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June 2010

Avatar

cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, and Giovanni Ribisi

director: James Cameron

155 minutes (12) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox
DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
review by Christopher Geary

Avatar

Much hyped, perhaps over-discussed, most popular, successful, best-selling DVD, blah, etc... What's all the fuss about, really? This is only another blockbuster. Don't get so excited... Usually, wannabe auteur James Cameron appears to start his genre film projects with the very best of intentions, but along the way, he always seems to get distracted by flexibility of new technology or studio demands of mainstreaming SF ideas for maximum (dumbest audience) appeal, so he ends up including at least one too many of those big crowd-pleasing moments, and then all of his creativity is compromised. Strict adherence to intellectually fascinating science fictional themes is abandoned in favour of whatever sounds, or looks, cool. It's no wonder that there were so many critical jokes, like incisive quip 'dances with smurfs', about Avatar. It doesn't help that Avatar has only a thoroughly derivative plot, lacking any fresh SF concepts whatsoever.

We are often told that drama not only thrives on conflict between characters and/ or ideologies, but that conflict is the most essential component of drama. Here's the problem, though... Genuine conflict in Avatar is nowhere to be found in that final battle. That's just a special effects showcase; a fighting sequence that's symbolic of the real clash in this film - which is a collision between disparate genres of SF and fantasy. Avatar is, quite honestly, James Cameron's attempt at creating his version of Star Wars - the sci-fi phenomenon which, for all its faults (and, let's face it, they are numerous, despite the franchised movies' popularity), boasted a vastly superior integration of SF and fantasy than Avatar.

The original Star Wars trilogy remains compelling today because, at heart, it's a romantic space fantasy, a highly effective melding of space adventure with fairy tale traditions. But, in Avatar, the opposing worlds or worldviews of native alien 'elves' and the human 'space invaders' are kept wholly separate, with interaction between these two different species being limited by Pandora's - reportedly - toxic environment: again, symbolising the deep division and incompatibility between the futuristic utopianism of SF (where the problems of connectivity and interaction between politics, culture and religion are considered, if not solved by radical social changes) and the pure escapism of a traditional fantasy (where anything goes and everything works magically because, even in quest sagas, the whole point is to avoid the necessary hassles of realistic problem solving).

In order to accept Pandora's indigenous natives - the Na'vi, as aliens instead of elves, requires an unsustainable level of suspension of disbelief by genre-literate audiences. What are the odds that 'blue monkeys' from a distant star system would have DNA that's compatible with our race - especially if their natural environment is lethal to humans? This is only the first of many very bad-SF elements in the untenable construction of Avatar's botched sci-fi action milieu. When SF 'world-building' just falls apart so easily, with one gentle prod from scientific logic, then said environment can - and should - be relegated to status of a traditional heroic fantasy-scape.

As such, Pandora is satisfactory, not as a fantastical alien planetoid but a fabled faerie landscape of wildcats, troll beasts, and - most tellingly for Avatar - dragons. In fact, this peculiar combination of dragon and elf analogues so completely undermines any acceptance of Pandora as an SF 'world' instead of a fantasy 'realm', that disbelief becomes the only sensible option. Belief in Pandora as planetoid not dreamland is wholly irrational, as it contradicts basic science fictional thinking in both speculative literary mode and conventions of the media sci-fi affect.

Apart from the film's hopelessly clumsy mix-up of SF and fantasy, there's also one other element of its scenario's construction that screams of cynical mainstream cinema themes... I had thought, at first, that one good thing about Avatar was its complete lack of a clichéd teen romance subplot. However, on second viewing, it became obvious how much the sensual virtuality of Pandora is crippled, homesick hero Jake's nostalgic dreamscape of primeval jungle, drawn from racial memory and embellished with a few tokens of weak otherness. For re-birth into this Edenic paradise, Jake is gifted with a new 'alien' body (a transformation highly symbolic of puberty), stays out all night (against his ersatz parents' wishes), and promptly falls in love with very first 'girl' that he meets. So, here's - unsubtly alternative - teen romance, anyway... (uh, yawn).

The filmmakers enjoy their fun and games, borrowing from western culture-clashes and Vietnam jungle warfare themes, remixed with pseudo spiritual vibe, but overall it's something like having a recycling party serving a pre-owned cake that's already been eaten and shat out. Seen as colourful animated spectacle Avatar is good, but if viewed as important contribution to genre cinema it's simply a thematic mess and a narrative failure. This is a ruinously contrived and staggeringly dumb movie, one so bereft of bold imagination or bright ideas at work that, even if tagged as a potential masterwork of cutting-edge CGI, Avatar is an utterly wasted opportunity.

Disc extras: none at all. But, when a film's mix of genres is so badly conceived; who cares?



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