The View From Here

First look -- James Cameron's Avatar

Michael Bonner

Traditionally, August is something of a slow news month. Anything, however apparently inappropriate, seems to be used to fill in valuable airtime or column space during the holiday season. You might, for instance, have happened to hear yesterday morning Evan Davies interviewing august cricket commentator Henry Blofeld on the BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today about whether he’d prefer to commentate on the 100 metres at the World Athletics Championships. Today, it seems everyone’s got in a palaver about Avatar, James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi epic of which 15 minutes was shown during a series of screenings rolled out at hundreds of cinemas round the world.

Perhaps inevitably with this kind of blockbuster, it’s all about the numbers. Avatar is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, 12 years ago, which took $1.8 billion at the box office. He originally sketched the outline for Avatar in 1994 but held off making it until he thought technology was advanced enough. It has, apparently, cost $237 million. And, as those of us who saw it today at London’s IMAX were told by the head of the UK distributor 20th Century Fox, so far 2,000 people have seen the official trailer, released yesterday, online.

It’s perhaps irrelevant to wonder whether Avatar will be remotely good in any field other than the visual effects. Having learned from Hawks, Hill, Carpenter and Corman that characters in certain types of genre films can be defined more effectively by their actions than by exposition, Cameron’s never exactly been one to get bogged down in character and dialogue. Which is why the first 90 minutes of Titanic, before the ship went down, was so woeful and why his best films – the two Terminator movies and Aliens – are action-driven adrenalin rushes.

Indeed, based on the five sequences we saw from Avatar, it seems like Cameron is happy to recycle some of his own films, alongside a number of tropes and set-ups familiar from other sources. We open, for instance, with Stephen Lang’s Marine corps colonel explaining to a platoon of grunts that they’re about to embark on a tour of duty on a hostile alien planet, Pandora. “Think of Hell. You might want to go there for R&R after this,” he snarls. Aliens..? Well, maybe.

Avatar’s central character, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine, crippled during combat. He’s given access by Sigourney Weaver’s scientist to an Avatar creature, part human and part Na’vi, one of the planet’s many colourful creatures. Now resembling nothing less than a greeny-blue Thundercat, Sully is sent to Pandora where he befriends his fellow Na’vi and love interest begins to take shape with one of their kind, Neytiri. It’s possible Sully is part of a covert military operation: the planet’s atmosphere is poison to humans, but it seems that if successfully immersed in Avatar hybrids, Earth’s military could conquer Pandora.

Anyway, that’s yr plot. But, like I say, I suspect the story is really just an excuse for Cameron to unveil his latest, and admittedly deeply impressive, box of tricks. Of course, it looks fantastic. There’s one sequence on Pandora where Sully first experiences the planet’s landscape close-up – a weird, lush, rainforest that looks like it should: totally alien. Gone, we can safely assume, are the days when George Lucas fudged it by getting Tunisia to double for Tatooine. Or worse: quarries near Dorking masquerading as Skaro in Doctor Who.

I’m reluctant to get carried away in the hype, but you do get a sense of Cameron’s incredible visual accomplishments here. And this, inevitably, is what Avatar will stand or fall on. Plenty has already been written about how the director helped pioneer “the future camera” developed to capture the actors and integrate them into his virtual world; how the other great technological innovators of the modern cinema age, Spielberg, Lucas and Peter Jackson, were all invited down to check out Cameron’s posh new gadgets. If you find the idea of “the future camera” slightly self-important, then certainly you won’t fall for the talk of how Avatar is going to revolutionise cinema. Certainly, once all the bluster about the 3D technology is out of the way, there’s the simple truth that only 320 cinemas out of 3,600 UK cinemas are digitally equipped, and so Avatar will also be released in creaky old-fashioned 2D come December 18.

You can see the trailer here anyway.


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This week's big distraction has been what appears to be a crazy number of early Aphex Twin tracks accumulating on Soundcloud (I've added the link below). Among the new stuff, though, please try Bop English; the new solo project of James Petralli from White Denim.