Film Reviews

Avatar James Cameron

Rating - 7/10

James Cameron’s latest opus, Avatar, has achieved such ubiquity as of late that it has become mired in levels of discussion, hype and backlash even beyond that characteristically attached to Hollywood blockbusters. Indeed, the statistics alone are staggering and, however much we may despair at Cameron’s almost boundless spending, Avatar will be remembered for reasons beyond the mere 162 minutes of the film itself. Most notably, the film cost a reported $500 million, making it the most expensive film ever made. Cameron’s producers needn’t have batted an eyelid. After 17 days, the film has become the fastest in box office history to earn $1 billion. It is now the second-highest grossing film of all time (behind Cameron’s Titanic). On top of this the film, all told, took 15 years to grow from an idea into the science fiction epic we’re now so familiar with. Why? Because Cameron’s plans just weren’t conceivable without technology only recently available to us.

With all this said, it’s easy to feel something beyond anticipation, even beyond expectation. Confronted with such staggering figures and fevered critical debate, one feels a sense of entitlement when watching the film: such monumental statistics should lead to a monumental film. And the film is monumental. Avatar is monumental, epic and unforgettable; but it is also brash, predictable and somewhat trite.
Taking place on a distant planet named Pandora, the plot should be recognizable to anyone familiar with The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves or perhaps even the works of Frantz Fanon. In fact, anything featuring a blurred or subversive perspective upon colonialisation and the conventional paradigm between Self and Other, coloniser and colonised or Westerner and native can be read as a precursor to Avatar’s thinly veiled criticism of Western imperialism and war-mongering (the film’s predominant villain, Miles Quaritch, even declares at one point the need to ‘fight terror with terror’).
The film revolves around paraplegic protagonist Jake Sully’s (played by Australian actor Sam Worthington) enlistment in a scheme to encourage the civil and diplomatic removal of the native Na’vis (the blue, human looking things) in order to extract a valuable material known, sadly, as unobtanium. Using the technology available 200 years hence, Sully and his colleagues are able to adopt the body of a specially created Na’vi and to therefore attempt to enter the world of the natives, gain their trust, and bring about an agreement. After getting lost in the jungle, a native eventually discovers Sully and, after the inevitable suspicion regarding his motives, he becomes an accepted member of the Na’vi tribe.
Sully (predictably) becomes romantically involved with his adopted tutor, a native known as Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Cue disapproval from family members; cue wise, spiritual maternal figure; cue awkward blue sex scene. In the bosom of the Na’vi, Sully develops spiritually and intellectually, with Neytiri’s lessons including a thinly veiled environmentalist sermon on the preciousness of their (our) planet and the dangers of exploiting Pandora’s (Earth’s) natural resources. Cameron’s political engagement doesn’t end there: Sully’s anxiety as he is torn between his new life as an adopted Na’vi and his old life as part of the largely corrupt, exploitative human race is a transparent, if partial, criticism of Western imperialism.
These political targets are treated brazenly, and as such Cameron’s criticisms are mostly baggy and rarely reach any incisive, erudite conclusions. Indeed, with a few more adroit touches, Cameron could have linked the plight of the environmentalist with the work of postcolonialists, highlighting the usefulness of identity politics when discussing the environment. This is not to say, however, that the broad addressing of very pressing issues such as the war in the Middle East or global warming is substantially less admirable; given the potential popularity of the film, Cameron deserves praise for taking them on board. However opportunist his criticisms may be, some will leave the cinema more interested in, and perhaps even more aware of, these issues.
But we don’t go and see the latest Hollywood epic for our dose of political commentary. We go for the special effects, for the action, and for the pure, child-like bombast with which a director such as Cameron offers an escape from these issues. Needless to say, on these accounts, Avatar succeeds emphatically. There is a perverse, misanthropic pleasure in watching these creatures of Cameron’s imagination destroy their human rivals in the film’s climactic battle scene, and, as trite relationship storylines between blue aliens go, this one is as saccharine but engrossing as any other in Hollywood. Ultimately, as no doubt you will have heard, the film is worth going to see for the special effects and visual delights alone. It is stunning to behold. Cameron’s world is intricate (he enlisted a professor to create a language for the Na’vi people, eventually consisting of a growing list of roughly 1,000 words), colossal and beautiful. It should be seen.
In other areas the film is less successful, but it is not the vacuous drivel the film’s naysayers would have you believe. Stephen Lang (playing Quaritch) plays a convincing gun-toting villain, and as the Chief Administrator of RDA (the company intent on exploiting Pandora’s natural resources), Giovanni Ribisi turns in a surprisingly deft and subtly humorous performance. Sigourney Weaver has the self-satisfied air of someone expecting praise for her performance (much like Sean Connery in his latter films), but this is not to say that she won’t be, or doesn’t deserve to be. Indeed, hers is a robust performance and, in all fairness, the film hardly allows for any actor or actress to display significant or subtle character development.
Avatar’s action sequences and stunning imagery will ensure that those going to the film clutching their 3-D glasses with delirious anticipation will not be disappointed. Equally, those with preconceived ideas about the shallowness of the plot and the limitations of Cameron’s writing and directing (and there are, it must be said, a few significant limitations) will leave the film satisfied with their lack of expectation. For those merely wanting to see what the fuss is about, however, the film should offer a few pleasant surprises beyond the impressiveness of the effects. And if, when all is said and done, the film is a triumph of style over substance then so be it: Avatar deserves to be remembered if not for its plot, then for its ambition, grandiosity and visual beauty.