugging, New Age-y hippy types who aren’t about to sell their prime real estate for a string of beads or even blue jeans and Coca Cola. “We have nothing they want,” as one human character laments. This means that a showdown is looming: if the Na’vi can’t be convinced to move, then they will be forced to relocate. After all, the technologically inferior Na’vi with their bows and arrows may be superior in numbers, but the humans with their high-tech gunships, exoskeletal robots, machineguns and the like, seriously outgun them. As any historian well you: the Maxim machinegun was more than an equalizer when it came the various sad colonial spats throughout our civilization’s history . . .

Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington, whom audiences saw earlier this year in Terminator Salvation and will get to see again in next year’s Clash of the Titans remake) is a human from Earth who goes native and helps the blue-skinned aliens defend their world against his own people. There is a definite Vietnam analogy as a technologically superior military force gets their butts kicked by an inferior opponent. How this will play in the States, which is engaged in two foreign disputes – or colonial adventures if you like, depending on your politics – right now is a mystery.

While the whole “cowboys stealing injuns’ land” vibe is unmistakable, Avatar however isn’t a Message movie as such. In Titanic James Cameron wanted to sink a giant ocean liner and now in Avatar he wants to build an entire alien planet. (You can’t fault the man for not having any ambition!) In both instances he succeeds admirably: the ship sunk pretty well in Titanic even though it wasn’t really that great a movie (Avatar is much better even though it doesn’t have the same mainstream appeal); and the alien planet in Avatar is fantastically well done. In fact the movie is an exercise in “look how far we have come with special effects!” It is a far cry indeed from those matte painting backdrops and cardboard boulders in old Star Trek episodes. Everything is richly textured, highly detailed and colorful – it gives new meaning to the phrase “eye candy” . . .

The visual effects in Avatar are its biggest selling point. They are fantastically well done. Wait, we’ve already said, but it is worth repeating. Avatar is the sort of movie that you need to see on the big screen, preferably on IMAX. Whether you need to see it in 3D as Cameron intended is another question altogether.

To be honest we find those 3D glasses fidgety and annoying. (The PR material says that they fit comfortably on top of prescription glasses – evil corporate lies we tell you!) We also found the 3D effects distracting and it took us a while to get used to them, or at least ignore them. It was only once we got drawn into the story that we truly began to enjoy Avatar. Movies shouldn’t be about the processes used to make them, which is why we hope that this silly 3D fad will pass as quickly as possible. But if 3D don’t give you any headaches, then go see it in 3D by all means!

Avatar is part National Geographic special, part Guns ‘n’ Ammo bumper edition . . .

The first hour of the movie is like a National Geographic special in which Sully (and the audience) gets to explore the indigenous fauna and flora as well the local customs. In the second half the U.S. military gets round to destroying much of the local fauna and flora in a fetishist display of firepower (although not as gun fetishist as Cameron’s Aliens). As a science fiction fan one feels that one should enjoy the first hour or so’s immersive world malarkey more, but dang those irritating 3D glasses!

Avatar is flawed in that interest varies throughout the movie. It goes like this:

a.) Dang these 3D glasses
b.) Ooh, look at those people floating around in zero gravity.
c.) Okay, I’m getting used to the pesky glasses now.
d.) Ugh, the 3D is making me feel seasick.
e.) Better now. Good story.
d.) Mmmh, is it me or does the 3D call attention to the artificiality of the effects? They lack the presence that physical effects such as that exoskeletal loader in Aliens had.
e.) This is beginning to drag – something better happen quick.
f.) Finally, things are picking up just as the trailer predicted.
f.) This is going to be good, yeah, baby!
e.) Okay, this is cool, but it kinda feels a bit like being stuck in a videogame.
f.) Climactic show-off – hasn’t Sully heard of guerrilla warfare as opposed to massing numbers storming a superior enemy, always a recipe for disaster?
g.) This is good again.
h.) Wait a minute, is this end the end?
i.) This ending is totally naïve!
j.) What’s this corny pop song playing over the end credits?

But this is harping on the movie’s negatives. There is much to like in Avatar. It is fantastically well done (wait, we said this before, haven’t we?) and is at turns both exciting and moving. We’ll take Avatar any day over the brain-dead likes of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen or GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It is also great to see Sigourney Weaver in a sci-fi epic again. (Sam Worthington however gets out-acted by his own computerized avatar.)

Avatar isn’t quite the Second Coming of JC, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie to say the least. Forget the backlash and go see it . . .


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