James Cameron was in the same proverbial boat. After giving the eighties a few of its biggest film legends, and then dominating the box-office with Titanic, Cameron had given himself a high ol’ bar to jump over. It took fifteen years of research and planning before his next film Avatar reached cinemas, bringing with it unsurpassed special effects. It overthrew its own predecessor, earning £600 million more than Titanic, and leaving a financial legacy that even Harry Potter couldn’t touch.
There were those who marvelled at the special effects, swayed gently to the soundtrack, and started irrationally whipping their hair at strangers as a form of greeting. And there were those who hated it, who called it bloated and overhyped and cried for every new million it made in profits. For better or worse, I fall into the former category.
The plot of Avatar is not one of ground-breaking morality or questionable ethics; a young man, ignorant to the wider world, is sent on a potentially dangerous mission to integrate himself into a strange civilisation, to eventually take from them something they love or need.
Based on that alone, I could just as easily be talking about Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas or Fern Gully. In the Big Book of Easy Ideas, you would find this story somewhere between ‘Nerdy Girl has a Make-Over’ and ‘Bickering Adults are Secretly in Love’. It’s your basic Good vs. Evil, with a confused protagonist thrown in for good measure.
Perhaps the secret of Avatar’s success was its simple story, and therefore its inclusivity. There are no troubled characters or layered motives. It’s made clear from the start that Jake Sully is our hero, even when he’s a spy. He’s a bitter man, having recently lost his mobility and his twin brother, but there’s no real darkness there. And when his deception is finally revealed, it’s not his comeuppance but merely an obstacle in his journey towards love and acceptance.
Cameron might not subject us to a mad scientist character or a troubled teen, but Avatar has more stereotypes than a game of ‘Guess Who?’. We have the embittered veteran Colonel Quarich (Stephen Lang), the rebellious princess (Zoe Saldana), her jealous betrothed (Laz Alonso) and the Jane Goodall of aliens, played by Cameron alumni Sigourney Weaver.
Any debates that Avatar might cause stem from assessing the film’s credibility rather than its content. And if you learn to accept that Avatar lends more to technical developments than it does to characterisation, then you have in your hands a marvellous piece of cinema.
Ignore if you can any niggling questions about bestiality and ‘hair-sex’, and remember that much of this film is green-screen and motion capture. The Na’avi are intricate creations, designed to show a purer, more agile version of the human body. The flora and fauna of Pandora is wild enough that it fascinates, without being the stuff of a drug high.
The upcoming sequels are unnecessary and you do expect someone to jump out at you mid-way with a Greenpeace flag. It will not make any great dents in social justice or cause a new wave of global awareness. But as Avatar teaches us; any foible can be forgiven, as long as you catch yourself a big orange bird!