Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Movie Review - Avatar (2009)

I suppose any film that's received as much media attention as James Cameron's Avatar was bound to provoke extreme reactions from viewers. Coming out of the cinema yesterday, I heard one young man animatedly declaring that it was "the best film I've ever seen in a cinema". It's instantly shot to '26 on IMDB's Top 250 Films of All Time list. Personally, I had extremely mixed feelings about Avatar - there were some things that I really liked about it, but other things that I thought were really weak. (This may be a long review... I'm writing it sporadically over the course of a few days as I try to work out just how much I liked it!)

The basic storyline is that an alien planet called Pandora is being explored by humans for the purpose of extracting the ironically named "Unobtanium", an extremely valuable resource that's abundant in places on the planet's surface. Like much of the script, the naming of the planet and this element is far from subtle.

Still the opening premise is quite promising - there's Jake Sully, a marine with useless legs (played by Sam Worthington) who takes the place of his brother, a scientist who died before he could take his place on Pandora. Avatars, who are genetically engineered from a mix of Na/vi (a native Pandoran tribe) and Human DNA, can be linked to human "drivers" so that the consciousness of the human actually resides in the hybrid. The aim of this is to make contact with the Pandorans in a form that is more acceptable to them (and safer, since the Pandorans don't necessarily view their visitors favourably); the result for Jake is that suddenly he is able to control a fully functioning body again for the first time in years.

Leading the Avatar team is Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a hard-as-nails woman but with, of course, a heart of gold. Actually I came to quite like her character because she did have a human side and a wry sense of humour. She is however none too pleased to be given a disabled commando to work with instead of his scientist brother. Also on the team is nerdy Norm Spellman (Joel Moore), who has researched the Na'vi and the planet Pandora in great detail. They aim to learn more about the Na'vi - in fact Grace had previously set up a school so most of the natives can now (rather conveniently) speak English, but this project had ot be abandoned as the Na'vi became more and more suspicious of the humans.

Then of course we have the stereotypical evil military man, Colonel Miles Quaratich (Stephen Lang) and corporate management type Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). They want to get the Unobtanium at any price, including the complete annihilation of the Na'vi and everything they hold sacred if necessary. They are willing to try to negotiate at first, but when it becomes clear that the Na'vi don't want to budge, warfare is certainly on the agenda. Naturally as time goes on, Jake begins to love not only the indigenous people but their beautiful princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) - and there's a rather unnecessary love triangle to make things that bit more difficult.

The visual effects for Avatar were touted as being "revolutionary", but while they are undoubtedly very good, I don't really see what all the fuss is about. There's certainly very little that struck me as being new in style or substance. I also struggled to see what was meant to be so good about the 3D - there were a few cool effects, but really nothing extraordinary. (Apparently there are four different versions of the 3D - we saw it in "Real 3D", I suspect that the IMAX 3D may be more impressive, but that's just a guess.) For any other film I'd probably be saying that the effects were really impressive, but they've been hyped to such an extent that it seemed a let down.

However the biggest problem with Avatar was the storyline. Sure there was lots of action and loads of plot elements that, bar a couple of things which didn't quite seem to fit the internal logic of the film, all made sense. It's all so cliché however - we've seen all these things so many times before, and take away the fact that it's on an alien planet and make the Na'vi look a little more human and you have Native Americans - there's almost no attempt to make it more than a really obvious comparison. That's not a bad thing in itself, of course, but surely the screenwriters could have done more with this idea? I didn't even begin to feel involved with what was going on until well into the film, probably about halfway when Jake is gaining a conscience and we're getting to know the Na'vi a little. I found the first third of the film was quite interesting but pretty uninvolving; the second third I really enjoyed, but then the final third just didn't; grab me. There was the huge battle sequence we'd been expecting, the grudge battle between Jake and Colonel Quaratich that we'd been expecting, the "twist" at the end that we'd been expecting... Most of the characters are very stereotyped and uninteresting, and this unfortunately this was reflected in the plot development.

James Horner provides a great music score to accompany the action, and it's probably action junkies who will be most impressed by this film. In terms of visual spectacle, even with so-so 3D (though my wife was very impressed by the 3D, so maybe it was just me), it was very impressive. There's plenty of action, a bit of humour here and there helps (though to me it takes itself rather too seriously considering the ever-increasing cliché count), and the alien planet and its vegetation / animal life has been created in loving detail. If the same care had been taken with the plot and character development, this could have been a contender for film of the century.

Avatar is, to me, largely a victim of its own hype - and perhaps the hype created around it by fans who keep using expressions like "this has revolutionised the film industry" or "has forever changed the way films will be made". Both statements are rather absurd, though perhaps some of the visual effect techniques will be used extensively in the future. I suspect that Avatar's most enduring achievement will be its phenomenal commercial success - that's something that can't be disputed by anyone. But a great film? To me, no - an interesting idea let down by bland, cliché-ridden writing. I'd recommend it - not necessarily to pay the extra money for the 3D experience - but only because, for one showing at least, the spectacular visuals and intensity of Sam Worthington's and Zoe Saldana's performance just about override the negative aspects.

It's probably worth noting that the vast majority of people liked this much more than I did - maybe I'm becoming a grumpy old man!

So, if Avatar failed to impress, what does make me happy in terms of sci-fi movies? Read my Top Ten Sci-Fi Movies list.

CaptainD - Movie Reviews Blog

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