Seldom in the field of filmmaking can one man have spent so much time or money, or employed so much state-of-the-art technology, to make you want to head straight out and hug a tree – still less have done it in such eye-popping, heart-racing style.
More than 15 years in the making, and costing in excess of $300 million, James Cameron’s eco-minded epic ‘Avatar’ is like nothing you have ever seen. It unfolds on a digitally created sylvan world called Pandora that is straight out of your trippiest, most phantasmagorical dreams. City-sized rock formations hang miles above the ground supported only by vines; underwater plants glow like giants’ irises; seeds pulsate through the air like jellyfish. And the fact that you can see the whole thing in razor-sharp 3D means that these images by turn envelop you and dance before your eyes.
It is on Pandora that the Canadian-born director’s first mainstream film since 1997’s record-breaking ‘Titanic’ pits mankind against the peaceful, spiritual, forest-dwelling Na’vi people. Their land sits on a priceless mineral deposit that ‘we’ want. And, to help us get it, the army recruits a young paraplegic soldier, Jake (Sam Worthington), to infiltrate them by linking his mind to one of their bodies, genetically bred by the army for the purpose.
So, the ‘real’ Jake lies wired-up and unconscious, at HQ – but, while in this state, he is able to move among the Na’vi, befriend them, and earn their trust. Essentially, he’s a very elaborate spy, but one who, in time-honoured undercover-cop-goes-native fashion, falls in love with one of his supposed enemies (Zoë Saldana) and begins to wonder if he’s really on the right side.
Now, it wouldn’t be too hard to be sniffy about this film. It has been hyped to the stratosphere, which is always offputting. It is overlong, the script sometimes teeters on the edge of foolishness, and James Horner’s score is button-pushing gloop (insofar as such a thing is possible). Oh – and subtle, ‘Avatar’ is not: the parallels with modern Western foreign policy are rammed home with bulldozer finesse, as is the eco-message.
But the film’s heart is firmly in the right place. The performances are committed. And, for heaven’s sake, just look at it. The ‘motion-capture’ technique that sees Saldana, Worthington and the always-welcome Sigourney Weaver rendered as 10-feet-tall, azure-skinned, dreadlocked Na’vi is astonishing. Every few seconds, something simply wonderful materialises on screen. And more than one of the set-pieces had this observer unwittingly scrunching up his pad in excitement rather than dutifully filling it with notes – certainly, those in search of a cinematic thrill-ride will be in seventh heaven.
‘Avatar’ is also intriguing for echoing other Cameron films’ mistrust of corporate greed (see ‘Aliens’ and both his ‘Terminator’ films), and still moreso for continuing one of modern cinema’s grandest love-hate relationships with technology and our excessive faith in it. Both his ‘Terminator’ pictures saw machines that man had created try to take over the world; in ‘Titanic’, a very different kind of machine killed more than 1,500 people. And here, Cameron basks in high-tech, ‘Aliens’-style military hardwear in the movie’s earlier scenes, only to turn us ferociously against it by the close.
Above all, though, ‘Avatar’ is big-budget mainstream filmmaking of the most lovingly and imaginatively rendered kind. Go and see it at the largest, loudest 3D cinema you can find, turn a blind eye to its shortcomings, and you’ll be in for a treat.
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