A movie you can only appreciate in 3D is a great experience, but that makes it a theme park attraction, not something that belongs in the annals of great filmmaking.
Unless you've been on another planet you won't fail to notice that James Cameron is back with his first feature in over a decade, since his huge Oscar-grabbing labour of love Titanic. Cameron is a man who you cannot argue is not committed or passionate about film. A single-minded revolutionary, he gains ScreenGeek's upmost respect and hero worship for Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, having developed characters not only the strongest in sci fi, but who also happen to be female leads that have never been bettered. And for all the eye-rolling about Titanic, it is honestly both moving and breathtaking.
So it is with great sadness that in my humble opinion, Avatar is a bit of a disappointment. After watching the IMAX preview this summer, underneath the feeling of awe was a niggling doubt that the entire film seemed to rely solely on seeing the stunning Na'vi running around a very pretty forest. There had to be more than that. Now having seen it in its entirety, that gut instinct was pretty much right.
Cameron is so desperate to show off the extraordinary technology developed for the alien planet Pandora, he has completely bypassed exposition in Avatar. In the space of about ten minutes, we are hurriedly introduced to Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former marine who has been transported to Pandora to take the place of his deceased twin's mission on the planet. That mission is to become one of a few humans to go outside the secure base, to learn about the native ten-foot-tall blue-skinned Na'vi as the planet is plundered for its minerals. To do this, avatars are created, mixing the DNA of the human participant with that of the Na'vi. In charge of this peaceful operation is Dr. Grace Augustine, played by the inimitable Sigourney Weaver, unfortunately introduced to us with some painfully trite dialogue, causing the first of many wince-inducing moments.
The first time we see Sully and his new bioligist buddy Norm (Joel David Moore) awaken from their slumber in their new temporary bodies, it's a jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring moment. Everything Cameron promised about these creatures is delivered, ten-fold. The eyes glisten with life, the movement is fluid, their skin is as real as the beaten-up Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and the gangly newborn Sully is a charm as he literally finds his feet. And then it's off to the forests of Pandora, where Sully meets the brave Na'vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). After rescuing the hapless Sully from the wildlife, Neytiri takes him on a journey of Pandora, where we fall in love with it as quickly as he does. You will gasp in wonder at the richness of this environment, with Cameron basing the flora and fauna on that which is found deep in the ocean. The vicious and slithering viperwolf looks like a freshly birthed pup, but with its bright eyes stalks the unaccustomed Sully. A hammerhead titanothere has come straight from Jurassic Park, but it's the plant life that thrills the most. At night, the forest comes to fluorescent life, and it's here the 3D effect is used to its best ability - Cameron doesn't go for the cheap shocks with the technology.
The beautiful "seeds of the sacred tree" let Neytiri know that Sully has a pure soul, and that's all it takes for this human to become trusted in her tribe. Convenient. The next hour and a half or so is devoted to Sully's new life as part of Pandora, but during Na'vi sleeping hours he comes back to the real world on the base, and is torn between his duty to a cold and brutal Colonel Quaritch and the slimy corporate whore Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, adopting the Carter Burke in Aliens role).
So adamant is Cameron in filming every part of his imagined Pandora, there is no sense of the world that has been left behind. The environmental message is not-very-subtly hammered home throughout, with the Na'vi in harmony with every part of their planet and we the great godless destructors. We know that Earth has been left virtually barren, and it's a shame we don't get a glimpse of what life is like in the 22nd century. Once Sully's mission in Pandora becomes clear, the time of frolicking in the woods is over, and all-out action begins. This leads to horrendous mirth-inducing speeches from both a hammy Colonel Quaritch and Sully himself, reminiscent of Independence Day, but without a sense of irony. It's heartbreaking to realise that minus the special effects, Avatar is honestly a pretty poor film, riddled with cliches, and cringeworthy lines. The Na'vi are very much a tribal race, and rapidly feel less alien-like as the film progresses. It doesn't surprise then, when Neytiri ends up screeching at Sully like she's on the set of Jerry Springer.
It's the all-too-convenient plot devices and ludicrous moments that stop Avatar feeling original and unique as an alien film in the way that District 9 was a breath of fresh air. It takes more than awesome skills with a computer to make a great film. Remove the liquid metal from Terminator 2 and you're still left with a fantastic mind-bending story with iconic characters and memorable lines. Ditto Aliens - what we remember from that is Ripley's transformation into a warrior to protect young Newt. Avatar leaves you with nothing but wanting to congratulate the makers for being quite good at technology and having lots of money to throw around. You will be in awe, you will enjoy it, but will you be left with a feeling of emptiness afterwards? A movie you can only appreciate in 3D is a great experience, but that makes it a theme park attraction, not something that belongs in the annals of great filmmaking.