Avatar | Film review

After all the hype, James Cameron's 3D sci-fi spectacular is supposed to be the fast-track to the future of film. But is it just too weird for its own good, asks Peter Bradshaw

After a run-up lasting 12 years, James Cameron has taken an almighty flying leap into the third dimension. His first new film for over a decade is in super-sleek new-tech 3D, and it is breathlessly reported to have taken the medium of cinema to the next level. And who knows? When Michelangelo completed his sculpture of David in 1504, he probably thought it made flat paintings look ever so slightly Betamax. Maybe he put a consoling arm round the shoulder of Sandro Botticelli as the two men looked ruefully at Primavera, and murmured caustically: "Little bit eight-track, isn't it darling? A touch Sinclair C5, a smidgen video top-loader – compared to, you know, sculpture?" That extra dimension makes the difference, and a recent village fete in Ilfracombe offered an absolute   game-changer of a hoopla-stall in   hi-def first-person interactive 3D – or 4D, come to think of it, if you count the time dimension.

After the extremes of hype and backlash attending Cameron's solemn "unveiling" of a taster-trailer earlier this year, the film itself emerges as a watchable and entertaining if uncompromisingly ridiculous sci-fi spectacular, unable to decide if it wants to kick the ass of every alien in sight or get all eco-touchy-feely with them. It's a Dubya movie trying its darnedest to get with the new Obama programme.

One hundred years or so hence, planet Earth is attempting to solve its energy issues by mining a rare new mineral cutely called "Unobtainium". This mineral is only to be found on a distant planet, in the very centre of a lush tropical forest, packed with quirky-scary CGI animals, under a giant Edenic tree which is the spiritual home of the planet's aboriginal inhabitants: 12-ft blue quasi-humanoids called the Na'vi, who have pointy ears, flat noses, ethnic dreadlocks, beads, and who all look like Angelina Jolie's ugly sister, especially the men. An American mining corporation has established a private army base there, getting ready to drive the natives off their land, led by the psychotically gung-ho Col Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) – a mixture of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now and Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove. There is talk of fighting "terror with terror" and unleashing a "shock and awe" campaign.

But as part of a PR-led hearts-and-minds programme, it also has a scientific unit led by Dr Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, which plans to study the inhabitants, get to know them, and crucially create remote-controllable Na'vi bodies or "Avatars", which individual humans can pilot from afar into the jungle, to parley with the natives in their own exotic, subtitled language and ask what it might take to get them to withdraw voluntarily. And one such pilot is Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, a badass former soldier now injured and permanently in a wheelchair.

He is thrilled at the glorious virtual-reality of his new 12-ft Avatar alien body; he exults in the jungle adventure, and at first wants only to spy on the Na'vi to facilitate the upcoming invasion. But then he meets the beautiful female Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and goes native. Sully sees a chance for something that, as a disabled war veteran, he thought might be forever denied him: a chance to have non-disabled sex – and fall in love. When the big battle comes, Jake finds himself fighting for the Na'vi, on the side of the colonial oppressed.

The digitally created world meshes pretty much seamlessly with ordinary reality in an undoubtedly impressive way. But Cameron has always been a technical pioneer. Schwarzenegger's T1 robot chassis was a marvel of special effects, and in Titanic, it wasn't simply a matter of creating the great sinking itself. An extraordinary number of quite ordinary-looking locations and scenes were fabricated in front of a green-screen in way we didn't quite grasp at the time. The effects of Avatar are certainly something to see, especially on an Imax screen the size of an upended football field. But it's difficult to tell if the game has really been changed or not. How we all goggled at the detail and definition of the images in Shrek in 2001 – a film now admired for the quality of the script and characterisation. And I remember being in the audience for Jurassic Park in 1993, and hearing someone in the auditorium almost hyper-ventilate with astonishment at those ultra-realistic dinosaurs. And now … well … Jurassic Park … it's something you glimpse on ITV4 while switching over to watch Dave.

But perhaps we're all looking in the wrong direction, frantically inspecting Avatar for evidence of James Cameron's hi-tech machismo and undiminished box office clout. Strip away from this movie the director's massive reputation, and you have a truly weird story about an aggressive futureworld corporation bankrolling avatar-technology so that human beings can insinuate themselves into the lives of aliens to seduce them. What an indie-freaky idea it is – and that is what makes it an experience.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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