Sunday, December 20, 2009



  • Released Internationally on 18/12/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 16/12/09
  • Showing in ‘RealD’ 3D at Empire Cinemas, Buġibba and in 2D everywhere else

In a nutshell

Against the odds, the man who made Terminator 2, Aliens and Titanic has made probably his best film yet.

Brand Cameron

A former truck driver, James Cameron is one of the very few directors working today who can sell a film just with his name. But whilst Jackson, Spielberg, Lucas, Burton and co. have been churning out hit after hit over the past ten years, Cameron has been lying low ever since Titanic in 1997. Very low, in fact, because whilst basking in the glory of Titanic’s unprecedented success, he visited the actual shipwreck and learnt the ways of deep-sea exploration. The resulting documentaries, Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep are the only work of his we’ve seen since, but we now have ample proof that he was hard at work.

How to hype

The project had allegedly been mulling in Cameron’s head since the early 90s, but he claims the special effects were not advanced enough at the time. Midway through this decade word starting surfacing that he was back at work, slowly developing the project, and the past couple of years have been peppered with announcements about how great the film was going to be. Hype can be a bad thing, but with a director like this claiming he has been working on a project for nearly a decade, it’s hard not to get carried away and hope for the best. A chosen few got to see previews of the special effects from as early as last March, and the praise was quite steep. Cameron is one of the directors who has fully embraced the new ‘RealD’ 3D technology, and he claimed the resulting 3D effects his team had managed to develop would be unlike anything seen before. Great expectations, indeed.

So what’s an Avatar?

Avatar is a word that has been around for quite a while, and means embodiment or re-incarnation. It took on a new meaning in the digital age, as a way of referring to your virtual persona in computer games or online communities, or more commonly, the little photo in which you think you look cute, which you use on MSN messenger or similar fora. In the context of this film, it refers to artificially grown creatures, which humans can inhabit and control from the comfort of a bed in a lab.


Forget little green aliens – these elegant creatures are tall, feline and bright blue. The Na’vi are the indigenous race on the planet Pandora, which humans are trying to settle on in the not-too-distant future. The humans are after vast amounts of precious minerals found in the planet’s rock, but the natives aren’t too pleased with the intrusion. Hence the Avatar programme, whereby scientists are trying to infiltrate the locals, learn their ways and gain their trust.

Jake and Neytiri

Relative newcomer Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation), who has struck pure gold with his performance in this most prominent role, is Jake Sully, a paraplegic war veteran who gets drafted into the program at the eleventh hour to replace his late twin brother. Lacking the expertise, but being eager to experience standing on his ‘own’ two feet again, he takes to his avatar like a duck to water, and before long finds himself deep in native territory and hospitality, where no others have managed before. The plot is rather predictable from there on, with his guide, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, Star Trek) being quite a stunning alien, and eventually causing Jake to doubt on which side his heart lies.

Who else is in it?

Aliens veteran Sigourney Weaver is Dr. Grace, who heads the scientific part of the program, and has to fend off the military and managerial teams who are more interested in quick results than her work. Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, Lost in Translation) has a brief but layered role as the chief of the operation, who has to balance the demands of the shareholders back home with the lives of the Na’vi. Stephen Lang (Public Enemies) is the head of the military team, an unfortunately two-dimensional character the likes of whom we’ve seen countless times before, but who serves his purpose well and is a not-too-subtle mockery of the US military. The saving grace of the military side comes in the form of Michelle Rodriguez (S.W.A.T., Lost) as Trudy, the one soldier on Pandora who seems to sympathise with Dr. Grace and her ideals.

Truly special effects

Cameron has frequently astounded audiences with the effects in his films, from the close encounters of The Abyss to the mercurial magic of Terminator 2, and of course the rather convincing sinking of that ill-fated ship. Here, however, he clearly sets a new standard. Just like Jurassic Park ushered in the age of believable computer generated creatures, and The Two Towers elevated the craft by making one creature an emotional, heartbreaking main character, this film outdoes all that came before it. Given an extra layer of believability by the stunning 3D, the Na’vi, who count in the hundreds, populate the film, and interact seamlessly with each other, the humans, and the breathtaking habitat of Pandora. The crowning achievement is the believable love story, which is no mean feat considering that the protagonists are figments of imagination.

“All energy is only borrowed – someday we have to give it back”

Pandora has to be seen to be believed. Created from scratch, it is a central character as much as any other. It is packed with fantastic creatures that make birds of paradise look dull, jaw-dropping scenery and the most beautiful vegetation ever to grace the screen. The Na’vi are very close to nature, and they literally interact with the animals and plants around them as part of their culture. The settings are as much a marvel as the characters, and Pandora provides many of the year’s most beautiful shots, especially those involving the seeds from the ‘Tree of Souls’, the bio-luminance and the ‘floating mountains’. The overall Progress vs. Nature theme is powerfully conveyed, and in no subtle terms (maybe they should have premiered it at the Copenhagen summit).

Cameron shoots, Horner scores

Inexhaustible composer James Horner penned one of his best action scores for Aliens, and won an Oscar thanks to a few moments of sheer beauty in Titanic, so he was probably eager for Avatar to see the light of day. His score provides a voice for the alien Na’vi, with choral pieces and tribal chants, as well as complementing the many spectacular scenes with a beautiful but simple main theme. He returns to action mode for the pulsating and visceral final act of the film, rounding off what is probably his best score of the decade.

So is it perfect?

The film has its flaws, but they are mostly minor and forgivable. As mentioned, the plot is predictable, and the concept has been written and filmed before. Still, the film still manages to fly past despite its 162 minute running time, also thanks to Cameron’s effective use of video logs to propel the story forward without making his montages seem out of place. A few of the military locations and set pieces seem lifted from Aliens, but I guess that is Cameron’s vision of the future, and a couple of decades need not change much. Lang’s hard-lined character never develops beyond his stereotype, but at least he’s consistently bad and an easy character to hate. He also proves essential for a great symbolic duel between natural avatars and technological avatars – another action sequence which Cameron does with class.

In the end

I’m not completely sure whether it was my expectations or the spectacle I was watching, but there was an undeniable sense of occasion when watching this epic unfold. Cameron has managed to create an entire world, down to the last detail, and his effects wizards have made it one of the most beautiful worlds we have ever been transported to. But this is no effects demonstration held together by a flimsy plot – it’s a well-written, well-rounded and engrossing film that should appeal to a wide range of audiences. James Cameron has delivered once again, and has lovingly crafted a film that I predict will stand the test of time. Treat yourself this Christmas – go watch it in 3D as it is meant to be seen.



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