Reviewer: Michael Allard
Rating: * *
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver
Runtime: 162 mins
Transformers are appearing all over the screen, and not just when Michael Bay tells them to. Other directors too seem to be taking advantage of the fact that big destructive robots are well and truly in for the 2010s. And so, we’ve seen them as District 9 alien gear, future Terminators, and now, whilst he’s spent about a decade working on little else, even James Cameron has had to time to squeeze them in, enhancing Stephen Lang’s brilliant colonial villainy with a massive Mecha-Bot for the final fight scene.
But in the epic war of Avatar, his audience is directed to support the Na’vi, a beautifully weird, blue-skinned humanoid species who live on the planet Pandora, and whose own weaponry consists mostly of the bow and arrow – though they do require high-tech animation to be themselves created. The year is 2154, and greedy humans are invading the planet to mine for life-enhancing supplies of unobtanium. Our hero, played ably by Sam Worthington, is Sully: an average soldier with enough of a blank slate in him that he can settle into the ways of the former enemy, thanks to technology that allows him to plug in, Matrix-style, to an empty “Avatar” body. He’s helped along on this journey by the wise but tough Sigourney Weaver, and through his love for a local cerulean princess played by Zoë Saldaña.
Astounding fight scenes – be they explosive battles or jungle skirmishes featuring an array of bizarre Pandoran creatures – fill so much of the 2 hour 40 minute runtime that we’re told very little about either the characters’ various histories or the actual workings of the futuristic universe. This means that though watching the characters move in 3-D is new and exciting, and the animated landscapes are as beautiful as you could hope for, the characters, unfortunately, are completely uninteresting. Some of their decisions become inexplicable, but somehow remain unastonishing. Action movie roles that we’re seeing, say, in The Book of Eli or Law Abiding Citizen are non-dimensional clichés, but such films at least play along to their stereotypes and know what genres they’re working in.
Like the whole 3-D selling point of the film, the performance-capture basis of the alien appearances is only convincing up to a point, seriously weakening the central love story. But even if the Na’vi do get under your skin, the script lets them down; it’s not so much cheesy like Titanic as it is completely flat, lacking any attempt at either humour or major tear-jerking. When new cinematic milestones were reached in Toy Story and Jurassic Park, they brought with them a sense of magic that remains for multiple viewings.
For sure, Cameron chooses to emphasise what you see, rather than hear, and here some of his narrative skill does stretch through. Avatar is strongest when emphasising its simple moral in favour of biodiversity and against imperialism, holding back extraneous information about future history that sci-fi normally offers so keenly. If, however, a franchise is to follow, then an Avatar-mythology could spoil even that; though it might explain and expand upon that ever-so-slightly ambiguous tone that Cameron reaches when the good fight is won, when genetic engineering has created an unconvincing leader for the so very natural Na’vi.