People often accuse me of being overly critical and deliberately anti-conformist, views which I’m sure will only be strengthened after reading the following review. Yes, I’m afraid I have countered public opinion yet again with a less than favourable outlook on James Cameron’s latest: for while Avatar, much like Cheryl Cole, is undeniably pretty, it lacks any real substance.
First off, allow me to praise Cameron’s technical proficiency. The extent to which mo-cap has been utilised for this film is nothing short of mind-boggling. The characters are by and large impressive and believable, and although they don’t quite match the textured complexity and sophistication of Disney’s Davy Jones, they come awfully close. The world of Pandora also is beautifully crafted, with a cinematographer taking full advantage of the digitally crafted scenery to truly inspire awe, particularly in the epic finale. To have employed so many steadicam sequences in a film as multifaceted as this one is no mean feat, a testament to how far cinema has come in the past decade. Of course the 3D glasses add an extra layer of depth, but it is hardly the deal-breaker, faring nowhere near as well as Cameron evangelists would have you believe, and it certainly doesn’t usurp A Christmas Carol (2009)’s dominance within the realm of three dimensions.
However, its real problems lie buried beneath this rather showy exterior. For all the visual dexterity erupting across the screen, Avatar is, at its core, a rather dull experience. Strip away the flamboyance and what remains is nothing more than a bogstandard piece of Hollywood entertainment masquerading as a revolution. Once the CG novelty has worn off, the film becomes an overly long re-hash of Pocahontas (1995), The Last Samurai (2003) and a dozen other features in which the hero aligns himself with the much misunderstood enemy; a concept which District 9 (2009) executed in a far more original and downright entertaining way.
As it reaches the midway point in which overrated man of the moment Sam Worthington becomes friendly with the natives, it falls into a depression from which it never really recovers. The bonding between these two worlds is nowhere near as interesting as it should be and the entire section seems largely irrelevant in regards to the story as a whole. Is it about different cultures or the profits of war? The two themes needn’t be mutually exclusive, but must they be executed so joylessly?
Essentially, Cameron wants to have his cake and eat it. Create a modern wartime allegory which doubles as a sci-fi actioner. The two seem jarringly at odds, although his political ideals are unashamedly clear, drawing up yet another Vietnam/Iraqi war analogy long after it stopped being fashionable to do so. And like a true leftist, Cameron goes all out in painting his tableaux with anti-American-cum-politically correct propaganda, courtesy of barbarous US militants and Islamic fundamentalists-turned-peace-loving victims. The former are two dimensional capitalists with zero believability, the latter acting like drug addled hippies so infuriatingly serious that their new-age spiritualism makes Mormonism look exciting by comparison.
Alongside such 80’s-esque lines as “I didn’t sign up for this shit”, each character is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out of a familiar archetype and with no one to root for it’s difficult to care about the ending, whether it looks good or not. As a technical demonstration, it’s outstanding. But changing cinema? We’re not quite there yet.