James Cameron’s return a decade after Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time, is a return to more familiar science fiction material for the director. There has been much discussion of the general irrelevance of the plot, and I will not regurgitate the comparisons with Dances With Wolves and FernGully. In short, humans are mining the natural resources of distant moon Pandora, but hit a a stumbling block with the indiginous tribal species, the Na’vi. Human scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine [Sigourney Weaver] interact with the Na’vi through the use of hybrid avatars which they control through a neural link. A paraplegic former marine, Jake Sully [Sam Worthington], is accepted and taught by the Na’vi, while a mercenary human army prepares to drive them out. Character development is limited but the central roles are well-acted and believable. The story itself may be throwaway but Cameron’s storytelling is as assured as ever. He steers with a firm hand and suspension of disbelief is instantaneous, broken only as the final shot gives way to an unforgivably cheesy song.
I presumed Cameron’s suggestions that his film would be about exploring another world were typical pre-release hyperbole, but the staggering level of detail in Pandora’s world is the real core of the experience, and its exploration in the film’s first half is an utter joy. Avatar has set the new benchmark for 3D filmmaking and its use throughout is subtle and effective in increasing immersion without unnecessary “pop-out” moments. Like Coraline, the majority of the depth sinks into the screen, but the key difference is that Cameron still employs typical strong depth-of-field effects, meaning the viewer needs to let their eyes naturally be drawn around the screen rather than expecting to be able to look wherever they wish. The human technology is rendered effectively, but the planet’s breathtaking flora and fauna are what will stay with the audience. Facial (as well as motion) capture makes the Na’vi totally lifelike, with expressive faces by merging their appearance with that of their actors but avoiding the common uncanny valley issues. Cameron’s new motion-capture system allowed him to see a real-time representation of both the actors and the world as he filmed, rather than waiting for the effects to be applied later, allowing for much more involved camerawork and direction than the commonly static shots where CGI is employed.
Many argue it is odd that a film employing so much technology would carry an anti-technology message, but I am not certain this is the case. There are clear warnings about our relationship with technology, and particularly questions about our attachments to online avatars over our own bodies. However while the Na’vi may be a tribal, spiritual people, they still employ several staples of sci-fi technology in biological form, such as their physical neural link with other creatures on Pandora. Avatar‘s message is far more anti-war and it is ultimately the military technology that seems to be attacked, with the conflict highlighting respect for tradition and nature.
As a work of science fiction, there are many links to Cameron’s earlier Aliens. Watching Sigourney Weaver leaving cryo-stasis will for many feel like returning home. The army grunts will be strongly reminiscent of Aliens‘ marines, and much of their technology is a gradual evolution. This provides some familiarity as we join the humans arriving on this very alien world.
Cameron’s latest work had the weight of insurmountable expectation upon it. Though not flawless, the fact he has managed to deliver a film that is both a technological marvel and utterly absorbing entertainment — while also looking set to outperform Titanic financially — is nothing short of astounding. As the finest example of 3D cinema to date, it is well worth seeing this in that form, since a 2D viewing would be a significantly different experience (to such a degree I suspect its rating would drop by at least half a star) and the small screen will greatly reduce the impact of this world’s incredible detail. That, above all, will keep your head stuck on Pandora for days afterwards.