Avatar is the space between dreams and reality, fantasy and science fiction, cowboys and indians. James Cameron's latest film since Titanic is a dazzling spectacle of computer-generated photographic imagery and vivid contrasting themes. The film's mesmerising visuals capture a world of their own much like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy with 3D effects giving the audience a sense of heightened reality. Cameron has been tinkering away at this project for more than a decade, proposing his $400 million budget movie and waiting for the CGI technology to come to the party.
The story follows Jake, a paraplegic war veteran who becomes part of a 3 month project to relocate an indigenous race of humanoids known as the Na'vi from their spiritual forest realm on planet Pandora. Jake is biologically locked into a man-made Na'vi tribesman, who he can control in a waking-sleep from a remote location and instructed to work his way into the ancient civilisation's inner circle as a spy in order to glean valuable information on how to thwart the locals.
While the cast is comprised of a solid ensemble of actors, the CGI is the star. Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation) does a good job of playing the pure-hearted Jake, Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) conveys the emotional intensity of Neytiri, Giovanni Ribisi (The Gift) is convincing as the power-hungry, yet inept executive, Michelle Rodriguez (Resident Evil) slaps it on thick as the tough girl marine, Stephen Lang sizzles as the ultimate G.I. Joe tough guy and Sigourney Weaver plays a high-powered expert in a similar role to Gorillas in the Mist.
While Avatar seems original at first glance, it's influences run far and wide. Cameron was inspired by the character of Gollum in The Two Towers, which gave him the impetus to push for his vision in Avatar. The Na'vi are similar to Tolkien's Elves, dwelling in their forest realm with an affinity for nature. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy spoke of Lothlórien, the Elven forest realm in Middle Earth where 'preservation' is a watchword. The Na'vi are tall, graceful humanoids with their own language, pointed ears and their weapon of choice, a bow and arrow.
Cameron's distinct competing factions, megalomaniac corporate greed, valuable commodity and principal character's rise to power are parallel aspects of Dune. Frank Herbert's Sci-Fi novel was an epic saga, in which two political factions are pitted against each other in a bid to secure the universe's most valuable commodity known as "spice". Instead of dangerous sandworms, other creatures inhabit and protect the forest, who can be "broken-in" to become the equivalent of a warrior's horse. The corporate colonialists have technology, which allows them to bulldoze trees and anything that stands in their way. The armed forces are equipped with weaponry and armaments, which are reminscent of G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra.
Avatar's story also mimics the relationship between Cowboys and Indians, much like Dances with Wolves. The Na'vi's philosophy and respect for nature reflect an otherness one usually associates with American Indian tribes. John Dunbar's transition is not unlike Jake Sully's, both fighting American soldiers who find themselves isolated on the other side... coming to the realisation that the "savages" are just as human, if not more than they are. Both character's come full circle to the point that they are not tolerated by their own, yet sharing a kinship with their adopted culture. The experience is paralleled in the rite of passage... learning the language, how to hunt, respect for nature, customs, mythology and how to ride "untameable" creatures.
These swirling narratives all blend seamlessly into one... taking the best of fantasy, science fiction and western. It has the same novelty that Jurassic Park had in its heyday and watching the worlds combine is truly spellbinding, especially in the high-flying fight sequences. When the two worlds are apart, the film suffers from a trapped in Wonderland feel... harnessing too much CGI and not enough 'back to reality' hooks. However, the sense of reality really hits home when humans and their life-like aircraft/technology gives the planet of Pandora a frame of reference and some perspective.
James Cameron has created a sprawling epic that combines classic fantasy, science fiction, western and mythological themes to give a rich, complex and multi-layered film. The visual effects elevate the film's appeal and bolster a solid narrative, which plays with the real and unreal like The Cell. Avatar does exactly that... taking the crux of modern gaming to the next level by putting you in the picture. There are times when you feel like you should have a video game controller in your hands and Avatar definitely has an element of God of War with the old world tradition, fantastic mythology and imaginative creatures.
At 2 hours 41 minutes... it's a monster of a movie to rival Titanic for run time. Cameron has taken elements from his previous work and incorporated them along with some distinct influences from film favourites during his "hiatus". Avatar is definitely a step in the right direction, boasts the benefits of 3D and showcases CGI up to 2009... making it the blockbuster Roland Emmerich will wish he had made. The performances are mixed with actors splitting their screen time with their alter-ego avatars. The result is workable and there are one or two emotional moments from "unreal" characters to rival The Simpsons, but it still feels a little artificial.
The bottom line: Mesmerising.