It’s the most expensive and technically ambitious film ever made, and the most hyped – and wouldn’t you know it, it’s also pretty good. Avatar is a compendium of director James Cameron’s familiar themes – aliens against soldiers, futuristic technology, bone-crunching sci-fi action, corny romance and an epic pomposity that, as with Titanic, you just have to weather in order to enjoy the spectacle.
Far in the future, mankind is trying to take over a beautiful forested planet named Pandora, in order to harvest minerals. In their way are the Na’avi, 10ft-tall hunter-gatherers with blue skin, tails and a talent for flying on the backs of pterodactyl-like birds. A scientific project has grown Na’avi bodies from human DNA, which can then be remotely inhabited by the human volunteers. One of these is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former soldier whose job is to insinuate himself into a tribe and either convince them to shift from their mineral-rich area or, if they won’t, feed his insider knowledge back to the military hard-asses dying to wipe the Na’avi off the face of Pandora. But of course, he finds his allegiances shifting, particularly when he falls for the chief’s daughter.
That’s the Dances with Wolves-in-space set up – and yes, it’s hackneyed, facile and the dialogue clunks horribly. But the realisation is simply breathtaking, and at times preposterously beautiful. It may be mostly digital – the Na’avi have been rendered via the same (but now more advanced) technology used for the character of Gollum in Lord of the Rings – but it looks stunningly real, with 3D adding a mesmerising gloss to every image.
It’s also pretty exciting. Cameron knows his way around a crunching action sequence as well as anyone, and there are plenty of thrills to set the adrenalin racing. Forget the preachy message and just sit back and enjoy one of the most dazzling rides ever created.
Finally with a Hollywood budget behind him, Guy Ritchie breaks away from his guns’n’geezers crime flicks – well, not really. This is, after all, a crime flick set in London, with guns and indeed geezers, but it’s a deliciously mucky Victorian London, in which Tower Bridge is still being built and Baker Street is as choked with people and filth as the Thames is with barges and tugs. It looks great.
Ritchie’s geezer-in-chief is Mr ‘Olmes himself, reborn here as a hard-living, handsome wreck played by Robert Downey Jr, with Jude Law as Watson. Downey Jr mumbles away at 90mph with a dodgy English accent, meaning it’s hard to understand a word he says. Not that it really matters – the script is complete hooey. Leave your copies of Conan Doyle at the door.
Mark Strong plays evil black magic enthusiast Lord Blackwood, apparently executed for murder and now wreaking havoc on London from beyond the grave. There’s a Masonic organisation involved, including Hans Matheson’s home secretary and James Fox’s doddery old aristo. Rachel McAdams is Yanky babe Irene Adler (a Conan Doyle character adapted into the film), while Kelly Reilly has to put up with an insult of a role as Watson’s wife-to-be.
There’s lots of crunchy fisticuffs and the odd explosion, but the film meanders and eventually dissolves into silliness. Ritchie may be technically adept but he still couldn’t hold a storyline if it was superglued to his hands, and annoying, jittery music doesn’t make up for a lack of tension or direction. The moment someone crawls into a tunnel in Westminster and emerges moments later on top of Tower Bridge is, amazingly, far from the dumbest moment of this very dumb – but quite fun – film.