Discussion of Avatar needs to fall into two camps. The first is focuses on the film itself, its originality and whether it really is “Dances with Smurfs”, whilst the second part will inevitably focus on the technology and the question of whether it truly lives up to the hype. No exception here.
Cameron has never been a Director / Screenwriter who’s interests lie with complex, nuanced plots that twist and turn in on themselves to reveal something deeper underneath. This isn’t to say he’s a bad writer, rather one who focuses on other things. Avatar is no exception to this, with the usual strong characterisation that he’s presented before (we can usually garner everything we need to know about a character from their first appearance) and understanding of how to drive a very simple story on, maintain tension and keep interest. Furthermore he remains on of the best writers of female characters working, women are rarely there just to provide someone for the hero to rescue – Cameron has never been one for shrinking violets.
Likewise his flair for action remains unsurpassed – even in a digital age you get a feel for the physicality of the action (perhaps a by-product of the technology he’s invested in the film). The climatic battle is breathtaking not only for the simplicity of its concept (always be going faster) but the relentless assault on the sense it produces. Cameron understands action, but he also understands that we must have invested in characters beforehand for us to care about their fate.
Avatar does share a lot of common ground with Dances With Wolves, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Somewhere in all of the Kevin Costner hate it seems to have been forgotten that way back in 1991 he produced something wonderful; a big, bold western adventure like they didn’t make anymore and Avatar follows its mould quite closely. At heart it is another big adventure film, a simple case of cowboys in space – although Cameron is wise enough to use it as a springboard for (a subtle) environmental message about corporations & the military in modern politics.
Based on these facts alone, Avatar is worth seeing. It’s the first time Cameron has emerged from the toy cupboard for over a decade and he still knows how to lead audiences on a thrilling ride, even if afterwards you’re left wondering just how some things happened (there are plot holes, lets leave it at that). This time it seems to be a showcase of his most memorable moments from before, although having said that it never feels like he’s going over new ground.
However, all of this is given a further shot in the arm by the technology that has been used to make this – simply put, Cameron has once again raised the bar (quite considerably this time) and then turned round to his peers, thumbed his nose and said “There you go…” – Avatar is simply the first film that it is essential you see in the 3D format. Avatar will not work on TV, nor on a smaller cinema screen, it demands a big screen just to realise that 3D is no longer a gimmick, it can be used in a subtle fashion (the opening shot of an eye in close up shows just how subtle it can be) as well as for the crash & thunder of action (the flight scenes near enough create a sense of real vertigo). Other 3D films have used it to give items prominence, here it is used just as another film making tool to create another level of immersion.
Likewise, the CGI is simply stunning – half-an-hour into the film you’ll come to the conclusion you’ve just watched a ten minute animated sequence and neither noticed, nor more importantly cared that you have. It’s not photo-real, but the sense is once again that it’s as near to perfection as we can currently get. Again Cameron doesn’t let this get in the way, it’s just another tool for him to use to tell a story.
Hopefully he won’t fade into the background for another decade waiting for the technology to play catch up with his vision (short of beaming images directly into the head, it’s difficult to see how he’ll step up to the plate himself) and produce another film in short-ish order. In the meantime Avatar is worth spending the money to see – the plot isn’t much but it’s all done with a maximum sense of commitment to producing the nearest thing to the Director’s original vision.