Theatrical review: Avatar

The revolution will not be televised, this time.



Released: 17 December 2009
Director: James Cameron
Screenwriter: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Certificate: 12A

More has been made of Avatar in the niche and mainstream press than any other film this year, eclipsing the coverage that even Star Trek received. Some of the buzzwords thrown around on a regular basis by publicists, the filmmakers and others include ‘revolutionary’, ‘game changing’, ‘phenomenal’, but as with most things, there must be a separation of hyperbole from fact. The fact of the matter is, then, that while there are aspects of Avatar that are indeed exquisite, namely the visual wizardry at work through Weta’s efforts, Avatar isn’t the cinematic tour de force that some would have you believe.

Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-Marine who is offered the chance to take his murdered brother’s place on Pandora, a lush forest moon that contains the ultimate source of energy – the woefully named Unobtainium. Assigned to give intelligence about the native Na’vi, he becomes integrated into their society, falls for a princess and… well, you get the rest.

Avatar’s plot is dreadfully predictable. Scene to scene, it has an unrelenting sense of inevitability about it, even at moments where Cameron has clearly attempted to go against audience expectations, only for the audience to expect him to do this. It’s a portmanteau of various classic plots, and while the story itself isn’t bad per se, it’s one of the least challenging that we’ve seen in a film all year. That being said, the fact that you gain a certain prescience about events is tempered by some excellent performances in voice work and the occasional non-CGI sequence. Stephen Lang shines as a ridiculously over-the-top, almost camp Colonel Quaritch, while Worthington’s Sully is likeable. Even Michelle Rodriguez, while descending into forced cliché towards the end (that is, to be fair, the fault of the horribly cheesy dialogue present all through the film) puts in a good turn at points. Sigourney Weaver is always a class act on screen, and watching her character’s personality change and warm through the film towards Sully, and the paradigm shift from her human persona to her Na’vi one, is a pleasure to see.

Also present are some overwrought political allegories. One scene is reminiscent of 9/11, almost undeniably so (although the director does claim that wasn’t his intention), and the Earth Mother/environmentalist angle is so heavily pushed into the audience’s faces that it comes off as saccharine and juvenile. Adding in commonly dropped phrases such as ‘shock and awe’, ‘fighting terror with terror’ and other neo-conservative ideological shorthand makes the film’s already light allegorical content more laughable than anything, but as this isn’t the main drive of the film, we can let it go.

Now that discussions of performances and story are out of the way, we know that what you really want to hear about is the 3D. It’s mixed, with some parts of the film seeming excellent (one scene will have embers looking as if they are falling around you, mixed in with ash and falling leaves), and others distinctly average (the battle scene in the final act, for one). Curiously, the 3D effect seems better when photographic footage of real actors is used, rather than pure CG scenes, but overall it’s hard to escape a certain feeling of apathy towards it. We highly recommend that you see the film on a 3D screen, as it’s meant to be viewed that way, but don’t expect the feeling of complete immersion that some reviewers have waxed lyrical about.

It’s also worth mentioning the physical issues that can be associated with the 3D effect. We found that our eyes struggled to focus for at least the first 45 minutes of the film, with fast camera pans making everything on screen blur until we could refocus. We also found that the consequent struggle to keep up did threaten a headache at various points, but your eyes do eventually adjust to the extra dimension. It’s likely that if you had trouble during Cloverfield you may have issues here, as the blur will unsettle you, and there are some scenes where you can almost feel genuine vertigo.

One of the film’s greatest successes, however, is certainly the world of Pandora and the visual effects. Everything is vibrant with colour, oversized and otherworldly. Cameron had clearly been influenced by his deep-sea diving expeditions when designing the look of the moon, and often you do feel as if you are underwater when being taken through it. Bioluminescence marks the ground where feet fall, the vertical dimension is as much a factor as the horizontal, and although many of the creatures are clearly alien, it’s not too hard to imagine them existing several hundred feet beneath the ocean’s surface. It is, put simply, quite beautiful, and existing in that world for two-and-a-half hours is an experience unlike any other in cinema. This, more than anything else, is the film’s true victory.

Avatar isn’t the cinematic game changer that it has been claimed to be, and it has major flaws. It is, however, a decent science-fiction epic, one that people should go and see.