Thursday, 7 January 2010

Avatar (2009, James Cameron)

With the film industry in a state of artistic constrain, us cinema goers are rarely treated to anything remotely original or daring in today's multiplexes. If current releases aren't cookie cutter moulds of tried and tested genre conventions, they're spin-offs, sequels, prequels, remakes, or the relatively safe bet of a comic book adaptation which seems so popular right now. Basically anything with an existing audience making the investment a, safer bet.

It's therefore very welcome to see James Cameron returning to the director's chair for the first time since he set off on the doomed voyage that was Titanic (1997). Of course this voyage was far from doomed for Mr. Cameron; the film that seemed destined for a Heaven's Gate (1980) fate, proved prosperous in ways never envisaged by anyone. As Cameron delivered his now infamous Oscar speech, declaring himself "king of the world", the world looked on and saw the arrogant man for what he was. Despite the arrogance quite rightfully linked with Cameron's character over the years, here was a man who risked everything and won, Titanic could have taken his career down with it due to the ever expanding budget, yet he produced one of cinema's all time biggest hits; a film loved, cherished, and revisited time and time again despite the bloated, corny, illogical mess it is. Yet Titanic was pure spectacle in all the ways that cinema can be, quite rightfully praised, faults and all.

So in the current climate of mainstream cinema, what's worse? An original film without a voice, without anything new to offer us, or a remake that takes a well known story and takes it to new and revitalising domains? Well in the case of Avatar, what we get is both; a film that does indeed take cinema into new territories yet in many ways repeats well known stories and cliches. As soon as we're fixed into the film and acquainted with the ensemble of characters it's pretty clear which path each will follow, predictable it is. However, what makes Avatar such a glorious event worth enduring is down to the world which Cameron has given us to inhabit for 162 minutes. For a man who so pompously deemed himself "king of the world", this time he's created his own world to reign upon - the planet of Pandora, a world we don't really want to depart once the credits roll.

In a slightly clumsily issued backstory we learn that mankind has depleted Earth's resources and are venturing into space to find new energy sources. The year is 2154 and a human corporation aided by military backup sets down on the planet Pandora to seize a valuable mineral. Our protagonist is wheelchair bound ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Jake soon gets the opportunity to walk again through the corporation's avatar programme. Due to Pandora's atmosphere being fatal to humans they inhabit the physical form of the planet's natives - the Na'vi - by planting a human conscious into a Na'vi host, called avatars. Sound ridiculous? It is, especially when the Na'vi are a 9ft tall race of blue beings that worship a tree. 

As Jake ventures into Pandora with his new Na'vi body, we're as utterly in awe of the planet as he is. This is the film's greatest achievement; Cameron has crafted a world so fascinating, so lived in, and full of wonder, Pandora actually has a pulse and feels real. The sense of danger from this as yet uncharted planet is also very real, early on Jake has a near fatal meeting with a rather unpleasant creature. It is one of the many highlights of this adventure, as the action is so well captured but leaving us in a confused state somewhere between scared and astonished.

The typical criticisms present in any film by Cameron remain, he sure can direct but his writing is still the achilles heel. Certain conversations between the human characters unwind in cringe inducing banality due to the sheer amount of exposition crammed into each sentence. The results make CSI out as a writing masterclass in comparison, with actor's almost knowing look of disbelief at the words they're so awkwardly delivering. The mineral at the heart of Avatar's story, the source to mankind's survival is called 'unobtainium'; Cameron isn't known for his subtlety but how this got past a third draft or through producer's concerns is beyond me. 

As previously stated, Avatar follows a well know narrative path. It is in all plain sight a retelling of Pocahontas, and to a slightly lesser extent a remake of Dances with Wolves (1990). Jake falls in love with Na'Vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and bit by bit he is introduced to her world and ultimately engulfed by it. When the inevitable battle over Pandora's unobtainium begins, Jake is torn between his alleigance to the humans and his love for Neytiri and the Na'vi people. 

This final battle is worth all the praise in the world, nothing quite like it has ever graced the big screen like this. The attack is led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lag) who is a brooding menace over the film, and far and away beats our main hero when it comes to screen presence. This epic battle almost has its own three act structure, Cameron pushes the action to new intense heights and never falters under the weight of his ambition. Reminded again are we of not only how brilliantly Cameron stages/shoots/edits his action scenes, but of how incompetent the majority of modern action cinema has become. Directors such as Cameron and Michael Mann, to name but a couple, are practicing a dying art. 

What Avatar lacks in originality it makes up for in wonderment, a sheer bombardment of imagery that needs no help from 3D technology to give depth and life. Sam Worthington hardly compels as our main hero, but as suspected Jake only functions as our own avatar to explore Pandora in. After all, through Jake we're experiencing the dangers and beauty of Pandora for the first time just as he is. The star of the show of course is James Cameron; a director easily discredited through his arrogant and egotistical tendencies, though his passion for his craft and for giving audiences what others can't or simply won't is undeniable. Whether Avatar will be viewed as a game changer in 20 years time we're yet to know, but for now he's succeeded in giving us something we've never experienced before and opened new realms of opportunities for audiences and filmmakers alike.

For fans of: Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Dances With Wolves (1990), The New World (2005)