by MP Bartley
I've often wondered what it were to be like when talkies wiped out the sound era, or what it was like when colour banished black and white films to the past. Well, I'm alive and well when a 3D film has established itself as the biggest earner of all time - but I'm yet to be convinced that we're at the beginning of a new era of cinema.It's 2154 and humanity has established a scientific and military base on the planet Pandora. They want a precious mineral, Unobtainimum (yes, really, and annoyingly it's never established just what it does that makes it so precious), but are facing conflict with the natives of Pandora, the Na'avi who guard their homelands, the source of Unobtainium, fiercely. In order to smooth things over with the Na'avi, Dr Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), has constructed the Avatar programme, by which human and Na'avi DNA is spliced together to form a Na'avi-esque body into which the feelings and thought processes of a human controller can be downloaded. One such driver is marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who finds himself enlisted by not only Augustine, but Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the colonel in charge of the marines who views the Na'avi as not something to be studied, but something to be swatted aside, and Sully's interaction with the Na'avi gives him exactly the tools he needs to complete this objective. Sully, being a grunt, agrees, but once his Avatar blends in with the Na'avi he finds himself attracted to Nery'iti (Zoe Saldana) a Na'avi warrior, and finds himself caught in a power struggle between the two races.
Of course, this all happens in 3D and the first question is should Avatar be reviewed as a film in its own right or as the biggest pointer we've had to the future of cinema?
If we do look at this purely through our 3D glasses, then it's an astonishing success. Cameron has made sure that the 3D process is not just a gimmick, but simply another tool he has grafted onto his story to immerse us in the world of Pandora. It's an experience, unlike any other and there are moments that will take your breath away - not just the alien landscapes, but scenes such as Jake waking up in a free-floating medical bay that seemingly stretches on forever. Cameron has always been at the forefront of invention and reinvention and, once again, can take great pride in his heroic attempt at reinventing the wheel. Avatar is the most stunning use of 3D we've seen yet. However, this wheel is still missing a few spokes.
The 3D is only part of the story. After all, we don't judge the first colours or talkies purely on their innovation, and beyond the fresh, unique trappings, Avatar has to be viewed as any other film should be, and in that regard it's substantially lacking. I'd stop short of labelling Cameron the new William Castle, throwing a new trick at the audience to distract us from his shortcomings, but the shortcomings are there nevertheless, and no amount of 3D can mask that.
One of Cameron's greatest strengths has always been his ability to tell taut, streamlined stories, while keeping them intelligent and engaging. Avatar is a windy, baggy film. An age passes from Jake's touchdown on the planet to the final 40 minutes of the film, where the tension between the humans and the Na'avi finally simmers over. This 40 minutes is an incredible sequence of action cinema, cutting between an air battle and a land battle, and is as good as Cameron's ever done. But it takes an age to get to it. Most of the build-up is spent with Jake intergrating himself into the Na'avi culture, but the problem here is that they're an awfully dull lot to spend most of the film with. Beyond the cliche that they're a mystical race with a deep link to the nature around them, there's nothing particulary interesting about the race and they come off like one of the myriad of thinly-drawn races that Lucas populated the Star Wars prequels with - all pretty pixels and predictable dialogue (can you guess what the brave warrior who Nery'iti is betrothed to, will make of Jake's intrusion? And how their relationship will eventually end up? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?). The many comparisons to The New World or Dances With Wolves were inevitable, but what they have, and what they draw their mythic and affecting power from is the human factor, which Avatar doesn't. I'd like to think that's an ironic self-commentary, but I can't give Cameron that much credit, sadly.
As thinly-written and performed as they are, they also don't convince on the level of say, Gollum, or even Jackson's Kong, when it comes to the much-vaunted realism of their actions. That's also the problem with Pandora itself - most of it feels exactly like Kong island and as much as Cameron is pushing boundaries here, he's also creating a distance between the story and the audience. The alien world looks spectacular, but it never feels real. You can't feel the mud under your feet or the rain on your face, like the truly great sci-fi/fantasy films make you feel - did someone mention Dagobah or Middle Earth? It's a sad irony that it is exactly Cameron's achievement in one area that torpodeos another. His films are exceptional when it comes to making you feel for the characters, no matter the genre (who else could wring as much emotion as he from Aliens or make The Terminator a genuinely affecting love story?), but there's nothing to hold
onto, no-one to root for, under the razzle-dazzle of his new wrapping. It's ultimately a rather hollow experience and remarkable that for a 160 minute epic utilising 3D in a way never seen before, there's so little here that's actually memorable.
Another of Cameron's gifts, and one that is often underrated, is his casting and direction of actors. His characterisation rarely rises above anything that is more than necessary - Cameron's characters don't do complexity - but he has always countered that with charismatic actors and engaging performances. Weaver, Biehn, Harris, Hamilton, Winslet, Paxton - it's something he's rarely given credit for. But it's something else he forgets here. Worthington is unfathomably dull, Saldana can't really bring her CGI character to life and the usually dependable Weaver is given little to work. None are helped by Cameron's writing - quite often a flaw anyway, there's so much dreadful exposition and clunky dialogue here, it all sounds like a first draft, badly in need of a polish, with Worthington's innane voiceover rattling in the ears particularly badly. For all the poetry he finds on Pandora, Cameron has none for the characters. I'm surely not the only one to have South Park's Cartman in the back of his mind at times - "What the hell is this tree-hugging hippy crap, anyway?"The fiery Cameron of old has seemingly disappeared to be replaced by a new touchy-feely Cameron. Happily, he's still retained that thirst and desire to bring something new and unseen to the table yet again - but if this is the future that Cameron is determined to live in, I'd like him to have a little more fire in his belly next time round. In some ways he's as sleek as ever, but in others he's getting far too flabby.
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originally posted: 02/19/10 01:42:22