When you get a call from your boss on your day off, it’s normally bad news. When said call comes from a bed ridden, flu stricken boss, one can only assume he’s offering you an exciting opportunity to edit a 5,000 word feature. It turns out, however, that Riyad had received two late-in-the-day invitations to the world premiere of Avatar, James Cameron’s much talked about 3D spectacular, on Thursday night. I’d been looking forward to seeing Avatar anyway, so what better way to do just that?
I was joined for the evening by our News Editor Gordon Kelly who, as we walked down the blue carpet (if you’ve seen any of the trailers you’ll understand why), paused to take a photo of the gathered paparazzi on his iPhone. “For the irony,” he told me. Is that the irony of taking a photo of the paparazzi, or the irony of taking a photo of said paps (all kitted out with the finest camera tech money can buy) using a crappy, iPhone camera? As a true critic might say, it works on so many levels!
As we waited for the assembled celebs and other hangers on like ourselves to take their seats, I reflected on my expectations for the film. For a long time I’d assumed the cinema, with its big screens and surround sound systems, was the place to enjoy 3D and if any film was to take advantage, Avatar would be it. Even with this in mind, however, my view was of healthy scepticism. I’d yet to be convinced of 3D, but as the film began to run I was fully prepared to be converted.
If Avatar was to do this, it would need a good story and now seems a good time for a quick (spoiler free) summary. Avatar is the story of Jake Sully; a crippled ex-marine who, after the murder of his twin brother, is recruited to take his place as an avatar (a genetically engineered version of Pandora’s native humanoid inhabitants the Na’vi) since only his DNA will bond with it. He’s there to aid the human mining operation on Pandora, a role which he becomes more important to when he inadvertently comes into closer contact with the natives than any other avatar operator.
So that’s the synopsis, but unfortunately this setup doesn’t produce a classic piece of storytelling. As a film alone Avatar veers from intriguing in its opening movements, mediocre as its middle chapter sags along, to momentarily exhilarating as the action ramps up in the final third. On the whole, though, despite decent performances from most of the cast, it’s a story that rarely enthralls.
Anyone with even a passing interest in anime, something James Cameron is very interested in, will see the parallels in Avatar. Its overarching themes of the balance between man and nature, Gaia theory (never named, but certainly implied) and our abuses of nature are stringent throughout, echoing the sentiments made by Hayao Miyazaki in his films – particularly Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and the better-known Princess Mononoke. Throw in some mechanised fetishism, the kind Japanese animation has long specialised in, and it’s hard to mistake the artistic influences at work here.
Unfortunately, as I found, anyone familiar with such material will find Avatar somewhat shallow in comparison. It certainly doesn’t deal with the ecological message with any of the charm, tact or subtlety of Miyazaki’s best work, choosing rather to spoon feed a narrow, two-dimensional message sprinkled with the kind of references to Iraq and Vietnam that are so common as to be tedious these days.
It’s this lack of depth that makes it all too easy to pigeon hole Avatar as a piece of leftist, tree hugging sentimentality – as some people (not unreasonably) will – or champion as something more significant than it really is. As political statements go it’s more The Day After Tomorrow than Dr. Strangelove.