Avatar is an incredibly unsubtle film. It’s politics are that of an earnest seventeen year old who has just read up on Manifest Destiny. The dialogue is corny and contrived, with exchanges such as “nothing’s over till I say it’s over” “I kinda hoped you’d say that”. The plotline is extremely predictable, you should be able to guess every major character death without exception and most plot twists are so clearly set up they might as well have used big flags and arrows. In fact in some cases I’d swear they had.
And so we have a precious mineral buried under the Smurfs’ tree village, and there is a well meaning woolly liberal attempt to integrate with the tribe to persuade them to move through diplomacy. And a big army to stomp all over that and bring out the big guns, despite woolly liberals shouting.
The American Army are the bad guys. The Innocent Native Smurfs are the good guys. And aside for some roughing around the edges that’s pretty much the way it stays. You are, however, allowed to switch sides.
It is often an incredibly unsubtle and unironic version of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. In that, again, the victorious humans were the bad guys and the bugs were the good guys, but that was a subtext that went over many people’s heads and the film was richer for it. This time it’s going to smack people in the face.
There is a sop. We’re told, in voiceover that this army are mercenaries. Ex-soldiers, now working for the Company. This is never brought up again aside from one mention of serving shareholders. Indeed a morale raising speech in the third act about fighting terrorists with terror should hardly have been necessary, all you’d need to do is raise the soldiers’ bank balances. This is clearly the American army first, and secondly any other colonial invading army.
And while the good Americans are dead keen to switch sides, the bad Americans have no redeeming features. We’re never given any sign of sympathy towards them, they are hard American emotionless soldiers, they are weak-willed corporate puppets, they are mindless killing drones.
While the Smurfs are deep and wise and understanding and while they may be bristly of outsiders, that is understandable and, under the right circumstances, that reserve can be broken down. They might as well have had flowers in their hair. Instead of on their breasts.
And with one outsider joining them, becoming one of them and then fighting to save them, suddenly we’re in that oddLast of The Mohicans/Last Samuraiplot point where a White Guy has to come to terms with themselves by using a non-white/hopefully-primitive culture to do so. Primitive society shows White Guy what he has lost inside, through his decadence, White Guy joins primitive culture and appreciates its strengths, before flipping and joining the other team, often in an unwinnable battle against his previous comrades. And Avatar is definitely one of those kinds of films.
So I thought I’d lead with the negatives first. You know, to get the cynics on board before going flipside. Because this film is outstanding. A marvel. A wonder. And here are a few reasons why.
1) Possibly the greatest achievement of the movie is creating an alien world, with many similarities to our own – trees, fauna, bipeds and quadrupeds and the like, but with repeated distinct differences. The forest is alive and connected, and full of light even in the darkness. It’s a supporting ecosystem that the Smurfs are a part of – at the end of their pony tail is a connecting female duct that joins with similar ducts in the animals and plants around them, creating an instant symbiotic relationship, the origins of which and the depths within provide many fascinating and textured moments in the film. And in 3D, it’s an immersive experience like no other. A fictitious nature documentary but with stuff that blows up and bestiality.
2) Sigourney Weaver doesn’t do Aliens as might have been expected. She does Gorillas In the Mist instead. Her character is clever, funny and tender, and adamant and strong when necessary, but also has complex frailties. She bent over backwards to understand the Smurfs but will dismiss a human being in an instant for not being what she wants at that moment. And she shines out from inside her Smurf cosplay suit.
3) This film leaps over the uncanny valley. Not satisfied with one utterly convincing CGI character, it has a village of them, each individual, each distinct, each real, with their own expressions portrayed in convincing detail. Nothing looks like an XBox cut scene. This is as big a jump for the cinema screen as Jurassic Parkwas, in portraying the unportrayable convincingly. Very human-like creatures who couldn’t have humans in a rubber suit to play them. Though not one of the Smurfettes suffers from a flower malfunction.
4) Just as the elements of the natural world are explored in all their detail, the science elements and war procedural porn elements are also top notch. Cameron is in his element here, and this is a clean army, more Starship Troopers than Battlestar Galactica. You follow the grunts, the top brass, the political/mercantile types doing their jobs and the scientists sticking their oar in – and when given Smurf bodies, stepping up. And providing an injured soldier with a wonderful new world to play in.
5) And yes I said the politics were juvenile. But out of that you get some remarkable scenes which jolt you upright from the implications. Such as American soldiers turning against their army and fellow soldiers, fighting and killing them with hardly a thought, yet bringing the audience with them. This may play as well as it did tonight in a cinema on Leicester Square, London, in more provincial towns in the USA. But damn, whatever your background it’s an unnerving, unexpected sensation and it lifts the film onto yet another plateau.
Because, no, despite some descriptions, this isn’t Smurfs Vs Transformers. It’s Dr Strangelove Vs Tolkein’s Elves. Doesn’t that sound like more fun?
One slight warning: I have a problem with modern 3D films in that it takes an hour at least for my eyes to have any chance of adjusting and focusing on what’s going on. Thankfully this is almost three hours long, so I got into it when I could.
Also, this film does suffer from 3D cutoff, images in the foreground that are cut off by the screen. It hurts the brain to work that out and I really wish people would stop it. On the other hand the foreground detailed objects work is remarkable, with bubbles, embers, leaves, insects and ashes floating around in front of your eyes. Nice. As is the use of 3D screens and photos in the film itself. Look! 3D in 3D!
There will be plenty more to write about Avatar. I have barely scratched the surface here. Some will enjoy it as much as I did. Some will enjoy it more. And many will mock.
But those people who’ve already done Top Ten lists for Sci-Fi films of the decade… you posted early. Yes Avatar is flawed. But it’s great despite those flaws. And that’s an amazing achievement in itself.
Rich Johnston attended a preview of Avatar in 3D courtesy of Substance PR & Promotions. Avatar is released on the 17th December in the UK and on the 18th December, USA.