So here it is, a film that bears a greater weight of self-appointed responsibility than any since … well, ever.
Fox’s publicity machine has been slowly, carefully building the awareness of this film by claiming it is going to change the future by revolutionising the cinema-going experience. We have been led to believe that the world will be redeemed by someone with the initials JC for the second time! So, no pressure, Jim.
The first question this raises is a simple one: Will Avatar change the world? No, of course it won’t, don’t be silly. But the supplementary questions are less easy to dismiss: Is it a good film? Is it a film to which, in the future, others will be compared? Finally, for James Cameron, was it fourteen years well spent?
Let’s find out, shall we?
Avatar begins with something we’ve seen before in a Cameron film: His protagonist, a space marine, emerging from cryogenic sleep on a space-ship. It’s twenty-three years since he introduced us to his Colonial Marines and their employer, the Weyland Yutani corporation, in exactly this way in Aliens. He wants to evoke that much-loved film in our minds, so he can show us how far beyond that he has moved in the intervening quarter-century.
Cameron played no small part in introducing CGI into film-making with his next two projects, The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), both of which showed Hollywood what was now possible and therefore led directly to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) from which point there was no turning back.
So, you see, although he may not be widely credited with it, Cameron has already changed the course of the movie-going experience once; Fox were banking $300 + million in production budget (and about the same in marketing) in the hope that he could do it again.
Anyway, back to our protagonist. He is Jake Sully, paraplegic ex-Marine, arriving at the far-flung Pandora to take part in the seemingly not-at-all secret Avatar programme. The first glimpse of Pandora we get is of it reflected in the space-ship’s massive solar panel array. This is a subtle and satisfying fore-shadowing of a film which will blur the line between the real and the appearance of the real.
Before I dig too deeply into the substance of the film, let’s look at the surface: These opening moments are not the only aspects of the film we’ve seen before … and every element we recognise is another obstruction to the film being as ground-breaking as the hype led us to expect. For a film to be ‘game changing’ it has to create its own terms of reference, not borrow someone else’s or, as in the early scenes, the film-makers’ own.
All of the Marine scenes deliberately evoke Aliens, with their macho posturing and fetishistic hardware. Michelle Rodriguez has been cast as the feisty pilot, Chacon in a deliberate echo of the equally butch, equally Hispanic Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein).
The giant walking AMP Suits the Marines wear outdoors are a logical way of taking heavy artillery through a jungle environment, but they are also one part Aliens’ Power Loader to two parts machines we’ve seen in sources as various as the animated TV version of Starship Troopers, called Roughnecks (1999) to the Matrix sequels (2003) to the video game Lost Planet (2006).
James Horner, of course, can always be relied upon to re-hash his Star Trek II score from 1982, he’s recycled those horns for practically every action movie he’s scored since then (including, of course, Aliens), they have become his signature and I suspect Cameron will have specifically asked for them.
Further, the story of a disenfranchised American going native is a story we’ve seen many times in movies, from A Man Called Horse and Little Big Man (both 1970) through to Dances With Wolves (1990) and The Last Samurai (2003), but the influences go further: The jungle setting and outsider-rises-to-be-king narrative reminds me of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (story published in 1912, loosely adapted into the Johnny Weissmuller movie version in 1932) while the six-legged Direhorses immediately suggest Thoats, the mounts ridden by the Martians in Burroughs’ Barsoom books and the size of the Na’vi (a word clearly derived from ‘native’ or possibly ‘naïve’) cannot help but remind one of the twelve-foot-tall Green Martians from the same books.
I have also found several interesting articles (the first of which is here) which highlight considerable similarities between Avatar and Poul Anderson’s 1957 novella Call Me Joe.
Finally, can I be the only one who can see a very different and rather worrying reference in the story of a tribe of ‘primitives’ living in a giant tree and using cunning, guile and bows and arrows to defeat a heavily-armed, vastly superior force … on a forest moon? Think about it.
Then there are the real-world influences: The battle between jungle-dwelling tribes-people armed with the afore-mentioned bows and arrows facing up to an American military-industrial complex, descending from the skies in helicopters, draws obvious and immediate parallels with our mediated image of The Viet-Nam War (comparisons Cameron encourages by referencing Apocalypse Now  in calling his helos ‘Valkyries’), whilst the RDA corporation’s motives for invading their land in the first place (For the precious mineral resources buried beneath it) reflect America’s reasons for the present on-going unpleasantness in The Middle East. Is it worth mentioning that the given name of this mineral – Unobtanium – is itself borrowed from the 2003 film The Core? Possibly not, because the makers of that film will have taken the word from the same place that Cameron found it – a 1950s engineering colloquialism for, well, the unobtainable.
So, the perceptive viewer will be carrying all of this baggage with them. Then, in addition to this burden, there is the structure of the narrative as a whole, which is a simple, traditional Hero’s Quest, with all of the traditional elements and character types that I teach my media students about every year. This became the de rigeur story structure when George Lucas employed it with unprecedented success in Star Wars in 1977, and it is now taught to script-writers as the only structure that will get the studios to buy your script. But, is that really true of a script written by James King of the World Cameron? Really? Would he really have difficulty selling a script of which McKee and Meier would disapprove? No, of course not; but he has elected to use it anyway, presumably to make the story universally acceptable to the vast market he would need to reach to recoup that astronomical budget. Yet, taking a narrative framework which stretches all the way back to primordial campfire stories is not a good way to innovate. If this film is truly showing us the way forward, why is its story so tired and trusted (sic)?
So, there are some significant problems with both the surface and the underlying structure of the film. But these aren’t what the masses are coming for … They want the long-promised spectacular visuals and, in this regard at least, the film absolutely does not disappoint.
What you are watching is, for about three-quarters of its screen-time, a wonderfully detailed cartoon. (The official figure is 60% animation to 40% live-action but, in the watching, the amount of CGI seems greater). Everything about the Na’vi and their home world is CGI and, for the first few minutes, this becomes a distraction … but such is the strength of Cameron’s vision and his control of his resources that you very quickly forget this – in no small part because of Zoë Saldaña’s quite extraordinary motion capture performance as the Na’vi princess, Neytiri.
An aside: I have a serious problem with Robert Zemeckis’ mo cap movies, The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and this year’s A Christmas Carol. He is attempting to create CGI which is so utterly convincing it is indistinguishable from real life. Moving past the sheer foolishness of this project (surely, if it looks real it would be easier to shoot it for real, CGI is there to help film-makers explore the un-real and the un-realisable) I consider all of his animated films failures because, no-matter how realistic the hair, no matter how convincing the flow of the materials and the flickering of the lights, the eyes of his characters – and therefore their whole faces – are dead. Every close-up just pushes me back out of the movie and back into my seat. Every facial expression tells me “It’s only a movie!” I’m not alone in this reaction, it seems and a bit of research tells me that the technical term for it is ‘The Uncanny Valley’, coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori to explain the revulsion people feel towards robots the more humanoid they become. Essentially, the more real simulated people appear, the more artificial we perceive them and the more disturbed our reaction to them. The ever-reliable journal of record (ahem) Wikipedia, details it here, if you’d like to know more.
All of Zemeckis’ recent forays into animation fall straight into that valley for me. Avatar does not. From the first close up of Neytiri’s face, she is so is utterly convincingly alive, facial expressions so recognisably human, performance so rich with nuance and personality. Finally someone has created a CGI character more convincingly real than Gollum.
But then, the bulk of the CGI work here was provided by WETA digital, the people who created Gollum! They also undertook a lot of the design work relating to the Na’vi which will also go some way to explaining why their culture seems so fully evolved.
Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the CGI Na’vi are more engaging, more convincing and more human than the humans playing the Marines and corporate stooges. Even Sigourney Weaver is more prepossessing in her CGI form than as the intemperate Dr. Augustine.
Cameron and his team of advisors have put an extraordinary amount of work into developing the Na’vi culture to make these creatures a fully-formed and utterly believable race. The Marines (particularly in the person of Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch) come across as one-dimensional ciphers by comparison.
Similarly, while the artificial habitation created by the humans is as characterless as it is familiar, the eco-system outside is utterly original and – importantly – seems to make perfect sense. The inter-dependent balance that exists between flora and fauna in our own environment, is reflected in the elegant beauty of the balance that exists on Pandora.
This balance, this unity, is held together by the quite brilliant notion of the neural queue, a sort of biological USB cable that sprouts from the back of their head, insulated by a woven pony-tail of hair. This connection allows the Na’vi to ‘plug in’ to the ecosphere around them, be it the direhorses they ride, the banshees they fly or the trees beneath which they live. This simple notion – which itself mirrors the way Sully is himself plugged into his avatar, holds the eco-system together and provides the MacGuffin the plot needs to explain why Sully can so quickly adapt to their way of life.
Yes, Cameron will have gotten the idea for the forest becoming bio-luminescent at night from his regular forays underwater, but why not? Bio-luminescence is, apparently, the single most common form of communication between life-forms on our planet – why shouldn’t Pandora’s exquisite plant and animal life have it too!?
The scenes where Sully is getting used to the world are fascinating and I wanted to seem much, much more of them. Pandora is a fascinating place, what a shame we couldn’t have spent two and half hours just exploring its wonders … why did that pesky plot have to get in the way?
Indeed, I feel that the story of how Pandora was discovered and how RDA established their base, how they learned about the flora and fauna (about what would eat them and what wouldn’t) and especially about all the missionary work a younger Dr Augustine did with the natives, would be a far more engaging, far less cliché-dependent plot than the one we’ve got.
So, anyway, about that plot. Sully arrives in his wheel-chair to take his now-dead brother’s part in the Avatar Programme, an undertaking designed to give humans the opportunity to ‘pilot’ genetically engineered Na’vi clones, Na’vitars if you will, out into the jungle to meet with the locals on their own terms. Given how narrow-minded and profit-motivated the only representatives of RDA we meet are, it makes you wonder quite why they suffer this scientific exploration to continue. Property developers here on Earth have to put up with the slow progress of archaeologists because we’re constantly being supervised in a developed country bound by the rule of law; RDA is working in a hostile environment six years’ travel away … who would know if they shut the scientists down? But they don’t. They haven’t for years. Presumably because Quaritch was waiting impatiently for someone like Sully to arrive, someone he could get on his side with the old ‘Semper Fi’ routine, someone he can use as a spy in the scientist camp.
But, before he can do that, Sully has to adjust to his out-of-body-in-a-different-body experience. He lies in a cradle, is plugged in and wakes up in a twelve-foot tall blue body … with legs that work. His first instinct – and this seems so human, even if the body doesn’t – is to break out of the medical facility and run … just run and run and run.
He does the same on his first foray into the jungle, gets chased, turns tail (literally), runs, gets lost, gets attacked and gets rescued by the beautiful, fearsome and damn-near-nekkid Neytiri. She looks at the way he blunders around the jungle and calls him a child. Watching him play the glowing leaves of various giant plants like a drum-kit, you can see her point.
Neytiri can, conveniently, speak English (because Dr. Augustine taught a few Na’vi some time in the past) reducing the need for those annoying sub-titles that certain cinema-goers don’t appreciate (if I wanted to read I’d open a book). She takes Sully to her village and, for no clearly discernible reason (other than narrative necessity), he is accepted among them and trained up in their ways.
It is during these second-act scenes, where we see time and again the Amerindian influences on their culture, cemented into place by the casting of Wes Studi as the voice of tribal chief, Eytukan.
As these scenes proceed we become aware of the mirroring and the blurring of the line between Sully’s two worlds. When his Na’vitar falls asleep, his real body wakes up, to a constant state of culture shock. The Na’vi sleep in cocoons made of reed, he sleeps in a cocoon of metal and plastic. Gradually, the far-more-compelling world of the Na’vi seduces him. It is at this point that we finally see what Cameron saw in leading man, Sam Worthington. Although as blank and humourless through the film’s first half as he was in Terminator Salvation, his experiences with the Na’vi nation make him more animated, bringing forth smiles, jokes and, finally, some spark of humanity.
We’ll ignore the unlikeliness of a field-grunt with no apparent education learning an entire alien language and culture in just three months, and instead concentrate on the beauty of the landscapes Cameron’s vast team of artists have created. I particularly love the Hallelujah Mountains, giant slabs of weather-beaten rock which hover like something off a Roger Dean album cover (I’ll leave it to minds greater than mine to figure out how and why) which are joined together and held stable by a vast network of vines. Once again, an example of the Pandoran eco-system working collaboratively.
Unfortunately, the real purpose of these beautiful and delightful middle-act scenes are not imply so we can revel in the magic of the world-building that the film-makers have practiced. No, every single lesson Neytiri teaches him, every single skill he develops and every single experience he goes through is for dramatically expedient reasons. Everything will come in useful in the big battle at the end. The script is disappointingly economical in that sense.
When Quaritch is giving his pep-talk to the newbies, he tells them that Pandora is worse than any Hell they could imagine. But we have no idea what leads him to this assessment. The place we see is no more dangerous than any jungle when approached by the ignorant. However, Quaritch is an impressively ignorant man. Blinded by this, his fear of the planetoid has become a rage that is his only defining characteristic. He is completely one-dimensional character, driven to do one thing and one thing only: destroy everything beautiful.
Where the Na’vi are unambiguously a perfect good, he is the perfect evil, with the scientists trapped in the grey-area in-between. This is a very traditional arrangement, which requires no thought to understand and that, again, is a disappointment.
The film has such a complex, detailed, rich texture and yet, when your mind bites into it, it finds the taste very familiar and disappointingly bland.
Ultimately the film’s greatest failing is that it is just another movie following in the now far-too-long-in-the-tooth contradictory tradition of Star Wars … Like Star Wars, Avatar uses vast quantities of the very latest, bleeding-edge technology to tell us that our technology is a bad thing and we only do bad things with it. We should abandon it and live a simpler, more spiritual life, the film advises us, for only in simplicity and naïveté can we ever hope to be saved. And how much new technology did Cameron have to develop to tell us this? Only in America would the irony of that dichotomy not be noticed. Only in Britain, I suppose, would we find that amusing.
The film’s greatest success is that it is, by far, the most spectacular, visually compelling, exotic fantasy released since The Lord of the Rings. It cements WETA’s reputation as the go-to people for special effects which are both very special and deeply affecting.
So, is it a good film? Visually it is stunning and watching it is certainly an experience that everyone must treat themselves to on the biggest screen they can. There is no denying the epic sweep of the simplistic themes the film deals with and thus, even for this cynical old hack, the confrontation at the end is as exhilarating as it is heart-felt.
Is it a film to which, in the future, others will be compared? For the quality of its visuals and the depth of the thought that went into the world-building, yes. No one will be able to get away with bodging together disparate alien-seeming elements on a suck-it-and-see basis ever again. Someone will have to think about what works. Just like proper science fiction writers do. But it will also be a touchstone for script-writers whenever they want to think about great lost opportunities of our time.
Finally, for James Cameron, was it fourteen years well spent? Well, if he’d released it even two years earlier, the world would not have been ready for its 3D sophistication and would have seen it for the gimmick 3D, at heart, really is. If he’d released it five or six years earlier, the special effects would not have been achievable for even this extravagant budget. If he’d released it ten years earlier … it would have been compared unfavourably to the still very conspicuous Titanic. So, 2009 was the perfect year to release this film. He had to wait fourteen years. His efforts would have been less impressive, less acceptable and, if the first week’s box-office is any guide, less lucrative.
Once you’ve seen the movie if you, like me, were far more interested in Pandora itself than any of the clichéd shenanigans that take place on it, and you want know more about the flora and fauna and the fully-rounded world they’ve developed, you could do worse than visit the Pandorapedia here.
Further, for a fascinating and entirely dispassionate review of the science of the film, explored, evaluated and converted into a reasonable facsimile of easy-to-understand English by an actual, proper, white-coat wearing scientist, look no further than the Ain’t It Cool article here.
To look at the ‘scriptment’ Cameron wrote in the mid-nineties, which many commentators consider to be superior to the script we ended up with, you can find it in its entirety on docstoc here.
Writer/Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang,
Dur: 14 years and 162 mins
Writer/Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang,
Dur: 14 years and 162 mins
.image © 20th Century Fox