A few weeks ago I vented my stuffy air about not liking this new 3D technology in the cinema. And then this week there I sat with a pair of 3D specs, like a big hypocrite, waiting to see just what James Cameron has been up to for the last ten years and what all the fuss is about his new film Avatar. He’s trumpeted about the groundbreaking 3D technology so much I assumed it must be worth a go. And so I “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” as the screen leapt into life in front of me, depth added to landscapes and things flying out of the screen into my face. What isn’t advertised is the headaches, blurred vision and general annoyance as your brain attempts to adjust to the specs, my pathetic short-sighted handicap meaning I had the added problem of wearing 3D specs on top of normal specs, which when not properly lined up created a dizzying blurred 3D mess. I’m not making sweeping statements here, but James Cameron is obviously prejudiced against people who wear glasses.
Anyway, as well as 3D technology, Cameron has followed his passion for pushing the boundaries of effects. The Abyss saw the first computer generated silver wormy thing, Terminator 2 unleashed stunning effects on the T1000, subsequently used in Alex Mack (there’s progress for you), and Titanic brought in lots of little CGI people falling to their deaths. In Avatar, 60% of the film is computer generated using motion capture and photo-realistic technology. It does look pretty ace. The aliens – Navi – move and emote so smoothly that you begin to see them as just another set of actors, lead female Neytiri (voiced and motion captured by Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana) being the strongest and most enjoyable to watch. The landscapes are sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, and the critters are odd and deftly constructed. It all looks pretty damn good, really.
But here I am reviewing a film and not yet have I actually mentioned the film itself. For all the fancy visuals and teccy gizmos, a film has to stand on its own merits too. And Avatar… well, Cameron may have spent ten years on the effects, but he appears to have spent about ten minutes on the story. Namely, he watched Disney’s Pocahontas, then watched a BBC Wildlife documentary while inhaling sherbet. Bish bash bosh, there’s your story. The Navi are giant blue creatures with tails and weird tentacles that come out of their hair. But they also talk in African accents, have dreadlocks, a “chief” who wears feathers around his shoulders, a “witch-doctor” type person who has bones and stuff, and are “at one” with the earth and all the forest creatures. Take such blatant clichés, and the laziness increases when you add in more cooker-cutter human characters – the lanky geeky tech guy, the noble scientist, the corrupt company man after money, the insane army man after blood, and Michelle Rodriguez (seriously, does she turn up to all film and TV sets and bring her own costume – “it’s alright guys, I’ll just use the one from last time”.) Here’s an idea - sod the fancy 3D, try getting your characters’ dimensions up to two first.
Despite the transparent plot, Avatar manages to kick into enjoyment mode when the fighting begins. There is definitely excitement to be had by watching dragons attack helicopters in 3D and perfect graphics. Leads Sam Worthington (dim muscle with a cheeky grin) and Zoe Saldana are reasonably charming, and Cameron’s trademark penchant for having strong female leads is still apparent, and most welcome. The 3D works in places, adding depth to cockpits and landscapes, but hinders or distracts in others. The effects are breathtaking. But wrap up a bootleg copy of Pocahontas in pretty paper and it’s still a crappy copy underneath. Avatar is enjoyable, no doubt helping the film universe make further strides into jaw-dropping effects, but failing at the basics like plot and character. It’s fun but nothing more, and so ends the year with a CF0.