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Movies > Reviews > Avatar (2009)
A Sgt Pembry Review..........................................Sunday, January 17, 2010

JAMES Cameron has delved into the veritable treasure trove of science-fiction greats to help create his own mega masterpiece for a new generation.

Fifteen years in the making, Avatar has finally hit the big screen and done so in the most spectacular awe-inspiring fashion possible.

Taking cinema into the (second decade of the) new millennium, Cameron's extravaganza has been well worth the wait.


The question now is how long will we have to wait for a second visit to the amazing alien world he has created, Pandora? Hopefully not too long if this apparent first installment of a saga is anything to go by.

While in one respect the film plays out a bit like a spot-the-movie certain scenes and situations are borrowed from - it isn’t nicknamed 'Dances with Smurfs' for nothing - Avatar certainly brings enough of its own uniqueness to the table.

It is a veritable feast for the eyes - and the imagination - like never before through its use of three-dimensional effects.

Shot with these so-called stereoscopic cameras that were developed specifically for the film, it has taken not only 3-D movie-making, but movie-making full-stop, to a whole new level. It is the future - here and now.

I was still in my mother's stomach when George Lucas' Star Wars was first released in 1977 - back when it was simply called 'Star Wars' - but the impact it would have on the world, and in particular those making and watching sci-fi fantasy adventure movies, would last for many years to come.

Back then, through Lucas's own fledgling Industrial Light and Magic, most of the visual effects were created using motion control photography (MCP), which created the illusion of size by employing small models and slowly moving cameras.

It was a decade later that we got our first glimpse of the new age - computer generated images (CGI) - through under-water sci-fi thriller The Abyss (1989), directed by guess who? James Cameron. The same effects he used in that particular under-rated gem would also be used to create the liquid Terminator, T-1000, in his smash hit Terminator 2: Judgment Day a couple of years later.

Always determined to push the boundaries of what is capable on screen, Cameron began developing Avatar not long after T2, with his inspiration "every single science fiction book I read as a kid", namely John Carter of Mars.

But, he didn't just want another run-of-the-mill sci-fi actioner. He wanted the new Star Wars if you like, a new ground-breaking epic set in the deep reaches of space and he was committed to doing it by creating photo-realistic computer-generated characters using motion-capture animation technology.

It would of course take another decade for that technology to catch up with his vision.

In that time we got a taste of things to come via such memorable characters as Gollum, from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Davy Jones, from Gore Verbinski's The Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Avatar, though, has half a film full of Gollum-style creations, with Cameron seamlessly combining live and computer-generated action - and if you were yourself an alien who had never set your eyes on a Na'vi or a Human being, you couldn't tell which was which. Which was real and which was not.

Cameron reportedly invited fellow sci-fi masters Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and George Lucas to drop in during production of Avatar. And how envious would they be now of what Cameron has achieved?

He was king of the world after the multi Oscar-winning Titanic (1997), but now he can lay claim to being King of the Universe as well.

Almost feeling like you're part of the action - and there is plenty of action - Cameron drops the viewer smack bang into a tense stand-off between the natives of Pandora and the 'invading' Earthlings. You are so close you can almost touch it.

But, it's not all about the state-of-the-art effects being used, but also about a storyline that, while granted can be described as a tad unoriginal, is well-crafted, and even deep if you're willing to look hard enough and take on board important messages about hostile takeovers, caring for the environment and the ability of the soul.

As mentioned, it borrows heavily from a host of previous films, but also genuine - and dark - elements of Earth's past, present and possibly future.

You get an idea of how certain civilizations here on this planet must have felt when a more dominant force decides to move in and set about sucking the natural resources of the area dry, for their own selfish ways - be it a race, country, or corporation.

Avatar also has a spiritual side. It's important to point out that the title of the film means more than simply what regular computer geeks like to use as their 'face' on the internet, but a Hindu word which refers to the appearance in physical form of a deity that has descended from heaven to earth.

As Cameron himself states, "in this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human's intelligence into a remotely-located body ... a biological body".

That future is 2154 to be precise, and humans are now greedily mining a precious mineral on the Earth-like moon world of Pandora, unobtanium, and to aid their cause avatars have been created in order for humans to walk among the indigenous residents, the 12-foot tall Na'vi - as one of them, without the risk of dying from the atmosphere.

In the style of The Matrix, operators are 'plugged in' to genetically-matched Na'vis that have been bred by researchers at the RDA mining corporation.

One of the operators is Jake Sully (played well by Aussie man of the moment Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former marine, or 'jarhead', who has taken the place of his identical twin brother and Avatar Program scientist who was killed in a random mugging.

While acting as nothing more than bodyguard for head researcher Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and biologist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) during a mission, Jake becomes lost in Pandora's vast, and incredibly complex and beautifully-imagined jungle forest after he is attacked by a number of the massive and ferocious wildlife.

While the real Jake remains safe and sound back at home base in a state of deep sleep, his impressively-built Na'vi self is reluctantly taken in by a local, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and her tribe the Omaticaya, a people the RDA desperately wants moved so it can get its hands that unobtanium they are basically sitting on, which back on Earth is worth a cool $20m a kilo.

Likened to Kevin Costner's First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar who lives with a tribe of American Indians in the 19th century in the Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves (1991), Jake Sully is a soldier whose initial mission is to spy on the Omaticaya - significantly Indian-like in the way they are in touch with nature and spirit world - but after learning their ways and falling in love not only becomes a proud and passionate part of them, but a kind of messiah.

His turning is much to the dismay of the humans, in particular wormy RDA boss Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the supremely callous military leader Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang who almost steals the show).

It is the type of situation that has its roots in Lawrence of Arabia (1961), the story of a real-life British officer named Thomas Lawrence who fought with the Arabs early last century, and that stretched to sci-fi classics Frank Herbert's Dune and the aforementioned John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Dune, one of the world's best-selling sci-fi novels and turned into a convoluted film from David Lynch in 1984, centres around the exploits of Paul Atredes who unites and then leads a race known as the Freman into battle against a corrupt empire over the possession of a spice native to their planet. Jake's taming of the massive flying beast, named the Toruk is in no small part reminiscent of Paul's control over the giant sandworms of Arrakis.

Carter, who is about to finally receive feature film treatment of his own, is a soldier in the American Civil War who dies, but through astral projection winds up on Mars in a form identical to his Earth one, but bigger and better. There he becomes a warrior/savior of the planet's inhabitants.

There are of course many others that follow similar scenarios, namely Pocahontas (1995), The Last Samarai (2004), The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest (1991) - the list is endless - while there is a certain speech that is so reminiscent of Mel Gibson's in Braveheart (1995), I was waiting for members of the Na'vi to bend over and bare their naked blue asses.

The closest we get is a love scene between Jake and his Na'vi mate, whose 'complicated' almost inter-species relationship is a tad contrived, corny and cliched. Cameron does like it that way. Think Titanic.

Don't be put off though, as what you're getting with Avatar is an entire experience. You might know the basic plot, but you don't know where you're heading next.

The flora and fauna featured on Pandora is rich in diversity and makes for some incredible imagery, especially at night when the moons light up, or when the Na'vi climb the amazing floating 'Hallelujah Mountains'.

(Spoilers ahead) But for all the splendor there is also suffering, and plenty, such as when the humans violently destroy the Na'vi's sacred Hometree, which stood like a beacon before it is brought to ground in flames after a missile attack, a scene resembling those of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

It is a movie for the entire family however and has a suitably satisfying finale that begins with the most a fantastic aerial battle that rivals the ground warfare in The Lord of the Rings' Middle Earth and includes Pandora's wildlife rising up to help destroy the heavily-armed humans, and ends with Jake Sully ditching his human form once and for all and his spirit forever inhabiting Jakesully the Omaticaya leader.

You almost wish you could join him there.

The best we can do is pray to Eywa (the Na'vi god) that Cameron takes us back, armed with our 3-D glasses, and we don't have to wait another 15 years to do so.

Jake Sully of Earth Dances with Smurfs ... and I like it.

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