sat 16/12/2017

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Schlock and awe: James Cameron is king of a whole new world

Shooting 'Avatar' was anything but straight: performance-captured Na'vi

There is a sequence in which a monstrous tree of otherworldly dimensions, its boughs as sturdy as oaks, its twigs as vigorous as saplings, crashes spectacularly to earth in roaring, creaking, shattering, time-expanding slo-mo. In a film that’s full of them, this is very much the premier-cru money shot. Remember the last time the director, deploying the computer-generated forces of a sound-stage deity, downed another very large object? Back then it was a boat. This time it’s a piece of wood. Tiiim-ber-r-rr!!

There is no argument, of course. Avatar is an astonishing creation. For sheer technological gimcrackery, for the majesty of its cinemascopic vistas, the limitless reach of its ambition, there are not the superlatives. This film is a lordly statement of omnipotence. Cameron and his team of production-designing illusionists have alchemised mere pixels into a photosynthetising habitat of luminous filigree beauty. Here is a filmmaker who has the vision, the drive and, most of all, the time and bottomless supply of dollars required to summon up a world of his own choosing. It teems alike with crunching military super-kit (pictured) and tiny botanical phosphorescences.

Hardware2So this is just a small quibble, but in Cameron’s fictive planet Pandora there is an awful lot of useless timber about the place. And most of it’s in the dialogue. Sometimes you can’t see the characters for the trees. It's well worth catching Avatar in 3D. But don't expect those wacky specs to reveal any depth in the speaking parts.

George Lucas, who never cared about such piffling matters as character, will have already eaten his heart out. When it comes to the fetishisation of hardware, not to mention the infantilisation of mythology, Avatar leaves the Star Wars brand trailing in its carbon-neutral jet vapour. You wonder how Peter Jackson feels too. The performance-capture technology from the WETA workshop in Wellington that gave us Gollum and Kong has moved comprehensively on. Cameron has hired all that Kiwi know-how to bring to life a whole race of likely-looking people, stampeding horse-like sextupeds and a pack of marauding canines, plus slithering, snapping monsters of every hue. Here be all creatures great and small.

It’s been put about that the germ for Avatar first suggested itself to Cameron when even Titanic was barely more than a glimmer in his eye. The idea is the big one about bad stuff being nigh. In this incarnation of a familiar fable, we are halfway through the 22nd century. An American quest for renewable energy leads state-backed prospectors to a distant postal district of the solar system where – and this is not a joke - a substance called unobtainium is available in abundance. Problem is it’s sitting under the home of the Na’vi who, having been here for 10,000 years, are disinclined to budge. The intruders have yet to unleash the full panoply of their petrifying arsenal. But diplomacy isn’t working.

Avatar_wakes_upAs visualised by Cameron’s production designers, the resident humanoids are a handsome lot. They are distinguished by flat Grecian noses, wide innocent pools for eyes, elegant elongated bodies that, in the females of the species, have a taunting flat-stomached perfection. Their most striking feature is the blue pigmentation of their skin, the same colour on the Dulux chart as those oxidised-bronze Aztec masks. Plus they can run and jump like the wind. The odd detail aside, the Na'vi are basically a computerised version of the US track and field team.

But they are being infiltrated. US scientists have managed to mix the DNA of the locals with their own to develop a pair of simulacra they call avatars. All their human operators have to do to activate them is clunk and click themselves into a kind of consciousness-connection pod, and they wake up in the body of their avatar. (Or if you want to be snitty, into their own video game.) And unlike the humans, they can breathe Pandora's poisonous air.

Problem is that one operator has died. Luckily he has a twin brother with identical DNA who can be shipped out on the next intergalactic flight. Unluckily, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington in scowling school-of-Clooney mode) is a former marine invalided out of the service in a wheelchair. The scientists, led by Signourney Weaver, are less than pleased to be sent a crippled grunt. The head of security, one of those central-casting martinets with knuckles for nuts (Stephen Lang, pictured below with Worthington), is rather happier: he sees Sully as ideal for tribal espionage. Thus our blank-slate hero infiltrates the Na’vi with two sets of instructions ringing in his pointy new ears.

Lang_WorthingtonAnd from thereon in, as it sets foot in the not quite natural wilderness beyond the gates, Avatar manages to spring a miraculous surprise in every frame. The weird thing is that it simultaneously contrives to be the most unsurprising movie you have ever seen. Down to almost the last syllable, it delivers exactly what you would expect of it. Its fidelity to known precedent goes way beyond the classic three-act structure: this script treads ultra-cautiously in the pre-set footprints of many a bygone narrative. Even the big setpiece monster fights have been blocked out before in Jurassic Park and King Kong. It seems extraordinary that a film could have such an obsessive-compulsive interest in invention whenever it’s painting pictures, and yet it couldn’t care less about making the words original. Cameron's resident philologists may have gone to the effort of creating for the Na'vi a Mayan-sounding tongue with a 1000-word vocab. That doesn't stop it tumbling out in subtitled cliché.

We could walk through the plot here but you really do know it already. Sully is, needless to say, enchanted and seduced by the Na’vi way of life, particularly the comely chieftain's daughter Neytiri (voiced and physicalised by Zoë Saldana, pictured below) who finds and trains him. The only question concerns precisely when he will decide to switch allegiance and fight for them rather than the Sky People, as the airborne prospectors are known, in the coming Armageddon. If you closed your eyes, you could swear you’d walked into a screening of Pocahontas.

That was Disney’s flagrant revisionist whitewash of blood-stained history: they came, they saw, they went away in peace. If you really squint, you can see that Cameron may be seeking to heal similar wounds. Avatar comes at you like a very expensive summation of the blotted American copybook: it evokes not only the settlers’ genocidal run-in with the natives, but also those bodybags sent back from the real jungle of ‘Nam, and latterly the quagmire of the Middle East (“We will fight terror with terror,” someone says fairly explicitly at one point.) At least these made-up Neo-Cons have the balls to admit they just want to drill. The liberal in Cameron would seem to be arguing that imperialists should know their place. But the entertainer in him does love a gunfight.

Navi_femaleAnd then there’s the take-home message about caring for the environment. The Na’vi may be blue, but they’re also green. Out of their mouths (they have excellent dentistry on Pandora, by the way) come spiritual cod-nostrums about sacred trees and being at one with nature. When they kill for meat, these people have the decency to apologise to their expiring prey.

All this guilt and millenarian anxiety is quite a heavy agenda for one blockbusting entertainment to shoulder. There is, fortunately, the odd joke. Adlibbing, Sully introduces himself to the tribal chiefs as a warrior of the Jarhead clan. When he moves among the flock of dragon-like creatures trying to choose one as his mount, Neytiri advises that the creature will also choose him. “How will I know which one?” “He will try to kill you.” But they are fairly rare. Cameron was never much of humourist.

And yet for long stretches you can forget all these quibbles. However unambitious the narrative, there are ravishing pleasures aplenty. Sully’s induction into Na’vi society includes one remarkable sequence in which they clamber into a range of floating mountains, shinny up hanging creepers and hop along a distant ridge like a swarming colony of ants. There is never any danger of awe fatigue.

For all the jaw-dropping novelty, Cameron is still the proud dad who likes showing you the family snaps. The headless exoskeletal robots manned by the American military feel like the Terminator's steroid-fed grandchildren. From the director’s other mission in space comes the ass-kicker formerly known as Ripley. Aliens also supplies a Hispanic musclewoman, retooled here as a somewhat prettier chopper pilot. Those peaks hanging in mid-air are distant cousins of a well-known iceberg. And then there’s that tree sundering magnificently like the Titanic. He’s king of a different world this time round. You just wish that you hadn't heard everything that's said there before.

Overleaf: watch the Special Edition trailer of Avatar

 


If you closed your eyes, you could swear you’d walked into a screening of Pocahontas

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