How to rate a film like Avatar? Do just that: review the film, not the hype. Believe what you've heard industry execs raving about and James Cameron's latest opus is a "game-changer", supposedly the biggest cinematic revolution since the advent of colour film and talking pictures. These are superlatives impossible to qualify; exactly how do you know you've changed the game if play has yet to resume? No, the only way to analyse Avatar is to strip it down of all its baggage until you're left with the core experience: cold, hard data. And what do you get?
Nothing less than the single greatest technical achievement in modern cinematic history, that's what.
One thing you can say about Avatar is that, for once, the hype is warranted. Normally when Voiceover Man says a movie was "ten years in the making," it just means the script sat unread on a producer's desk; when straight-shooter James Cameron tells us he's been formulating this fantasy epic since the mid-nineties, we know he's not blowing smoke. A true visionary, Cameron got tired of waiting for technology to catch up to his vision, so he rebuilt the technology himself. His passion for pushing the envelope has always resulted in groundbreaking action movies (See: The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic) but with Avatar, he's truly outdone himself.
Pared down to its base elements, Avatar is relatively ordinary when it comes to plot. Filching various elements of The New World, Dances With Wolves and any other 'foreign invader comes to love quaint native culture' drama you'd care to name, Avatar certainly won't win any awards for originality. Nonetheless, it's involving stuff, though it's possible your investment will be more in the technology used than the characters seen on screen.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-marine, who is shipped out to distant planet Pandora in the year 2154 to replace his deceased twin brother in the 'Avatar' program. While psychically inhabiting a highly advanced synthetic alien body, Sully's 'avatar' ingratiates himself with the native Na'vi in order to strengthen humanity's weakening grasp on the planet's deposits of a valuable mineral called Unobtanium (an actual scientific term, believe it or not). It's only when he meets warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) that his allegiances start to blur. Mentally stencil out the rest of the plot in your head and you won't be far off.
So, story is merely so-so. What James Cameron has excelled at is creating a believable universe for this story to reside in. The lush, verdant planet of Pandora is practically a character in itself. Impossibly beautiful, it lives, breathes and feels so real you'll wish you could reach out and touch it, thanks to a subtle use of 3D technology that uses intelligent depth-of-field vision. The closest comparison in terms of a complete, inhabited universe is that of Star Wars, in the way that you sense that James Cameron, like George Lucas, could answer any question about Pandora's eco-system, whether it's seen on screen or not. The level of creativity and artistry on show is simply astounding.
Pandora's indigenous population look equally incredible. Impressive creatures on paper - they're essentially nine-foot tall, blue Thundercats - on screen they take the breath away. Sorry
, but Avatar is the movie that completely validates motion-capture. It's not just the realistic movement that wows, but the emotion captured in the performances; for the first time, you can feel the actors' contribution isn't just limited to their likeness. With over-large, cat-like eyes, the zombie-like feel that blighted the likes of The Polar Express is quashed and the uncanny valley is sailed over with ease. Hands down, Avatar is the best-looking film ever made: it's aesthetically flawless and demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
This stunning breakthrough in technology not only makes for engaging eye candy, but it also allows characters to interact with a degree of believability - crucial, if you're to buy the central relationship here. The lengthy running time gives Cameron and his cast plenty of elbow room to forge a convincing pairing, and yet the mo-cap never stutters; not once will it dawn on you that you're watching a series of ones and zeroes interact. Like Titanic, there's a large portion of cornball romance to stomach, but you'll be too busy picking your jaw up off the floor to even care.
Stick with the love story and the hippy-dippy eco-warrior vibe - this is a James Cameron film after all, and when it comes to action cinema, there are no finer directors. Avatar builds to a frenetic final battle, where Earth's 22nd century military might goes up against Pandora's au natural
armoury, giving Cameron the perfect excuse to empty his blue balls and deliver the mother of all action sequences. With tilt-rotor helicopters, huge, dragon-fly like carrier ships, powerloader-esque 'amp' suits and much, much more, it's clear Cameron never lost his lust for warfare. Thank God. Avatar's last 40 minutes boasts more action-per-inch than any other film in living memory. Better, it's all clearly shot and smoothly edited - no shaky-cam horseshit in this universe, thank you.
A quick mention too of the movie's human element, which shouldn't be overlooked among the blitzkrieg of all things digital. Worthington doesn't quite ditch his Aussie tang but does good work as Jake, though his character is literally a blank canvas. Saldana is better at inhabiting her role, imbuing Neytiri with real warmth and character. Sigourney Weaver channels Cameron as the ball-busting scientist Grace Augustine, who strangely enough gets the most eerily lifelike avatar, but save your plaudits for Stephen Lang.
Despite his animated enemies, Lang's Colonel Quaritch (fittingly pronounced 'war itch') is the closest Avatar gets to a caricature. He's a boo-hiss villain so delightfully badass he completely owns the movie's most explosive money shot; an iconic sequence that's far too awesome to spoil here. Needless to say, Lang's scenery-chomping performance is the stuff that token Best Supporting Actor nominations are made of.
Man and machine, almost every element of Avatar fires on all cylinders, from the design of the most insignificant flora and fauna to the film's epic, sweeping themes of love, war and what it means to be human. The only misfire is a clutch of dismal dialogue, though to be fair, it's mostly from the movie's Marine contingency and they're not usually known for their verbal dexterity. Get some! Bring the pain! Light 'em up! Insert generic grunt here!
But are you interested in seeing Avatar for a scintillating script? Of course you aren't. You want to see James Cameron make his long-awaited return to the action arena which he made his own; you want to see a fantasy that isn't part of a franchise or series of books or adapted from a toy range; you want to see an epic that truly deserves the label. Avatar is all of these things and more: a massively entertaining, genuinely spectacular piece of science-fiction that the greats of the genre would be proud to call their own.
Piercing the hype, Avatar may not be a "game changer", but I'll be damned if the game didn't just get a hell of a lot more interesting from here on in.