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Avatar 3D review

Rachel Winterbottom thinks James Cameron's high-tech sci-fi could mark the start of a new era in film-making

Written by . Published on December 22nd 2009.


Avatar 3D review

It’s been over a decade since we saw the Titanic sink beneath cinematic waters, but writer/director James Cameron wasn’t about to follow up the highest-grossing film of all time with some backwater indie.

The film only really comes to life when we get to Pandora; it’s what 1939 audiences must have experienced when The Wizard of Oz finally went technicolor.

Apparently developed from an idea Cameron concocted in the nineties when the technology didn’t exist, this project has been in production since 2005 and has cost a purported $300m. Avatar has its own mythology, its own language, its own universe. It’s a 3D, performance-capture film that is supposedly going to change the landscape of cinema forever. Cameron’s last effort was just a drop in the ocean (sorry) compared to this.

The year is 2154 and a colony of humans has left an environmentally barren Earth in the hopes of mining the ethereally beautiful Pandora for its natural resources. Unfortunately for them, the lush utopia is already occupied by the native Na’vi: goddess-worshipping, nine-foot-tall blue humanoids who are in tune with nature and all the wild things around them. And unfortunately for them, this isn’t going to stop the humans from trying to get what they want.

In order to interact with the Na’vi, researchers have developed avatars: Na’vi-shaped hybrids that can be occupied by the mind of a human who shares a genetic link with the body. When paraplegic Jake Sully’s twin brother is killed, he is drafted in to the Avatar programme in his place. Only, the ex-marine isn’t exactly what alien-loving Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) had in mind for her culturally-sensitive expedition.

Operating under the pretence of providing security for the researchers, Sully is actually working for the mining company who have ordered him to gain the Na’vi’s trust so that they might extract a substance named 'unobtainium' peacefully. But once Sully is inaugurated into the Na’vi’s world and mindset, his loyalties are divided between following orders and his growing love for Pandora and his beautiful Na’vi guide, Neytiri.

Aussie Sam Worthington reprises his wounded expression from Terminator: Salvation to play the conflicted Sully. From the burgeoning identity crisis to the boyish glee he exudes, he serves as our guide through the wonders and hostilities of Pandora. Worthington makes for a decent lead, and, as his Na’vi avatar is recognisable as being him, his on-screen impact doesn’t end just because he’s dressed in blue.

Zoe Saldana plays the part of Neytiri, the princess of the Na’vi tribe, as if she’s been Na’vi her whole life. Empowered, dignified, delicate and half feral, the character is spectacular and convincing: the technologies used to create her melt seamlessly away.

Cameron has a penchant for strong female leads. Sigourney Weaver’s Dr Grace Augustine, who heads the avatar research programme and plays mother to Worthington’s Sully, is the Bear Grylls of scientists. This is about as complicated as she gets but Weaver is excellent at playing a one dimensional character as if they’re a multi-layered enigma.

It does seem as if Cameron has concentrated so hard on creating a living, breathing alien universe that he’s neglected the humans. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is a steroid-pumped, live action GI Joe figurine that is less convincing than one of Pandora’s Thanators, giant predators with quills. Michelle Rodriguez also seems wasted on a throwaway character (although some may think that’s the other way around).

The film only really comes to life when we get to Pandora; it’s what 1939 audiences must have experienced when The Wizard of Oz finally went technicolor. It is breathtaking. It’s when the lights go out in the hostile night world of the jungle that Sully really sees Pandora for the first time, and so do we. His every step ignites the jungle in blazes of iridescent colours. Thanks to 3D, the audience walks with him, brushing past the effervescent flora and causing countless, spiralling light displays with every touch.

It isn’t just the jungle that is alive. The Na’vi are just as breathtakingly realised. Every nuance of expression, every facial tick and gesture has been painstakingly captured to form an unbelievably believable experience. From the Na’vi language to the sensitive tips of their braided hair, there are layers to this film that go beyond the boundaries of its 162-minute running time.

Avatar doesn’t shy away from plot clichés. Neytiri only has a few months to teach Sully every aspect of Na’vi life so the montage is as inevitable as the pair falling in love. It’s science fiction for the masses. Although there are a few terms in there that would make even the most truly devoted sci-fi fan blush – the humans are, after all, intending to mine Pandora for the elusive unobtainium, which was presumably named by the same people who came up with bifidus digestivum.

At two hours and 40 minutes, Avatar takes its sweet time getting around to Pandora. And when its plot is essentially the adult version of Ferngully: the Last Rainforest (an ace film), the 3D and performance-capture technology is what everyone has paid to see. Thankfully for Cameron, it’s worth the wait. It’s hard to see what this film will offer viewers of the 2D version but Avatar 3D is a dizzying, luminous example of how technology and plot can go together.

Will Avatar change the landscape of cinema forever? How could it not?

8/10

Avatar 3D (12A) is on general release now.

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