It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these but I do believe it is time to break my silence. What is bringing me to break my silence on film? Well I’ll tell you… AVATAR! Across Europe and America, James Cameron’s new film is getting on with audiences like a house on fire. That is if the house was drenched in gasoline burned with napalm and then nuked just for good measure. Basically, very well.
After just a month of being in cinemas Avatar has become the fastest film ever to reach the $1 billion landmark at the box office with only Cameron’s previous film having outsold it at this point. And it has already reached number 35 on IMDB’s list of greatest films of all time. Before I even begin this review I’m going to say that I didn’t dislike this film, but that’s not really my main point.
Visually, the film is quite impressive, I didn’t actually get to see it in 3-D because I was basically too lazy to get out of bed earlier but the CGI does look genuinely real at some points, with the action scenes incredibly inventive and adding an entire world of interesting creatures. The only animals that didn’t quite make sense to me were the insects that flew in a similar fashion to a helicopter, but had their whole bodies spin around with the rotors so that it couldn’t look at where they were actually going. In addition to the fact that the scene in which the main character ‘connects’ to the animal he is ‘riding’ was probably only in the film so that they could record and laugh at the audience’s reaction.
But even though the effects are obviously a step forward in terms of film making, I still have a problem with them. No matter how many of the close ups on a character’s face look real, most of the shots encompassing space ships, lots of plant life and big battle scenes just don’t look real. It’s not just a shortcoming of this particular film, because ‘Star Wars’ has done it, ‘I, Robot’ did it, ‘I am Legend’ did it and even ‘Star Trek’ did it. The thing is that CGI just doesn’t look real when you try to use it on wide landscapes and just about anything metallic. I admit that in the future technology will improve and CGI may actually begin to look real when applied to bigger tasks, but right now it doesn’t. Granted that a film such as this is never quite going to be able to make every second look entirely real but there are so many solutions that could be used to make the film look entirely more convincing, such as using models for the spaceships like in some older sci fi movies such as 2001, the original Star Wars Trilogy (although this shouldn’t be copied for actual aliens) or the first 6 Star Trek movies. Actually in ‘Aliens’ (also by James Cameron) some of the machines used are quite similar to those in Avatar and the ones that were actually built for ‘Aliens’ in my opinion looked far better than the CGI ones in ‘Avatar’. This has actually worked more recently in Duncan Jones’ (Bowie’s son’s) debut ‘Moon’ when all the effects were done with proper models and proper sets when they couldn’t afford CGI, and because of that the whole film looks great with a fantastic character to the whole thing that simply wouldn’t have happened with CGI.
Moving away from that little problem that I have with most modern action films, the most important part to any film is the story, and this is my main criticism of ‘Avatar’. Without giving anything away, the basic premise of the film is that a mining company is attempting to get a wonderfully aptly named mineral unobtainium which only exists on a moon called Pandora, which orbits a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system which is inhabited by humanoids which are more like 10 ft tall blue cats that are scarily in touch with nature and are only able to use bows and arrows as weapons and… ‘connect’ to animals to control them. Our protagonist named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex marine without the use of his legs who replaces his murdered brother in a programme in which people control the bodies of natives (avatars) that the military have grown for them in order to help them become more friendly with them. Eventually Sully falls in with the natives and along with his friends in the Avatar project becomes accepted into their society. This provides the humans with a foothold which may possibly allow them to make a deal with the natives so they can mine for unobtainium. But eventually the big bad military says ‘bugger this’ and starts killing things, providing us with a completely not subtle environmentalist tree hugger theme that will probably be commended by many in years to come but I have heard before far too often.
So what bothers me about this? Well firstly, I didn’t really find the characters to have that much depth to them. Even though I can’t say that any of the actors weren’t convincing, I couldn’t really say that there was anyone that really made me go ‘wow’ and remember their character. Above all that, I never really became attached to any of these characters, apart from Sigourney Weaver’s character although when I looked at her I only saw Ellen Ripley. Although I’m pretty sure that even though Sam Worthington was in the monstrosity that is Terminator Salvation, this film will mean that we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.
But what really pisses me off is the complete lack of originality in the whole story which at 162 minutes is extremely drawn out and amazingly James Cameron has been working on since 1994. I mean, you think that the concept of an incredibly rare mineral found on only one planet is new? Read Frank Herbert’s Dune, or see David Lynch’s incredibly lush looking 1984 adaptation with imaginative characters, a massive universe full of strange creatures and people and also as an added bonus… Patrick Stewart in a role that was instrumental in him getting the job as Captain Picard. Other than that, there’s the actual Avatar idea that has the obvious influence of one of the best sci fi movies of the past 20 years ‘The Matrix’. Then you have the idea of a native race fighting against an invader with vastly superior weaponry, this one has been done in Dune again, if you want to be more obscure there’s Patrick Tilley’s series of books ‘The Amtrak Wars’ and if you want to be blindingly obvious there’s ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’ with the Ewoks.
For plot holes, this film isn’t so bad, other than Sully turns from being classed as nearly entirely incompetent at the start to suddenly becoming a speaker equivalent to Martin Luther King Jr about half way through. But I expect more from James Cameron who wrote some of the greatest Science Fiction films of all time, not just ‘Aliens’ as I’ve already mentioned, but also the first two ‘Terminator’ films which if you’ve read much of my other stuff you will know I am quite fond of. These films managed to portray their characters in great depth and carry a message such as the self destructive nature of human beings (ie ‘Terminator) without boring you with it. Even away from Sci Fi Cameron has made some great films. He co-wrote ‘Rambo: First Blood part II’ which may not be quite as good as ‘First Blood’ but is still a great action movie. Even Shitanic… sorry ‘Titanic’ which is only the biggest selling film of all time because half the people who were forced to… I mean went to see it were boyfriends, husbands or fathers of 12 year old girls who cried more than any female in the cinema after they realised that they had to spend £5 on a ticket for that film. Today, these men now greet men who haven’t seen it with the immortal line ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there’… Sorry, even ‘Titanic’ managed to develop its characters and comment on the theme of class without making us bored.
Although, overall I have to say that I did enjoy this film, despite it being overly long. I just don’t think that it deserves all the hype it gets, and it certainly does not deserve to have done better at the box office than ‘Return of the King’. For me there are far better sci fi films out there that do not receive anywhere near as much critical and commercial success that do exactly what this genre should do, which is to push the boundaries of imagination and to provide a new way of looking at things that are already important to the world we live in. I actually think that 2009 was extremely good for this, offering us Duncan Jones’ ‘Moon’ which pushed the boundaries of imagination by giving us an amazing character driven story in which a man meets himself, giving us a situation which we have all wondered about. Then there was ‘District 9’ by Neill Blomkamp which offered us a visceral and exciting allegory describing the apartheid in South Africa but with a wonderful character development that keeps you guessing throughout the film. But then we have the more disappointing side of sci fi such as ‘Terminator Salvation’ which given the hype ‘Avatar’ must belong to. While it may be a landmark in terms of special effects, the story just isn’t up to scratch to warrant its status as a classic and its performance at the box office is thoroughly undeserved.
My Rating: 3 stars out of 5
I liked: Great to look at, the success of this may bring us a new era of great sci fi after an amazing 2009
I disliked: Overrated, unoriginal, not as good as the following science fiction films: Moon, District 9, Star Wars Episodes 3, 4, 5 and 6, any Star Trek film other than 5, Starship Troopers, Robocop, Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, Cube, Cube Zero, Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Solaris, Blade Runner, the original Godzilla, Terminator 1 & 2, Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Dark Star, Total Recall, The Running Man, I, Robot, Mad Max, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunder Dome, The Day the Earth Stood Still (original), The Thing, The Fly, Quatermass 1, 2 and 3, The Time Machine, Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3, Village of the Damned, Superman 1 and 2, Spider-man 1,2 and yes even 3, X-men 1 and 2, Daredevil, Iron Man, Batman, Batman Returns, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man (yes super heroes count), E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tron, Dune, Brazil, Bad Taste, Predator 1 and 2, Akira, Jurassic Park, Demolition Man, Pi, The Bicentennial Man, Galaxy Quest, Pitch Black, A.I, Donnie Darko, Evolution, Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, Signs, The Butterfly effect, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Scanner Darkly, Host, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Death Race 2000 and in about 6 months something else will probably come out that I could add to this list.