Sunday, 17 January 2010

Avatar (2009)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

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Plot Summary: When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's intentions of driving off the native humanoid ‘Na'vi’ in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland.

After making the biggest grossing film of all time, Titanic, and crowning himself “King of the World” James Cameron took a break from film-making for over ten years. He spent the time dabbling in the odd documentary and developing the camera technology necessary for his mysterious next project, Avatar. Audiences waited with baited breath to witness what Cameron would unleash while information about the film slowly but surely trickled out and hype began to snowball to epic proportions. Since its release Avatar has become the second highest grossing film ever and the visual experience it provides is being lauded as the best of its kind since cinema began. The effects and scope of the film certainly deliver, but a truly great film cannot rely on visuals alone.

Unfortunately, where Avatar falls short is in the story and script department. Make no mistake, the comparison to films such as Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and FurnGully is not merely childish fanboyism, but in fact an accurate description of the unoriginality and tone on display throughout the film. Avatar is highly predictable, even to those who have no seen the aforementioned films. Jake of course sides with the Na’vi and helps them drive away the ruthless colonizers, and he and Neytiri are destined to fall in love. The plot is also ridden with clich├ęs. We’ve got a man torn between his duty and his heart, a character that initially finds a person annoying and then falls for them against their better judgment, wise old sages, greedy corporations, liberals fighting for diplomacy and a ruthless, unstoppable army sergeant. You name ‘em, they’re in this film.

The dialogue is also poorly conceived with the script often coming across as false and, at times, even laughter-inducing. That said the actors do a good job with what they’re given and it’s not hard to see why Sam Worthington is Hollywood’s new go-to action hero. However, the main problem with the films story is just how melodramatic and cheesy it gets in parts. The manner in which the Na’vi and their culture is handled gets to Matrix Reloaded rave-scene levels of ridiculous at points, while in others it’s just plain over-the-top in its depiction of good vs. evil. The environmental message of the film, while topical and important, wasn’t handled with any grace whatsoever and as such ultimately felt rather juvenile in its delivery.

Whatever is said about Avatar’s narrative failures, its astounding visuals cannot be faulted. The motion capture technology and subsequent CGI effects in the film are indeed the best I have ever seen. During several moments in the film the Na’vi actually looked so real I had trouble pulling my jaw up from the floor. The smoke, light, flame and shadow effects also blend in amazingly well with the characters that I’ll be highly surprised if the film doesn’t pick up the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. The world of Pandora is also beautifully rendered and realized. It entrances the viewer with exotic images of floating mountains, giant, alien vegetation and creatures. The only thing that breaks the spell of Pandora is the somewhat uninspired art design of the non-Na’vi creatures (alien horse, alien rhino, alien monkey, alien dog etc.). Cameron also does well when handling the cinematography of the human spaces, framing the action from a dark, gritty and realistic looking world-view.

The action scenes littered throughout the film are highly satisfying, all frantic and fast paced without glossing over any of the nasty realities of warfare (at times even revelling in them). The final twenty minute battle scene is justifiably epic with air-craft and flying creatures alike littering the screen while the final showdown between Jake and Parker is what audience members have been waiting for since the latter’s introduction. The film also deals with a number of interesting themes and issues, such as with mankind’s misuse of technology (a Cameron trademark). However, many of these ideas feel underdeveloped. Jake’s use of the avatar body, for example, has him confusing the days and musing on which body now feels more real to him. Had this and similar ideas been further explored Avatar would have been a far more rewards experience. As it is, and rather ironically, Cameron has failed to heed his own warning and depended on technology far too much, neglecting the basics of an interesting and believable story.

Final Verdict: 6/10

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