There have only been asked two questions that anybody has been asking me this week: “Have you seen Avatar?” and “Is it any good?” Thanks to the helpful people at Readings I can say “Yes” to the first one and thanks to James Cameron I can say “Whoah” to the second.
Like many Wellingtonians, I have been following Avatar’s progress since production started in 2007 and it’s almost impossible to be genuinely objective. It’s only natural for locals to try and claim some ownership of a project like this and we are all a tiny bit invested in its success. The hype has certainly been hard to avoid so I was slightly pleased when the fifteen minute extract on “Avatar Day” didn’t fill me with delighted anticipation. I couldn’t quite my head around the character design of the Na’vi (the indigenous race peacefully populating the beautiful but deadly planet of Pandora). The blue – the tails – the ears. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how these characters were going to be cool and I thought that *cool* was going to be important.
Well, I’ll hold my hand up and admit that Cameron was right and I was wrong. Avatar is the finest example of commercial blockbuster entertainment in years but still containing more than enough subtle surprises to satisfy the film nerds.
Paraplegic Marine Sam Worthington (described by this reporter as an “Aussie boofhead” in the review of Terminator Salvation, a comment which probably should be gracefully withdrawn about now) is sent to Pandora to take his dead brother’s place in an experimental anthropological team attempting to bond with the natives before the mining company starts ripping the heart out of their home. His DNA will be fused with the Na’vi and the he’ll be able to remotely control the resulting creature – an avatar – learn their ways and get them to trust us. The evil capitalists in charge of the project have other ideas, however, and it is up to big Sam (along with his new Na’vi chums) to save the planet of Pandora from exploitation and genocide.
There’s nothing startling about the story. Given how long Cameron has been gestating this, I suspect that he has been recycling characters and elements for his earlier films (like the Paul Reiser character in Aliens) rather than the other way around but it’s the technology, and Cameron’s supremely confident use of it, that really makes Avatar soar. It’s easy to forget when watching the endless line of forgettable dull product passing through multiplexes that cinema has always been as much about the ride as anything else, and when the ride is exciting you really can leave your own life behind for a while.
Pity the cinemas that have other product opening in “Avatar Week”. The rest of the options run the full gamut between good, indifferent and downright terrible. The best of the rest of them is Five Minutes of Heaven, a tight little drama set in post-Peace-Process Northern Ireland. Former terrorist Liam Neeson and victim James Nesbitt are brought together for a television programme to show the reconciliation in action, except revenge is still very much on the agenda.
Evidently, the real-life Northern Ireland truth and reconciliation programme was conducted much less publicly, and much more successfully, by the newly reconstructed Police Service who quietly went about investigating and closing the many thousands of unsolved murders from the period of the Troubles, so the families can close the book on loved ones. While the film, by necessity, over-dramatises that situation, it skilfully portrays the inner conflicts of people forced to confront a history in which all sides were often less than human.
Bandslam is a toothless family-friendly comedy about a group of nerdy, outcast High School students finding some self-esteem via an old-fashioned rockquest. The “old man” music is so dreary that it cannot enliven the lumpy story and (apart from the under-utilised Lisa Kudrow) there are no decent actors on display either. And David Bowie should be ashamed of himself for letting himself get anywhere near it.
Finally, and somewhat refreshingly, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — refreshing because I haven’t hated anything as much as this in a long while and I thought I was going soft. A dishonest documentary about the non-inclusion of Intelligent Design in classrooms and universities, it sets up straw man after straw man, misrepresents the perfectly rational opposing arguments and, frankly, it’s a scandal that the Paramount, for 90 years the home of cinematic enlightenment, should be giving a showcase to this small-minded fraudulent horseshit.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 December, 2009.
Notes on screening conditions: Avatar was the first public screening at Readings Courtenay Central, 9pm Wednesday 18 December; Bandslam was a (literally) empty public screening at Readings early on Saturday morning; Five Minutes of Heaven was a distributor-supplied watermarked screener DVD and Expelled (due to time pressure and awkward scheduling at the Paramount) was a torrented download watched on my iPhone. The future, eh?