AVATAR, a film by JAMES CAMERON (2009)

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AVATAR, a film by JAMES CAMERON (2009)

The day after I saw Avatar in a 3D preview screening I wrote a blog about it: here is a modified and updated version of that to coincide with the DVD release. Despite the naysayers who emerged after the initial rush of enthusiasm, I haven't changed my opinion that this a terrific film . . . 

I didn’t think much of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Titantic. But then I saw it.

I had heard gushing comments about it from teenage girls and damning opinions from the parents who had to take them and, more fool me, decided on the basis of those I probably wouldn’t like it.

Eventually I saw it and it was nowhere near as bad as some had told me. Overly long and so forth, but as blockbusters go it was a whole lot better than Gone with the Wind or The English Patient.

Oddly enough, I had almost the opposite reaction with Cameron’s Avatar. I liked it before I had actually seen it.

To clarify: a couple of months before its release I saw a sampler of footage (about 15 minutes at a guess) and was “blown away“. (That’s a technical term used by only the most serious film reviewers.)

What I saw was not just state-of-the-art computer graphics and enhancements, but also a creative vision of great beauty and complexity.

Eventually I saw the movie in its 3D entirety. And I liked it even more. It was stunning, in fact.

These days we tend to see far too many tele-docos about “The making of . . .” and they -- like knowing how a magician does a trick -- rather detract from the surprise and delight and magic. I liked knowing how George Lucas and his chums did the first (fourth) Star Wars, but only after I had been “blown away” by it from that opening sequence.

At the Avatar preview I attended they took away cellphones (can cellphones capture 3D?) from attendees and I understand that: they wanted this film to just "arrive". And I thought it deserved to. I said to people at the time if there was any footage out there in web world, do yourself a favour and don’t go looking for it. Go to a big screen and be swept away.

But I didn't say much about Avatar lest I denied people the magic.

A couple of things though: some critics in subsequent weeks after its release and blockbuster business at the box office skewered it because the storyline is pretty simple (at least it had one) and that’s fine.

But you don't have to dig too deep to see that some great films aren't about "the story": artist goes to island, goes mad (Bergman's Hour of the Wolf); girl is abducted by savages, a group goes off to rescue her (The Searchers, The Missing); guy driving in a remote part of the States is terrorised by an anonymous truck driver (Spielberg's Duel); good guys Vs bad guys (Star Wars and most westerns) . . .  

And Avatar did at least try -- rather ham-fistedly -- to layer in messages of eco-consciousness, the wisdom of being connected to your planet, (implied American) militarism, the barbarity of capitalism and so forth. But to me they seem decent, timely and important messages to pass on in the early 21st century.

There is a certain Cowboys and Indians element (it gives nothing away to say the Indians win this time) but it really is the intergalactic setting that elevates this and brings home the magic.

As created by Weta Workshops, the planet of Pandora (hmmm) is astonishing: it is on a massive scale and full of wondrous, freakish plant and animal life. The flora is like Kew Gardens turned up to 11, and the vision of odd animal hybrids and islands floating in the sky owes more to the imaginative art of Roger Dean (who designed album covers for Gun, Yes, Osibisa and Uriah Heep in the Seventies) than Jonathan Swift.

This is a world which is hypnotically beautiful . . . and scary.

And the hi-tech stuff looks entirely believable, not some great leap into a place where you have suspend so much disbelief you get cynical. The techno stuff and military machinery looks like it either already exists or someone is working on it right now. Cool (and scary).

We've subsequently seen The Hurt Locker which beat out Avatar in the Oscar race but frankly we came away pretty ho-hum about it. It was another cinema-verite, utterly apolitical film about the impact of the war on soldiers (and by implication in its closing overs, their families) of those battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having seen the tele-series Over There (still a favourite) and Generation Kill, In the Valley of Elah and others, The Hurt Locker didn't seem to add much to that on-going concern.

Avatar on the other hand, escapist though it may be, is a remarkable and innovative piece of film making. Just as another generation can still remember where they were when that space cruiser rumbled in overhead in the first/fourth Star Wars, so too generations to come will recall with delight their first encounter with Avatar.

Like 2001, Bladerunner and Star Wars, it creates its own world and for two and half rather fast hours you can immerse yourself in it. People -- many of them media people and well viewed when it comes to the magic of the silver screen -- applauded at the end of that media preview, and not in that film festival way.

They just kinda clapped out of appreciation and delight and surprise.

Movies don’t have that effect much anymore, do they?


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