Friday 8 January 2010

Film: Avatar

I finally managed to see this one, although it was a close-run thing. I was determined to get the maximum benefit from the much-praised 3D CGI by seeing it on the huge IMAX screen, and duly booked to go to the nearest one, a train journey away. On the morning I was due to go, a heavy overnight snowfall had added to the chaos of almost three weeks of freezing weather and snow, causing major transport disruption with doom-laden warnings for those foolish enough to poke their noses outside their homes. I nearly didn’t bother to make the attempt, but in the end I slogged the half-mile through the snow to the station, to find that not only did my train turn up (and arrive at its destination) on time, but the one home did as well. Just occasionally, everything goes right!

So, to the film. This review will contain some spoilers but I don’t think this matters because the story has been written up so widely; also because the plot is straightforward and predictable with no unexpected twists, so knowing what happens is unlikely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of this highly visual entertainment.

The plot has been much criticised, with reason. It is very simplistic, divided into good and bad guys with no grey areas; the characters are little more than caricatures. The good guys are the humanoid natives (purely CGI) of the planet Pandora, who live in harmony with their environment at a stone-age level of technology, aided by a handful of the humans who have arrived on the planet. The bad guys are all the rest of the heavily-armed humans, who are systematically strip-mining the planet for a valuable ore without regard for the natives or their environment, and are motivated by a combination of ruthless corporate greed and gung-ho militarism.

The few good humans are mostly scientists who have developed avatars to deal with the natives. These avatars are vat-grown bodies which look like the natives but have a mixture of genes from them and from specific humans. These humans can mind-link with their avatars and effectively inhabit their bodies as if they were their own for hours at a time. One of the avatars belongs to Jake, a crippled former US marine, who accidentally becomes accepted by one of the native tribes and literally goes native himself. He eventually leads them in their fight against the human invaders, an opportunity for some dramatic – and rather overlong – battle scenes.

I’m not quite sure exactly what the director, James Cameron, had in mind (it’s never wise to assume that you can tell – I’ve had reviewers be quite wrong about the source of inspiration for my books). The film seems to me to be a condensed allegory of the 19th century clash between native North American Indians and the European-origin settlers. This is rubbed home by the fact that the culture of the natives is reminiscent of the Indians while the bad humans are American; a source of unhappiness to some in the USA, although they should take comfort in the fact that the good humans are American as well (in contrast, I am told by film buffs that Hollywood usually employs English actors only to play the bad guys…). Just to make audience support for the natives even more certain, they are preternaturally appealing - especially the females, who have huge wide eyes, sexy voices and supple bodies which move with fluid grace.

So there is nothing special or original about the plot, a standard tale of brave natives helped by a hero who has changed sides to battle against the evil members of his own kind, plus a dollop of cross-cultural (in this case interspecies) romance. It has been rightly observed that the plot closely resembles Dancing With Wolves, with a dash of Dragonflight thrown in. The only time I was taken by surprise was right at the end, when Jake’s voice-over commented on the “aliens returning home” – a nice touch which inverted normal assumptions.

However, it wasn’t the plot which made me (and I suspect most other viewers) want to watch Avatar but the spectacle, and on that score the film does indeed deliver spectacularly. The exotic landscape, flora and fauna of Pandora are richly portrayed; the quality of the CGI would have seemed miraculous only a few years ago. The 3D greatly adds to the effect without being obtrusive, and so does the big IMAX screen which allows viewers to become immersed in the film. Whatever you may think of the plot, this is a wonderful visual treat and is well worth seeing for that reason alone. It really does raise standards to a new level, and any future SFF films with fictional CGI environments will be judged technically against Avatar. Do try to see it at an IMAX if at all possible, or at the very least in 3D at a cinema. This is one film that I don’t expect I will ever bother to watch on TV since it would lose the great majority of its impact. To sum up: the story is easy to poke holes in, but the film must be seen.


Fred said...

Great review!

Your review pulls together a number of other reviews and comments that I have read, most of which focused either on the special effects or on a rather traditional story line.

Deryk said...

I know that "Dances with wolves" has been much cited as being the same story, and I understand that, but when I saw this movie, the impression it left on me was of "The Word for World is Forest" by Le Guin, illustrated by Roger Dean (See particularly "Morning Dragon").