Avatar: Special Edition review

Cliff never got the chance to catch Avatar first time round. For our second look at the new special edition, we sent him along to experience Pandora for the first time...

As far as breaking your 3D duck goes, you probably can’t beat Avatar. That my first viewing of the film at all comes with the release of the Special Edition may come as a surprise. A borrowed DVD lay on my desk for a good couple of weeks before I returned it, unwatched, having failed to find the time or inclination to give it the attention I imagined it required.

That was my first mistake, because, as attractive and entertaining as the film is, it’s not really particularly complicated or original. Sully (Sam Worthington) is a marine in a wheelchair, drafted in to assist with the Avatar project. These are human/alien hybrid body timeshares that allow survival and easy mobility on a forest moon, and communication with the natives, the Na’vi. But there’s precious metal in that there jungle, that the Men In Suits want. And they’ll have it, fair means or foul.

It’s evil corporate colonialists against backward indigenous people, with lots of military hardware. The old, old story. In fact, it’s not even the best film James Cameron has directed that features a biologically symbiotic slant on human/alien relations, lots of military hardware, an evil universal corporation, tough-talking Hispanic female marines, big walky robot suits, and narky Sigourney Weaver.

The plot has several disappointingly expedient shortcuts, particularly in both the way Sully is initially accepted, and later reaccepted, into the Na’vi tribe, and even if it isn’t a made up word, ‘unobtainium’ sounds exactly like the sort of thing a writer calls a McGuffin, as a placeholder until they can come up with something more convincing.

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As much as the script is still more intelligent, coherent and anti-corporation/military than, say, a Michael Bay film, the camera’s lust for shiny hardware does ever so slightly recall the lesser director’s fetishism and compromise the dramatic angle. Are we condemning or revelling in this swaggering and destruction? Yes, yes, we’re revelling. It’s entertainment, not the news, though it would have been braver and better to have veered the tone a little further away.

But, that out of the way, what’s there is very enjoyable. Casting is good. Weaver is safe and solid as Augustine, the scientist who mistrusts the military and just wants to study the Na’vi (a bit Gorillas In The Mist, if we’re still playing ‘influences’). Stephen Lang is the archetypal Deep South evil Colonel, Quaritch. For the lesser characters, geeky Norm Spellman (look at that name, of course he’s geeky) played by Joel David Moore makes a nice contrast to Sully’s naïve everyman, and it was good to see Michelle Rodriguez, having liked her as Ana Lucia in Lost. Indeed, with Weaver and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek), as Neytiri , the film does well for cult cross casting.

Plotting niggles aside, I may be ludicrously naïve, but it wasn’t all predictable. I wasn’t expecting such a death toll, and it could have ended at various points only to surprise me by carrying on. In a good way, not a ‘still limping on’ way.

Rite of passage montages notwithstanding, I thought the pace was generally well judged and it clocked in a long running time whilst not leaving me fidgety. The nature of The Nature, as it were, the planet’s eco-system, was also nicely sketched in more sci-fi terms to counteract much mysticism of the Na’vi’s religion, worshipping ‘Eywa’.

And the visual spectacle. Oh, the visual spectacle. You know it. You’ve seen. That’s what Avatar is really for. People are calling Avatar the Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings for this decade (I’d say generation, but that would involve acknowledging that the Lord Of The Rings films aren’t that new any more, and that makes me feel a little older than I’d rather).

I’m not even going to mention Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Everyone else beat me to it at the time.

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But as much as this will sound like heresy to some, 2001: A Space Odyssey should be mentioned too, because Avatar is really so very pretty to look at – 3D or not – that like 2001, it can become something to just see and still have a perfect right to exist and be pretty on those terms. And it is pretty, but it’s balanced. It all looks so blue in the publicity pictures, with the Smurf-toned protagonists, but there’s gorgeous use of colour, terrific composition, movement, light and shade, and for the most part, it doesn’t feel over-egged.

It’s not like the Star Wars prequels, where you’re being force-fed sugary eye candy till your cheeks explode. The ‘uncanny valley’ effect of CGI faces is still there, masked by the feline shape of the Na’vi’s faces, but it’s the best attempt I’ve ever seen at fleshy people, right down to hairs, lips and pores. The flying scenes on the Mountain Banshees (beats Knightmare and Harry Potter), the floating mountains, underwater, flora and fauna, all a beautiful showcase of technology today, and one that will probably not be topped for some time. Well, until Avatar 2 and Avatar 3…

So, Avatar: terrific big screen, 3D fun that really deserves a look if you can catch it. The initial novelty will fade and I can’t imagine it’s something I’d rewatch at home, particularly, but while I’d hate to make a habit of saying ‘never mind the substance, look at the style’, because generally that’s pretty much my bete noir where filmmakers (and TV producers) tread, but, well, there’s such style to be found here. And a reasonable amount of substance for such a big blockbuster.

See Ryan’s take on the Avatar: Special Edition here


4 out of 5