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In 1984 James Cameron wowed the world with the cutting edge technology and iconic imagery in The Terminator. Twenty-five years later and he’s done it again with Avatar, a visually stunning movie that pushes state of the art technology to the very limits. Cameron apparently was to begin filming in 1999 after he completed work on Titanic but the project was delayed as he stated “technology needed to catch up”. Catch up it did, Cameron used new motion-capture technology that used a virtual camera to observe directly how the actors counterpart interact within the virtual world. He also used a new innovation called ‘The Volume’, a motion capture stage six times larger than any used before which included a skull cap with tiny camera used to capture 95% of the actors facial expressions.

Yes, Avatar is spectacular, visually. Looking back twenty-five years at The Terminator we can almost chuckle at how primitive things looked but at the time that was a modern breakthrough. I believe that in years to come Avatar will be viewed this way too. Filmed in both 2D and 3D and released in IMAX the film set out to encapsulate the viewer in this new world, total immersion. But technological advances do not make a good film.

Set on an alien world, six years travel from Earth, former marine now in a wheelchair, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is hired to replace his deceased brother in the Avatar program, where humans remotely control genetically created versions of the alien inhabitants of the planet Pandora. The mission is to gain the trust of the natives, known as the Na’vi and convince them to move their settlement so the humans can mine for precious mineral unobtanium. (Does this sound familiar?)

Of course Jake being a former marine agrees to try to find the weaknesses of the Na’vi for Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) incase the diplomatic approach fails and they need to infiltrate but when Jake starts to fall in love with Na’vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who has been assigned to teach him the ways of the people, his allegiances change.

The story follows Jake as he learns about the world around him, how the plant life are all interconnected with one another, that they share and breathe together. He learns how to control and respect animals, even in death. It’s like taking a step back into the 1960s, all that’s missing are the John Lennon tracks and the drugs – but they certainly are “far out” or “spaced”…get it?

I mentioned the obvious parallels with modern society already, yet the film doesn’t make enough of an impact to be a political message, nor does it feel real enough to be propaganda of what may be. It is merely a fantasy romp through an enchanted forest where other than the two leads, Worthington and Saldana, we get no engagement from other characters. How are we as an audience suppose to relate to the death of the Na’vi when we don’t care about them, even when Neytiri’s father, the King of their people, is slain in an attack. Who cared? What about Sigourney Weaver? In a role that tipped the cap to her Alien days she is supposed to be a scientist who wants to learn about the world but her first interactions are that of “give me my cigarette” and downing alcohol. How are supposed to feel about her if she is painted as this aggressive scientist who feels for the nature around her? When her comeuppance arrives again I felt nothing. I was hoping a giant snake might appear winding its way across the screen, but I think Orange copyrighted that movement.

Other characters that aren’t explained or explored include the must be rehabilitated Michelle Rodriquez who plays a pilot turned rebel who also manages to break Sam, Sigourney and that other fellow who I’ll go on to in a second, out of prison by posing as a lunch lady. Did security not question why a pilot was now doing the dinner run? Another Na’vi sympathizer is Norm Spellman (Joel Moore), otherwise known as that chap from Dodgeball. He is against Jake taking over from his brother in the program, gets angry because he’s a stupid marine and not interested in learning, but then, without reason, changes his mind.

Visually the film is spectacular, there is no denying that, even in 3D it doesn’t pander to the needs of a 3D audience. Things don’t needlessly project from the screen but when some dust is kicked up and does jump out it surprises the audience who have yet to be treated to that. But then there is one scene in particular which puts it all to shame. The Na’vi tame some flying creatures and bond with them, as Jake and Neytiri are flying around they get attacked by a giant beast, the Toruk. This looks like someone is flying kites, it does not look like a chase scene and it does not build any suspense or sense of danger. I just laughed.

The Toruk is a mighty beast and Jake decides he is going to tame it to win back the respect of the Na’vi people. This consists of him jumping on it then arriving in the village, another area that’s not really explained other than a passing comment Neytiri’s great great great grandfather used to fly one. For a film that tries to tell so much it explains so little.

The final battle scene is incredible. The Na’vi take on the humans and the destruction they cause in battle is probably more than the humans would have ended up doing in the first place. Cameron truly achieved what he set out to achieve with this scene. It’s another Terminator foot crushing human skulls kind of moment. People will be talking about this in twenty-five years time. But as I’ve already said, visuals and one scene do not make a good film.

Underdeveloped characters and uninteresting plot let the hype of Avatar down. The box office success and general press disagrees with me but when you use a George Bush quote – “fight terror with terror” – in the middle of the film you know you’re fighting a losing battle. Perhaps that was the point, perhaps it was dramatic irony?

I felt cheated when I left the theatre. I don’t know how I feel about this technological takeover. No matter how great technology advances and how accurate a computer can map an actors expressions, it is still a computer, it is not acting. The film wasn’t one or the other and the lack of any meat in the story just made me want to leave. Yes the imagery is immense and we’ve taken a step into the future for sure, but that doesn’t mean the film is any good.

Archived: Review: Avatar (2009) - archived
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