Avatar delivers as promised – almost

After an almost unbearable wait, I finally got to see the much lauded Avatar last night in all its 3D glory. I can’t remember another film I have waited for with such keen interest, and overall it didn’t disappoint. It’s a rollicking good action film with a strong environmental theme and a splash of romance lobbed in to keep the girls happy. But thoroughly enjoyable as it was, I couldn’t help feeling that the epic Cameron has created fell a little way short of being a truly great film.

In a nutshell, Avatar is Aliens 2 on acid; underneath all the pretty colours and weird animals there is the same underlying theme of big-business interests steam-rollering over the lives of individuals in the pursuit of profit. There are the same hard-bitten space marines with their high-tech paraphernalia of future war. And there’s even a familiar face in the shape of Sigourney Weaver. The difference is that in Avatar, the roles of the military and their off-world foes are reversed and it’s the 9ft tall blue skinned Na,avi who are the good guys this time around. Plus, of course, the fact that Avatar is the first major motion picture conceived entirely in 3D puts it into a different league all together.

I saw my first 3D first film in a cinema earlier on this year and I was pretty impressed with the technology. However nothing I have seen thus far comes close to Avatar in terms of its execution. The 3D effect in Avatar is truly stunning, jaw-dropping, game-changing stuff. The opening scene set in a cavernous zero-G space ship barracks gives you a tantalising hint of what’s to come. But it’s not until the hero ventures into the forests of Pandora that you really experience 3D to its full effect. It is not an overstatement to say that you really do feel as if you have been whisked off to some far flung planet teeming with strange flora and fauna and plonked down right in the middle of it – even down to the alien jungle bugs that seem to be buzzing over the heads to the audience a few rows in front. It is absolutely wonderful and combined with the ground-breaking CGI and motion-capture techniques employed, every creature, every tree and plant is 100% believable and totally convincing. So life-like are the main characters, that after a few minutes you have completely accepted the computer generated leading man and lady as real, living creatures. Many critics have hailed Avatar as a landmark in cinema history, and in that respect I would agree 100%. I for one am hugely excited by what other filmmakers will do with this technology.

Where Avatar goes wrong is in the screenplay. I got the feeling that Cameron was trying to cover–up the gaping holes in the plot with 3D wizardry, but not entirely succeeding. The central idea of the film is that the brain of hero, Jake Scully – a paraplegic ex-marine – is linked electronically to a genetically engineered Na’avi/human hybrid which allows him to “drive” the body. Using this artificial body, the characters are able to venture into the world of the Na’avi. Each night, as their Na’avi bodies sleep, consciousness returns to their human bodies. The problem is, as an engineer I couldn’t help but ask myself..how the bloody hell is that supposed to work? There must be a form of communication occurring between the Na’avi avatar and its human driver, but there’s no mention of a radio link or anything like that. This is especially significant as the area in which most of the action takes place is supposed to be flooded with a naturally occurring electromagnetic radiation that would seem to preclude such a comms link. So what’s the deal – telepathy? some weird kind of spiritual transfer? quantum entanglement? None of that is really explained (unlike in the Matrix, for example, where the mechanism is entirely plausible). I know it sounds a bit geeky but it spoilt it a bit for me that they didn’t build a bit more credibility into the technology.

Secondly, the film centres around the conflict arising from the human exploitation of Pandora’s natural resources to the detriment of the indigenous peoples. The resource in question is a mineral that exhibits zero mass when excited by a particular energy field. The heartless company boss fingers a lump of this floating rock thoughtfully while justifying the destruction of the forest and its people. But nobody ever explains exactly why this floating rock is so important. I can’t help thinking that surely some government, somewhere on Earth would have had to sanction such a drastic action and without this backstory the arguments put forward for genocide seemed awfully thin. But then again, that didn’t stop them in Iraq – an analogy/sub-theme that has already been noted by observers.

In conclusion, Avatar is a fantastic film that will surely be remembered as a milestone in out of home entertainment. Hollywood is clearly hoping that the big screen 3D experience will tempt audiences back into the cinema again. For all that, and good though it is, Avatar is not a “great” film. However I think it is the precursor to a new golden era of film entertainment, and I cannot wait to see what develops.