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USA 2009
Directed by
James Cameron
162 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars


Synopsis: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-marine in a wheelchair. His twin brother died before he could travel to Pandora to take part in the Avatar program, where humans link their minds to genetically-engineered alien bodies to try and communicate with the Na’vi, the natives of the planet. As Jake is genetically identical to his brother, he ends up on Pandora where he joins a Na’vi tribe and takes the phrase “going native” to a whole new level.

Somewhere, Robert Zemeckis is crying into his Weeties. After making a series (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) of motion capture CG films that have all failed to convince that the technology is worth the effort , along comes James Cameron and takes the technology to a whole new level. This isn’t motion capture, it’s performance capture. Cameron and his collaborators at WETA Digital have created a living, breathing world that marks the first time a motion-captured film has felt completely naturalistic. The expressiveness of the faces, the fluidity of the movements suggest that this technology is going to unleash some amazing worlds in the future, once it’s become a lot cheaper. Avatar stands as the most expensive movie made to date and the money is on the screen. And while it may not look entirely photo-real, it doesn’t matter, it feels alive. The world of Pandora is immersive, and in 3D it can be very immersive, though they pull back the depth effect during the battle sequences (presumably to avoid making people sick).

That’s the positive, and that’s what you’re paying to see. Because beyond being taken on a journey to a world that doesn’t exist anywhere outside of the imagination, you’re not going to see much imagination or originality. Avatar is slightly disappointing on the story level. Expectation was high considering James Cameron is responsible for some of the most iconic moments in cinema. He gave us The Terminator and followed it up with Aliens, which still stands as the only science fiction film to garner a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards. But this isn’t up to that standard. It’s got no surprises  - not only has it it all been done before but everything is heavily signaled before it happens. There’s a difference between a simple story and a bad one. Avatar treads dangerously close to the line, sometimes causing groans, sometimes just surprising you with how basic it is. There are cartoonish characters, the best being Steven Lang’s Colonel Quaritch, a psychotic marine who revels in violence. There’s no grey in this world. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and while technically Jake Sully is meant to be the man caught in the middle, it doesn’t convince because, like I said, you know the story before it’s even started to happen.

Whilst the story is little more than a framework on which to hang the most impressive visuals we’ve seen in years, you've never seen an imaginary universe realized as fantastically as Pandora. There are floating mountains, giant trees, dragons and six legged horse-like beasts. It’s less science fiction than full-on fantasy and it looks awesome.

Avatar is a 14-year old boy’s dream come to life. A man with a brave heart but a broken body becomes a 10ft tall alien warrior who gathers the clans together, leads them to victory, gets the girl and rides a giant dragon. It’s completely lacking the wit or intelligence of Cameron’s earlier works, but it’s great fun. It’s not the Second Coming, and it’s not the game-changer so many film pundits were hoping for. It’s just an entertaining popcorn film that doesn’t leave you feeling ripped off. In this year of schlockbusters, it’s nice to be able to watch a film that’s well made and enjoyable. The 14-year old in me remembered all the epic sci-fi and fantasy books he read, and was extremely happy to see someone get the chance to put such a thing up on the screen for everyone to enjoy. So ignore the hype, lower your expectations (if you had any) and buy a ticket to Pandora. It’s worth the trip.




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