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Avatar (2009)
Director: James Cameron

review by J.C. Hartley

Film studies present us with various theories of the history of film. One of the reasons Citizen Kane is so beloved of critics is that it wraps up most of these theories in one accomplished package, even though, as my tutors were at pains to point out, that was never Orson Welles' intention. The auteur theory of film history is well known; cinema comprises the visions of single-minded individuals. Perhaps less well known is the theory that cinema advances on the back of technological breakthroughs that actually determine the kind of films that are made. Sound, colour, widescreen, not only affected how films were made, they affected film's content.

Clearly while all directors now think of themselves as auteurs, advancing film technology is the thing that floats James Cameron's boat; pun entirely intended. He did it with his Terminator pictures, with The Abyss, very much so with Titanic, and he has said he had to wait for technology to catch up, and - in fact - prod it along a bit, to make Avatar.

It's a pity in many ways that Cameron hadn't spent these intervening years finding a storyline to match his sumptuous visuals. While I'm going to be as generous as I can with what Cameron has done, I can't help feeling that there are so many other stories that would have better repaid the treatment. That this was Cameron's story he has made perfectly plain, but the fact that it is such a retread of the old and obvious highlights the paucity of Cameron's intellectual vision and that is a great shame.

Think how Solaris would look with this technology, or the action movie that Kim Newman has suggested could still be made of the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic, after Tarkovsky's Stalker. Think of Consider Phlebas, god help us all think of Dune! Roadside Picnic would be a natural for 3D. The trouble is that after Avatar, I am beginning to wonder if 3D will always only be a gimmick; my daughter said that nothing that happened in the screening quite matched up to the sense of wonder generated by the Courvoisier ad that preceded it. During the show I wondered if 3D was actually adding anything to some of the shots. There's always IMAX, of course, but there the danger is feeling you have to track scan for fear of missing something. But what about the film..?

A film is the sum of its parts and many times we concentrate on, and judge one, by the plot and the acting and forget about the cinematography. Here we have to consider the look of the thing, and having judged we can pronounce it very good; our appreciation is reflected in the star rating. But everything has to come back to the story.

Jake Sully, a crippled corporal in the marines, is given the chance to replace his scientist brother in the Avatar project on Pandora, one of the moons of the giant planet Polyphemus. He is met with resentment from head of the project Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, Alien), and this drives him into the influence of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Public Enemies), who asks him to use his access to the Na'vi, Pandora's indigenous humanoid species, to gather military intelligence for a conflict that he sees as inevitable.

The human element on Pandora is represented by an uneasy alliance between the RDA mining corporation, and the scientific team it is funding to study the Na'vi, in an attempt to get them to co operate with the exploitation of Pandora's deposits of the quaintly named mineral unobtanium. Lang promises Sully's co-operation will win him access to expensive treatment to restore his ruined legs.

Mentally linked to a tank-grown Na'vi human hybrid body, Sully's first mission with the scientific team goes wrong and he is lost in the jungle. Rescued by a Na'vi Princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek), who interprets Sully's interaction with some of Pandora's life forms as a sign from the Na'vi deity, Sully is grudgingly accepted for induction into the tribe.

The director Duncan Jones (Moon) has suggested that at no point in the film does the audience not know what is going to happen next, and this is the major criticism of the movie. The plot is so very derivative it is hard to accept that the creators ever thought an audience would naively lap it up; it is one thing to embrace intertextuality and pepper a work with references, it is quite another to trot out a succession of filmic clichés. To his credit Cameron has acknowledged At Play In The Fields Of The Lord, Dances With Wolves, and The Emerald Forest, but one could easily cite Broken Arrow, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Pocahontas, Soldier Blue and, inevitably, every movie ever made about the Vietnam War.

The references don't stop there. Aren't the floating Hallelujah Mountains pinched from an album cover painted by Roger Dean? Weren't floating islands one of the forms considered by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke for the alien world in 2001? SF fans have pointed out that the Avatar plot bears a close similarity to Poul Anderson's 1957 short story Call Me Joe, and I can remember reading a short story, from the golden age of SF, where a war is fought in an inhospitable atmosphere on one of the moons of the outer planets, using specially adapted surrogate bodies. But then did Ray Bradbury get a credit for Dark Star? Did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby get a credit for The Incredibles? On their own these references would be engaging, but tied to a wholly derivative and predictable storyline they invite the critic to pick nits.

Although of epic length the film doesn't drag, except in the opening stages where a voiceover and clunky dialogue threatens to slow things down. Generously, I did wonder if this was deliberate, in order that we might better appreciate the liberation of Sully in his Na'vi body, in much the same way that the scenes on the space station in 2001 indicate the dehumanising of the human race, and prepare us for Hal 9000's bid for the best supporting actor Oscar. The middle section following Sully's induction, and eventual acceptance, into the Na'vi is the most absorbing, and seamlessly segues into Cameron's signature balls-out blitzkrieg in the final third.

The human performances are very good but maybe some time could have been devoted to motivation. If Sam Worthington is less charismatic than in Terminator Salvation then that is just as it should be, his human form has to be a shadow of his apotheosis as a Na'vi warrior. Stephen Lang manages to lift his gung-ho villain above the military cliché he is given to work with. Sigourney Weaver is as excellent as you would expect, treating the material with respect it sometimes barely deserves and consequently lifting the whole movie.

Giovanni Ribisi gives a nuanced performance as RDA's corporate administrator, managing to suggest someone wrestling with moral and ethical dilemmas from a career arc where those concepts have become as alien as Pandora itself. Joel David Moore does a lot with the small part of geeky Norm the anthropologist sidelined when Sully goes native. Michelle Rodriguez is the pilot who sides with the Na'vi in a huge cliché of a role, but she looks great and uses barrel loads of sex appeal and attitude to flesh out what amounts to a comicbook supporting-role. At the risk of accusations of motion-capture racism I don't feel able to assess the performances of the actors who only appear in animated form. I adore Zoe Saldana anyway, and her Neytiri is given a bit to do, but the clan leader, spiritual leader, and jealous heir to the chieftainship are such trite characters that they barely deserve the dignity and respect with which Wes Studi, C.C.H. Pounder, and Laz Alonso approach their roles.

The film has received some criticism in the 'States with regard to what has been perceived as its own criticism of American foreign policy or corporate exploitation; Earth always being a metaphor for America in these cases. Well, if the cap fits. RDA's security forces are all ex-marines, which seems to be a reference to the current situation in Iran where private security operations are staffed by former service personnel. Certainly every jungle-based conflict movie involving helicopter gunships invokes the spirit of Vietnam. Perhaps Cameron is a wishy-washy liberal at heart and not a shoot-'em-up action-director with a love for unfeasibly large ordinance?

Criticisms aside, everything in this movie looks great, and despite never being taken by surprise neither was I bored. The reason I have criticised this film so much, when I just rolled over with Star Trek, and Terminator Salvation, and let my large belly be tickled, is because Avatar has been heralded as a window on the future of movie-making. It sets out to be important and ultimately it isn't. The vision and conception is awesome, read about the pre-production work on the eco-systems of Pandora, the creation of the Na'vi language, the whole backstory to RDA's exploration and exploitation, and then wonder why so much effort has resulted in a work that, beyond its look and the technological achievement involved, is so bereft of original ideas.

Cameron has indicated that the fantastic box-office has made a sequel a virtual shoo-in, and why not? The Pandora sets are no less real for existing as computer programs, and I bet Cameron wished he could have raised the Titanic. But where can the story go? Perhaps that will be a better indicator of whether this really is a new dawn for cinema or simply a new gloss on the tired trend of endless remakes.

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