The long awaited blockbuster from director James Cameron is a remarkable visual achievement and a thrilling sci-fi drama.
Anticipation over what Avatar would be has reached fever pitch in recent months as speculation mounted: Would the 3D change the way audiences see cinema? Why did it cost so much? What’s with all the blue aliens? And why is it called Avatar?
The less than ecstatic reaction in various quarters to the trailers and preview footage in the summer, combined with some sluggish tracking numbers, were probably enough to make folks at 20th Century Fox a little nervous.
But the simple fact is that Avatar really delivers. For the 163 minute running time it takes you on an adventure and into a different world with all manner of thrilling sights and sounds.
Set in the year 2154, the story and centres on a wheelchair bound US marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), sent on a mission to the planet of Pandora, replacing his recently deceased twin brother.
It has been partly colonised by humans who are trying to mine it for rare minerals because Earth is on the bring of ecological collapse.
Sully’s mission is to mix with Pandora’s native aliens the Na’vi by becoming an Avatar, a hybrid alien which he ‘becomes’ under lab conditions, as if in a dream.
But he soon comes to fall in love with the planet and its people after being rescued by Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and finding himself at home on amongst their culture.
This causes inevitable tensions with the human colony’s desire to exploit their land.
The most immediate thing about experiencing the film is how quickly you settle into the world of Pandora.
Forget all the Gawker-led hipster jibes about the Na’vi looking like smurfs – once you are inside the cinema they look and feel like real characters, which is a major tribute to the CGI artists and actors who brought them to life.
But it is the stunning vistas and trippy details of Pandora that will really wow audiences.
Cameron waited a long time for technology to catch up with his expansive, psychedelic visions and the result is another landmark in cinema visuals, up there with the water in The Abyss, the T-1000 in T2, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and various landmark steps over this decade such as Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Benjamin Button.
In utilising new advances in technology, Avatar goes in further in pushing the envelope: alien landscapes, major characters and various creatures are rendered with astounding detail and richness.
If you stay and watch the end credits you’ll see an unbelievable amount of visual effects artists and several different houses, although the primary credit goes to the WETA Digital team led by Joe Letteri.
At times it is so good that that you begin to take it for granted, which in a strange way almost makes it a victim of its own brilliance.
Another important aspect of Avatar is that it was filmed with the proprietary Fusion digital 3-D camera system (developed by Cameron and Vince Pace) which are stereoscopic cameras that ‘simulate’ human sight.
I saw it in 3D and was struck at how seamless it was. There was no obvious pointy images, but a visual design that draws you subconsciously into the screen. It will also work in 2D but I think 3D will prove the richer experience.
There’s been a lot of talk about this film being a game changer for 3D in mainstream cinema. I’m not sure every film at a multiplex should (or needs to) be shown like that, but for tentpole movies Avatar is a big leap forward.
Certainly it could influence writers, directors and producers to be more imaginative in how they approach the visual design of a blockbuster.
But what of the themes and subtext? For such a high profile film from a major Hollywood studio, it is a fairly stinging critique of US militarism and imperialism, firmly on the side of the indigenous insurgency with a pro-environmental message to boot – at one point a tree is literally hugged and spoke to!
The sight of futuristic US helicopters landing on jungles and firing incendiary bombs on the native Na’vi echoes Vietnam and the arc of the story carries more than a whiff of Dances With Wolves or even The New World.
There is also a certain irony that it was mostly funded by Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp and makes you wonder if the Aussie media mogul got the memo about hundreds of millions of his dollars being spent on a film with such a liberal message.
It could certainly be interpreted as a big, middle-fingered salute to the Bush-Cheney era – a critique of US imperialism that embraces empathy with other races and respect for the environment.
It isn’t exactly subtle, but props must go to Cameron for being so on the nose with the issues.
Just weeks after more US troops were sent to Afghanistan and the week global leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss the environment, it could hardly be more topical – impressive for a sci-film set in the middle of the next century.
There are some minus points: the script contains some clunky dialogue; some sequences appear trimmed to keep the running time down; the originality of the visuals isn’t matched by the story; Leona Lewis singing over the end credits and at times the villains and their motives are a little one-dimensional.
I’d be wary of talking about Avatar as another Titanic. For various reasons it will be hard to ever crack the runaway box office success of that film and I don’t feel it will sweep the Oscar race this year (although the technical and visual effects awards are in the bag).
But if word of mouth catches fire, there could certainly be a slow-burn must-see effect – like with Titanic – that turns it into the kind of film people have to see in order to talk about it.
From The Terminator through to Titanic, James Cameron has always been a great technical director, even if his films have had their downsides.
By pushing relentlessly at how films look on screen he has helped raised standards of how we view movies and for that he deserves great credit.
Avatar demonstrates again that he understands one of the basic truths about cinema, which is its ability to lift audiences out of themselves for a couple of hours and make them feel giddy in the process.