Avatar: thrills and contradictions

By Hannah Kowszun
16 Feb 2010

'Avatar' - film; directed by James Cameron, 2009; Rated PG-13 (USA)

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Before he made Terminator 2, James Cameron made a smaller, far less commercially acclaimed film called The Abyss, in which he experimented with the technology for T2. This was a set-piece for the special effects of the time, which Cameron and his team were pioneering, as well as an enjoyable sci-fi thriller. Perhaps the commercial success of Titanic gave him the confidence to throw his production team into the thrill of Avatar and new 3D cinema techniques without a test run, but the result is a movie that has audiences and critics alike considering the film as a cinema 'experience' and not just a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Discerning cinema-goers who appreciate subtle metaphor and sophisticated dialogue will be disappointed with Avatar. However, for everyone else it is a feast of action, beauty and artistry, framed by a script that is clunky at best and a message obvious even to the most hardened of anti-environmentalists.

Avatar begins at some undisclosed point in the far future, when humankind has sought lebensraum among the stars. On the planet Pandora is a precious and valuable resource, which humans would like to mine for financial gain. Also on the planet is an indigenous race, the Na`vi, who do not want their planet raped of its natural resources. Enter a marine, crippled in action, who joins a small band of idealistic scientists in place of his twin brother on their 'avatar' programme. In a body grown using Na`vi and human DNA, he is able to walk, run and truly live again. As a warrior rather than a scientist, he is able to integrate into Na`vi society in a way his colleagues never could, and in so doing, learns their secrets.

The rest is perhaps predictable but never tedious, despite the three-hour run time. Relative new-comer Sam Worthington is believable as jarhead Corporal Jake Sully, offset by the tangible sensuality of Zoe Saldana as his blue-skinned female lead, Neytiri. In creating the Na`vi characters, Cameron retains the features of the actors playing them, which is almost comical when Sigourney Weaver as head scientist Dr Grace Augustine first smiles. With a remaining less well-known cast, the Na`vi people are believably alien, as is the planet Pandora itself. The juxtaposition of identifiably human technology with the fantastical terrain and beautifully realised alien flora and fauna renders an effect that is occasionally cartoonish but never ventures into parody.

All of the humans are also American, which is either an unfortunate coincidence or a political statement. That said, they are not all bad people, demonstrating that salvation really is open to all. However as the action tends to centre on the life of Pandora, the ever-watchable Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez have less screen time than they deserve.

The pro-environment message of the film is clear, at one point even referencing an Earth that has no green spaces left. However, there are other messages within the film that – should the stunning visual effects not distract you – make both direct and indirect comments on the nature of our modern way of life: there is the exemplary Na`vi attitude towards monogamy, which will please conservative Christians; women are as strong and respected as men, which will appease feminist film-goers; there is a moneyless society, which does not strive for success through greed and self-interest; and there is the myth of redemptive violence, for which the more cynical might suggest once the credits have rolled there cannot be a happily ever after.

Inevitably there is a lot of spin-off activity from Avatar film flooding the internet and one of my favourites is this film about Avatar Live Action Role Playing.

Even without the 3D effects, this is still an impressive film, which only the most jaded of movie-lovers will fail to enjoy. However there is a bitter irony in a film which extols the virtues of simple living and condemns greed becoming the highest-grossing blockbuster of all time. Perhaps Cameron will be offsetting his success to the tune of a rainforest or two.

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© Hannah Kowszun works in the voluntary sector. She studied theology at the University of Cambridge and edits the 'Faith in Practice' section of Third Way, the Christian social and cultural comment magazine. Her blog is at: http://commutertheology.wordpress.com/

Keywords: avatar | cinema | film | film award | films
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