Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review - Avatar

It has been almost twelve years since James Cameron brandished his Oscar statuette and declared himself "King of the World". It was a moment of remarkable hubris, but who could deny that the director has earned the right to make such an arrogant gesture? He had staked everything on Titanic, and won. The film looked certain to sink his career as the production ballooned beyond its original budget and schedule, and when it appeared in cinemas in December 1997 – a three-hour romance with no stars and a downbeat ending – it looked like the punchline to a bad joke. $1.8 billion and 11 Oscars later, Cameron had the last laugh. So it should come as no surprise to see Cameron confounding the naysayers once again with Avatar, his years-in-the-making adventure, which has been dogged by wild speculation and predictions of failure in the months leading up to its release. He has gambled and won once again. Avatar is a stunning film, and it deserves to be huge.

The King of the World has now become a creator of worlds, setting Avatar on the alien planet Pandora, which he has brought to life in amazing detail. It is a vividly realised environment unlike anything I have ever seen before, with every aspect of the planet's flora and fauna feeling like it has been clearly thought-out and is a key part of a gorgeous whole. From the floating mountain ranges around which the climactic battle takes place, to the tiny plants that spin into the air and glow when touched, Pandora is a visual feast from top to bottom, and Cameron lets us feel as if we are a part of it too, with the most immersive use of 3D I have ever experienced. You feel like you can reach out and grab what the onscreen characters are touching, and it plays a huge part in drawing the viewer into the story; a story that, despite all of the cutting-edge technology on display, is resolutely old-fashioned.

Pandora is home to the Na'vi, a peaceful race of blue, 10-foot tall creatures whose spiritual lives are deeply intertwined with the natural world around them. Their home is also the sole source of Unobtanium, a precious mineral that may provide the answer to Earth's energy problems, which is why a mining corporation and squadron of gung-ho marines have established a base there. Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed a programme that involves humans mentally controlling alien avatars, who can travel freely among the native population, learning from their culture and building bridges between the civilisations. This is the programme that paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) signs up for, but Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has other ideas for Jake. The corporation is getting impatient with Grace's diplomatic approach, and Quaritch wants Jake to act as a spy, gaining the Na'vi's trust and reporting back with information that will aid the inevitable attack.

Avatar's backstory is explained in the film's opening twenty minutes, although Cameron has to resort to some dodgy storytelling tricks in order to do so. Poor old Giovanni Ribisi suffers most in this regard, being forced to engage in an exchange with Weaver that acts as a laughably clumsy lump of exposition. Throughout Avatar, Cameron's writing – in terms of his storytelling and his political points – lacks a degree of grace and subtlety, and his penchant for cheesy dialogue is frequently exposed, but in his broad-strokes way he does quickly shape the film into a compelling and surprisingly thoughtful adventure. As soon as Jake makes his first trip to Pandora's surface, the film finds a momentum that Cameron rarely allows to lapse. When he meets Neytiri (ZoĆ« Saldana), the beating heart of Avatar flickers into life, and between them, these two characters give the film an emotional backbone that pays dividends in the final hour.

That's the great thing about Cameron. He has all of this incredible technology at his disposal, some of which he and his team invented during the course of the shoot, but you never feel like he is simply showing off his new toys; every piece of equipment at his disposal is there to serve the narrative. He may be a fairly blunt storyteller, but he is also an absolutely sincere one, who doesn't lose sight of the fact that the characters are the key here, not the effects. The performance-capture technique has been taken to a new level as well, allowing the actors to breathe a real sense of life into the giant blue creatures they portray. Worthington is nicely grounded as Jake, while Saldana is marvellous as Neytiri, appearing to be far more animated here than the real thing was in the recent Star Trek. The strength of these performances and characterisations is vital to help us drop any scepticism we may initially have about their rather outlandish appearance, and to simply buy into the story. Avatar really makes us care about what is happening to the Na'vi and their world, which is an achievement that is beyond mere technology.

What happens to them is a "shock and awe" campaign led by Quaritch, a terrific villain who is played by Lang as a cross between Dr Strangelove's Buck Turgidson and Apocalypse Now's Kilgore. The stage is set for an almighty climactic battle, which once again proves that Cameron knows how to bring a film to a close like few other directors. There are numerous exciting set-pieces in Avatar (Jake's escape from a rampaging beast, or his attempt to tame a flying creature) but they are mere teasers for the extraordinary finale. Quite simply, Cameron is a master at directing action sequences, and his orchestration of Avatar's various battles is magnificent. These sequences are dynamic and thrilling, frequently occurring on multiple planes of action simultaneously, but there is never a hint of confusion in Cameron's work. He directs and edits with absolute clarity and maximum tension. I can't remember the last time I was as excited and involved in a Hollywood blockbuster as I was in the last 45 minutes of this one.

Ultimately, perhaps that's what I love most about Avatar, the fact that it is a massive, effects-heavy blockbuster movie that dares to be different. It is not a sequel or a prequel, it's not a remake or a reboot. This is something new; a genuinely ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of what is possible in cinema while still providing a mass audience with an entertainment that is both action-packed and politically and socially engaged. On almost every level, I'd say Cameron succeeds, and he has instantly set an intimidating new benchmark for blockbuster filmmaking, which few will have the imagination or the sheer audacity to challenge. Will Avatar change the face of cinema? Only time will tell, and right now I just know two things to be true – this is one of the best films of the year, and James Cameron is still King of the World.