You know the story of Pandora’s box. By now the phrase ‘opening Pandora’s box’ has become a cliche as well. But since the movie Avatar is set on a planet called Pandora, and since this movie opens up all kinds of new vistas for film-making, the cliche is unavoidable in this case.
Ann and I were in Wellington NZ when they were finishing up some of the CG work on this film at Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. They certainly do amazing work. The danger of course with celestial technology and film is that the visuals overwhelm the story, the characters, the acting, the music, and basically everything else. With this film however the visuals are so remarkable, and at times awe-inspiring, that such complaints become carping to some degree. When this movie is nominated for Best Oscar for Cinematography next year, no other films need apply. This one can’t be topped for a while, perhaps not for several years until the sequel comes out. This is one of those rare films which is worth repeated viewings (in 3 D) just for the visuals. The combination of live action, motion capture, and CG is amazingly believable, seamlessly blending together. But all is far from perfect in this film, once we get past the amazing visuals.
James Cameron of course has a track record of putting together films that grab you visually and viscerally and you hang on for dear life until the end (e.g. Alien, Titantic). This film is like that, except that it is far too long. You don’t mind the length because the visuals are so engrossing, but in terms of plot and narrative arc this film needs some serious editing. It would still be as visually stunning with about 20 less minutes of fighting etc.
Neither the dialogue nor the plot are memorable. Indeed, they are all too familiar— earthlings, having trashed their own planet, now turn to another to strip mine for resources to keep human life as we know it going. The year is 2154, not that long from now actually. And so we have the usual switch that the aliens, even though they are rather like ancient American Indians in their state of technology, are more human than the humans, and they are generally more likable as well.
And then there is the Avatar concept itself— the mind and spirit of a human being inhabits a surrogate body, in this case of the alien, and so is able to be part of alien life, in disguise. The premise is the Avatar is a sort of undercover spy sent on the mission to try and get the Navee to move so the mining company can get all those precious minerals without sending in their mercenaries to do them bodily harm. The problem is that Jake, the main man Avatar, becomes quite partial to the Navee, even falls in love with one long tall blue lady, and so we have romance, exploitation, animal rights, primitive religion, ecology, and a host of other themes all rolled into one. It’s a bit of a mishmash, but hey— there goes another amazing visual to distract you from realizing the problems with this film.
Of the stars in the film the only one immediately recognizable to a wide audience is Sigourney Weaver… also the star of Cameron’s first big blockbuster— Alien. You may recognize one refugee from Lost as well. But basically this is a cast of extras, not stars, but then again the acting is not all that crucial— this is an action flick with some romance thrown in for good measure. It is one part Nat Geo special, one part Star Wars sci fi flick, one part Lion King sound track. And I would say some of the images are too vivid and too violent for younger kids, which is a shame since the world Pandora is one beautiful place.
James Cameron clearly is a gifted film maker with a good visual imagination, but he needs some help with plot, narrative, characterization, dialogue and some editing. In some ways this film is like Peter Jackson’s King Kong— visually amazing but too long, and too many action sequences with lulls in between. The problem with a visually amazing film is that it is hard to cut any of it– especially the more vivid and beautiful parts. But going forward James Cameron plans to make more Avatar films. I hope he is listening– box office success does not equal evidence that you have made an excellent film. Entertaining is one thing, excellence is another, and it takes more than excellent visuals to make a really good film.
And one more thing—- the animistic and pantheistic religion of the film (we are all one with nature, and mother earth is just sharing her life and energy with us) will be off-putting to some, especially those who are not tree-huggers. He might want to focus on other aspects of the Navee next time around. If you want to see a better sci-fi with romance movie that deals with ecological themes and the notions of exploitation, watch Wall-E again. The problem with opening Pandora’s Box, is that to some degree you can’t control what comes out— and for sure, you can’t get it all back in the box. Weta Workshop certainly did their job well in this film. Somebody needs to step up with a script and dialogue and memorable acting for the next one.