The trajectory of Avatar for me was an initial reaction of “what?” then “oh, okay,” then “yes, that looks quite good”, then “I must see this, right now”, then “I have my tickets. I must not think of this film until such time as I see it, lest I overhype myself and die.”
Then Avatar came out today and … yes. This is what movie making is about. I could point to an entirely different film, different genre, different crafting, different styling, and say “this is what movie making is about” – and that is what movie making is about.
Avatar is a specific brand of amazing and perfect movie making. All of the cliches apply here: a labour of love, a man at the peak of his performance, best movie Cameron has made since Titanic … but they’re all true. Especially that last one.
ABSOLUTELY NO SPOILERS INSIDE!
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is shipped off to the distant planet of Pandora because they need his DNA: identical to that of his late scientist twin. On Pandora, he embarks on the avatar program, so that he may infiltrate the indigenous Na’vi society and get them to give up their land for strip mining of the precious mineral unobtanium (seriously, it’s called unobtanium).
However, a stranger in a strange land is so often seduced by his surroundings… and humans can take the lives of the Na’vi, but they can never take their freedom.
Some may worry that, in signing up for a science fiction film they’ve ended up with spiritual fantasy about tall blue people. Indeed, a fetish was born with the Na’vi, that shall live on across the internet for an age. SF and fantasy are blatantly two sides of the same coin – they both get theme songs done by Leona Lewis, for example – and this shows that bows and arrows and flying dinosaurs and dinohorses can peacefully co-exist with dragonfly helicopters and exo-battle-suits … or not, as the case may be. It’s a naturally ancient enmity brought to the fore in ways never yet seen on the screen.
The Na’vi themselves don’t just feel like something arbitrarily made up: they are interesting, as an alien race should be; they’re blatantly allegorical, without being preachy; they’re blue and feline yet recognizable and sympathetic beings. The audience is allowed to invest themselves in their lore, to understand why they have a problem with the humans’ incursion, and it’s easy to feel a part of the film rather than apart from it. Jake’s relations with the clan feel natural and gratifying, and the development of Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine in particular is perfect: from gruff scientist to active participant, she’s someone that one can care about – and not simply for the fact that she’s Sigorurney Weaver.
It’s not exactly amazing how well Cameron knows his way around a story, but he does so much of it so admirably: there’s no wastage here, no meaningless montage. Everything is natural, and the realisation that you’ve been introduced to Chekhov’s giant lizard dragon brings with it a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation. Elements that serve the story once go on to serve it again later in a different yet logical way, and it’s amazing how well everything is put together. Even if the final shot is obvious, it’s obvious because that’s the way movies work.
Avatar is the sort of movie that the audience applauds at the end. The last one of those I remember seeing (without the director in attendance) was Star Trek. I guess that maybe that’s nerdlingers voting with their palms, but seriously: just because nerdlingers (and I am one) love something does not denigrate it by default. I think it would be hard to see Avatar and not appreciate it, despite its very obvious allegory, despite its sometimes busy camera. It’s a hundred and sixty minute movie that features no points where you want to turn away, let alone are able to.
James Cameron spent a lot of time working on Avatar, tinkering with technology, putting everything together, commissioning a new language that apparently makes logical linguistic sense, and the product is as shiny as can be without seeming unnatural or overdone with lens flare (sorry, JJ Abrams, but … yeah). From the beginning, in 3D at least, the film is a visual marvel. Even in the comparatively boring militaristic environments, it impresses itself upon you without ever feeling gimmicky, like some of the 3D efforts of the year. Cameron himself compensates for the lazy excess and indulgence of the horror genre and the kids CG offerings by making something that seems like a natural extension of the film. I’m sure that it would work without the 3D, especially seeing as the effect is never a distraction, but the virtue of its quality is that it doesn’t have to.
Occasionally, towards the beginning, the action is a bit too busy to follow. The eye trains itself to understand the image that is being presented, and the image is very good indeed. By the time we’re introduced to the Home Tree the movie seems completely natural and completely amazing. Richard Taylor and WETA have outdone themselves this time and an interesting story is perfectly complemented by amazing special effects, even if the idea of giving every creature slimy skin, six legs and four eyes is slightly dubious.
I think that my only complaint about Avatar is that I wasn’t a big fan of the font used for the subtitles and the title itself. I am a petty, petty man – but I am bigger than that. You would believe a heartless marine could learn that the universe holds something bigger than himself, something worth fighting for. It’s an old story made fancy, explosive, and CG, and it’s worth every second of the ride.