Film Review | Sunday, 20 December 2009

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To be seen in 3D at all costs

It was a pretty sad spectacle. Here we were, all geared up to watch James Cameron’s big return to sci-fi (nay, his return to cinema, period) post ‘Titanic’, secretly hoping that we’d have to rustle our way through mobs of (naturally philistine) fellow moviegoers who also wanted to see what all the fuss is about and partake in ‘Avatar’s world premiere last Wednesday at 10pm. Like dutiful little geeks, we booked our tickets at the Embassy cinema hours in advance, eager to turn the whole experience into a genuine ‘event’. The receptionists’ incredulous look should have served as a warning us but alas, as the lights came down and the alien world of Pandora opened itself to us, nobody was there to share the experience.
There can be several explanations for this, chief of which are: either there aren’t too many sci-fi nerds in Malta, or that the Avatar premiere was in fact well-attended, but by a shrewd crowd who knew that it would be best to watch it in 3D. If the latter is the case, I stand corrected and shamed. For what Cameron’s opus lacks in story and heart (and trust me, it lacks a lot) it makes up for in sheer spectacle.
The film’s opening shots already seem to drip away from the peripheries of the screen to engulf the entire cinema, as we are introduced to Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralysed ex-marine who is travelling to the alien planet of Pandora, which is being colonised by humans because Earth is no longer that nice a place to live on. Jake’s now dead twin brother had volunteered to partake in the Avatar programme, designed by Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), and which enables humans to inhabit an ‘avatar’ body and blend in with the blue-skinned Na’vi, Pandora’s indigenous inhabitants. Jake is drafted to take part because he shares his twin brother’s genetic makeup, and can effortlessly step into the skin of the avatar body. His brief is simple: learn as much as you can about the Na’vi, gain their trust, and convince their higher ups to move from a crucial spot in order to allow the humans to mine for Unobtanium, a precious resource. Failing to find a ‘diplomatic solution’ would mean that the Na’vi would have to be removed by force and face the wrath of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is perfectly content to commit genocide for the good of the mission. Things get complicated when Jake falls in love with Neytiri (Joe Saldana) – a Na’vi princess who is charged with initiating him into their culture – and has to find a way of halting the carnage.
The story itself, with its Pocahontas-meets-Braveheart-on an-alien-planet setup, is, as you may have guessed, by the by. But we were promised a visual feast… and by God, did we get one. Cameron’s ten-year absence from films and his invention of a whole new technology to better accommodate 3D landscapes has not been in vain. Pandora feels so real, and it’s populated by such a dazzling array of unique creatures that you almost forgive the guy for making you sit through endless montages of the alien planet, feebly strung together with the excuse of Jake’s cultural education (watch him learn to fly the pterodactyl creature!). Following the twilight of ‘Star Wars’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’, it took Cameron’s return from cinematic slumber to give us something truly big, in every sense of the word.
What everybody will talk about, and what it truly at the crux of the production’s technological innovations, is the improvements on motion capture – or, as Cameron has now dubbed it, ‘performance capture’ – thanks to which actors are allowed to express themselves to the full while taking on a fully digitised role. Motion capture is, of course, not new – director Robert Zemeckis had employed it for Beowulf and The Polar Express, and Cameron was jolted into starting proper work on ‘Avatar’ after seeing Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films – but here it is perfected, making ‘Avatar’ into a pioneering film, if nothing else. What Cameron also went through great lengths to expand on is the potential for 3D, which has now received a much-needed electric shock of life. But technological advancements are, of course, purely academic if they don’t serve a purpose. Luckily, ‘Avatar’s lush world makes for a totally immersive experience, and Cameron’s confident hand with genre action and suspense guarantees entertainment, even if there as many original characters as there are ideas (read: none) throughout. Though let’s face it: anything that has alien-dinosaurs battling giant mech-warriors can’t be bad.
Married with a more meticulous storyteller, the technology could produce mind-busting wonders. But for now, sit back and enjoy the ride. And make sure you do it in 3D.

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