In winter 2009 James Cameron bought us what is the biggest film, quite possibly, ever. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine recruited for a special mission on Pandora, an alien planet lusted over by money-hungry tyrants for its precious Unobtanium. The titular Avatars are the towering alien bodies human scientists control in order to get closer to the native Na’vi people. The Avatar role offered to Sully, though sadly reminding him of his dead twin brother (the person who was originally intended for the mission) gives him a new lease of life and changes his future in ways he could never have anticipated.
Thanks to his marine background Sully is quickly recruited as a double agent, to inform the more militant part of the operation of the Na’vi’s weaknesses to help them gain access to the sought-after mineral. Amidst this is the film’s ill-disguised call to protect nature. Though rather blatant, the plea is an effecting one and viewers should be warned – never before will you have been so attached to a tree.
Of course it was not Avatar‘s storyline that drove millions of people into cinemas, it was its ground-breaking use of special effects and pioneering work with motion capture. Already perfected by the Lord of the Rings team for Andy Serkis’s Gollum, the motion capture used here (more commonly referred to as ‘mo-cap’) allowed James Cameron to create a totally computer-generated world that was inhabited by its human actors. The Pandoran backdrop is, quite literally, breathtaking. When viewed in 3D few films could hope to match the visual quality provided by the film. The sweeping views of the vibrant alien world are gloriously bought to life by the film’s effects department helping make the visuals themselves very much the lead in this piece.
That’s not to say that Sam Worthington doesn’t provide a star turn as Jake. Reportedly living in his car before he was offered the role, Worthington provides the film with a hugely likeable protagonist who is increasingly torn between his loyalty to the marines and his growing love for Pandora or, more specifically, his love for native Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). His marine mentality soon gives way to a love for nature that is threatened by Giovanni Ribisi’s Selfridge and his selfish lust for the Unobtanium that lies under the tree the Na’vi worship.
Taken in by the Na’vi people, Jake learns their customs and becomes an integrated member of their society. His getting to grips with the wild obstacles the planet offers (including many terrifying six-legged creatures) is interspersed with dear diary pieces that allow for unique glimpses of retrospect. All of this is threatened when Selfridge opens fire on Pandora, a move which acts as a loose metaphor for recent wars being fought in fuel-rich countries. Despite the political undercurrent, it is nevertheless a pretty allegory.
The film is, admittedly, filled with stereotypes. With Stephen Lang’s southern Colonel, Michelle Rodriguez‘s tom-boy pilot and Sigourney Weaver‘s (hugely likeable) tree-hugging Grace, Avatar ticks many of cinema’s clichés but hey, when you’re the biggest film in history you’re allowed to cut a few corners, right? The characters all add their charm to the mix and help populate the film’s immersing scenery. With all the faux-natural beauty that oozes from the film we can’t help but wonder what would happen if David Attenborough got his mits on Pandora.
The Na’vi language used throughout the film is, impressively, a fully functional language that took years to develop. Linguistic expert Paul Frommer took on the daunting task and seven actors learnt the language. The film’s 162 minute run time (even longer in the special edition) never really takes its toll and instead allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the world of Pandora.
With two follow-ups threatening to sink or swim (we think its going to be a case of the latter with this original offering grossing over $2 billion to date) as well as pioneering special effects that could barely be imagined a decade before, Avatar, although providing a slightly flawed story, has created a legacy that films will struggle to beat.
|Seeing inner Pandora for the first time.|
|"I need to take some samples".|
|The floating mountains.|
|The flying pterodactyl-like creatures.|
|Cameron originally wanted the film to be ready in 1999 but the budget his effects demanded were deemed too high... we wonder what the film would have looked like ten years ago. Interestingly enough each frame used here reportedly took 47 man hours to create. Ouch.|