After ripping the film industry a new one with Titanic in 1997 and thus snaring a modest accolade commonly known as the most successful movie of all time mega-minded director James Cameron retreated to the cavernous lairs of computer labs and editing suites where legend has it – his films are so big, you see, they inspire legends – he spent the next handful of years developing technology capable of bringing his new uber blockbuster to the silver CGI-sheathed screen.
In a rare display of restraint, Cameron decided to scrap his original plan of upgrading every cinema in the world to auditoriums the size of stadiums with screens as wide as skylines and made do with what he could filch from a $300 million budget and the result is Avatar, a cyclopean sized futuristic SCI-FI about a militarised mining corporation who fight an indigenous alien race of giant skinny Smurfs (known as the Na’vi) on a distant moon called Pandora.
Jake Sully (Aussie Sam Worthington) is a paralysed former Marine sent deep into the extraterrestrial jungles to infiltrate the Na’vi community and attempt to negotiate a re-settlement away from their resources rich home. Humans can’t breathe on Pandora so Jake must transform into an Avatar – a living alien body controlled mentally from military HQ. He meets a sleek young Na’vi lady, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), integrates himself into her apprehensive tribe and slowly falls in love with the new culture and people. But the officious hard-nosed people from the mining corporation are intent on acquiring a precious mineral protected by the Na’vi people. They could have paid more attention to its name – “unobtainium ” – which contains a cryptic message about the mineral’s obtainability. Can you guess what?
There is nothing exciting or innovative about Cameron’s uncomplicated screenplay, which is unashamedly used as a map to connect his extravagant set pieces. But the wow mumma! visual makeup of Avatar is fantastically far-out, designed to have critics choking themselves on superlatives and audiences returning for a second and third helping. This movie goes beyond eye candy. It’s eye cocaine. And James Cameron only sells the good stuff.
Mauro Fiore and Vince Pace’s cinematography emerges from the cinema-as-spectacle school of thought and the movie’s monolithic final act contains the loudest and most sensational action finale since The Return of the King (2003), replete with outrageous stunts, screen buckling angles and moments of fist in the air battle-spectacular.
Pandora’s lush, intricately detailed jungle terrain proves the right setting for Cameron to up the ante for 3D effects and Avatar clearly sets a new benchmark in blockbuster cosmetics, in a similar way to how Jurassic Park wowed us with breathtakingly rendered dinosaurs in 1993. But – sorry to disrupt the choir of appreciators singing about Avatar’s visual flawlessness – the big disappointment in the way the film looks is a consequence of its 3D properties: it has an irritating tendency to cut straight from handsomely layered 3D pictures to flat-as-a-pancake 2D shots, which creates an oddly jarring effect. Other than that this movie is everything it’s cracked up to be: gorgeously atmospheric and orgies-for-eyeballs good looking. In line with one wag’s early commentary, it looks like an ultra contemporary refashioning of FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and the story bears more than passing similarity – it is in fact rudimentarily the same.
As expected the actors take a back seat to the technological hoo-ha unfolding around them. Working with a limited range of emotions, Worthington provides a steady human anchor but the non-CGI star of the show is Stephan Lang as the remorselessly inhumane Colonel Miles Quaritch, the quintessential love-to-hate military baddie with a comically weather-beaten, scar-streaked appearance and the kind of haircut you could set your watch to. The buff square-faced Lang, in full-blown caricature mode, inhabits the role with insatiable aplomb; it’s a devilishly cartoony performance. I kept waiting for Quaritch to light a cigar by swiping it across his cheek – sadly, that moment never came.
Behind its showy veneer and otherwordly surfaces Avatar conceals a left/liberal commentary on eco-sustainability and indigenous land rights. Just as it’s impossible to ignore the racial allegories underlining Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, it’s impossible not to link Avatar’s story with the plight of American Indians, or Australian Aborigines, or any race of technologically primitive people with deep spiritual connections to their land. Cameron constructs the picturesque Pandora settings with glorious attention to detail, so when this magical, beautiful place is threatened by the more familiar items of war and machinery the audience react in the ways he prescribed: we hate the human invaders; we cheer in defence of Mother Nature’s extraterrestrial majesty. In District 9 humans were also heartless self-serving swine, save a few dissenters. 2009 is the year in which we rooted for the aliens.
Words like “big,” “grand” and “spectacle” seem virtually blasé in the context of blockbuster filmmaking, an art form driven by audacious people bent on outdoing each other in sheer excessiveness. Since James Cameron invented cameras capable of making this movie, it seems appropriate to invent a word capable of reviewing it, so here we go: you might say that Avatar, which feels so grand it almost goes beyond blockbuster and beyond epic, is a blockbustepic. All its milestones may be temporary technological achievements, and as an experience it may infantilise the audience, reducing us to wide-eyed children rubbernecking at strange new sights, like the stunned apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey dancing madly about the monolith. But being there at ground level, ogling at the marvellous weirdness of it all, is an undeniably exhilarating experience.
Avatar’s Australian theatrical release date: December 17, 2009.