"You're not in Kansas anymore!" says the villainous Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to a band of marines readying themselves to go to war on the fantastical planet Pandora, cinema's newest Oz. And just like the Wizard of Oz himself, Avatar is built on an illusion that soon falls apart.
For the past four years of his 12- year, post-Titanic sabbatical, the director James Cameron has told the world that Avatar would revolutionise cinema. In the end, it's evolution rather than revolution, with Cameron desperately trying to make this fantasy adventure his Star Wars. Of course it's the 3D that is the first thing to hit you when the action starts. One of the first shots is the most impressive, showing a corridor of a spacecraft with a depth of field that is truly outstanding. There is an equivalent scene in Titanic where the camera sweeps through the ship. Both are astonishing examples of Cameron's undoubted prowess with a camera, but for techno wow factor Terminator 2 remains the director's high-water mark.
As Pixar did with Up, Cameron avoids using the cheap and tired gimmick of having objects come at the audience. He has created a rainforest-like world on Pandora that is impressive only if you have never played computer games such as Call of Duty. If, as seems likely, all blockbusters are going to be 3D in the near future, then for Avatar to stand the test of time, what really matters is the story. And here it falls short.
It is 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former US marine confined to a wheelchair. After the death of his scientist twin brother, Sully is asked to travel light years to a human outpost on Pandora, where a corporation is mining a valuable rare mineral that is the key to solving the Earth's energy crisis. Because of Pandora's toxic environment, the work on the ground is being done by avatars, which have been created by genetically engineering hybrids from human DNA and the DNA of the 10-foot-tall Na'vi, the blue natives who live on the planet. At first, Sully gets a huge kick out of being back in a fully functional body, so much so that he soon gets lost on Pandora. Luckily, the Na'vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) takes a shine to him and love blossoms. Sully soon wins the trust of the local Na'vi, but ever the soldier, his loyalty lies with Quaritch, to whom he initially feeds information that will be used to take control of the planet.
Cameron pillages story ideas from everywhere. George Lucas's Star Wars had Endor, interplanetary battles and an emphasis on the power of the mind. The voice-over narration is taken from Blade Runner, and Minority Report used human mind-reading technology. The environmental storyline is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, which also has a fondness for celestial creatures and a supernatural heroine. Starship Troopers did humans as selfish, materialistic and narcissistic planetary imperialists way better. Not even Cameron's own work is safe. The colonel who doesn't care about genocide is straight out of Aliens.
The Na'vi believe in a deity and are portrayed as foreign-language-speaking freaks. As the action progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that Cameron wants to condemn the American invasion of Iraq. This becomes explicit when he has the colonel make a speech saying: "We must fight terror with terror" and the attack on the planet is described as "shock and awe". The trouble is that blockbusters rely on big explosions, and in throwing these into the finale, the symbolism is lost.
The hero is a run-of-the-mill wounded soldier who shows compassion, and the love story between Sully and Neytiri is predictable and lacks passion. Most of all, Avatar severely lacks a Darth Vader-style villain. At times it's also dull, which combined with the derivative storytelling is a fault that no amount of 3D can gloss over.