In 1977, a young and unknown James Cameron walked into a movie theater to watch a rather insignificant film about space wizards. The impetus of that film would inspire Cameron to quit his job as a truck driver, and pursue a career in filmmaking. Of the millions of people who were directly influenced by George Lucas’ opus to chase dreams in Hollywood, you could make the argument that Cameron has come the closest to duplicating its success. For that 1977 space opera would go on to be the highest grossing movie in history, on the way to a host of Academy Awards nominations and taking centerstage in the pop cultural zeitgeist. Cameron would duplicate those exact accomplishments… TWICE! First, with Titanic (1997), then with his own space opera: the polarizing 2009 blockbuster Avatar. No other director can say they’ve re-set the box office apex with two consecutive movies on their filmography, and only Steven Spielberg has more movies that have snatched the record, however briefly, of highest grossing film ever.
Yet, Avatar is a bit different from that other sci-fi fantasy. The latter was pimped out mercilessly through toy lines, cartoons, Christmas specials, extended universe books, comics, bed sheets, key chains, etc., while redefining just what business movie studios were actually in ($$$). Avatar, by contrast, tried to branch out into other monetizable avenues. There were toys and costumes. There was a video game, I think. But ultimately, once it’s theater run ended, Avatar largely went away, with the exception of the occasional sequel update. It only took advantage of its marketing opportunities once Disney took hold of the IP from 20th Century Fox, leading to the movie’s own theme land at Disney World. In the meantime, criticism towards the film intensified.
The remarks about the story being similar to the likes of Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves have persisted since the very first trailer. But it seemed as if some viewers took exceptional offense to the existence of the film, that it didn’t “earn” its success, not like REAL movies such as Avengers or Harry Potter. The narrative was that Avatar somehow tricked its audiences into buying into its magic… even though movie magic has been a shared goal between filmmakers and audiences for decades, and we know going in that it’s all make believe. So what makes Avatar different? Why does this movie manage to piss people off and inspire pantomime yawns? Was it really “overrated” all along? Well, I don’t think the movie hits much differently now than it did then. My opinions of Avatar, rewatching it this year, are very similar to my reaction in 2009. What troubles Avatar is a taxing, unconventional production history which elevates some aspects of the film (namely the effects and world-building), but does a disservice to others. In other words, its an imperfect movie, which is ok. But it was expected that it would be perfect.
What’s funny is that the story’s setup sounds bonkers on paper, yet the movie’s first 30 minutes approaches it all in a ho-hum manner. Even more jarring considering that Cameron has to cram an absurd amount of information into a half hour. For a refresher, the story follows paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), as he’s called to the distant moon known as Pandora, in order to participate in Dr. Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) Avatar program. The reason he’s needed is because the program’s initial recruit was his twin brother, Dr. Tom Sully, who is now deceased. How does Cameron go about relaying this information? Through Jake Sully’s voiceover, which features this gem about Tom’s death:
“A guy with a gun ends his journey, for the paper in his pocket.”
What is this clunky horseshit? Why not just say he was robbed? This isn’t a John Grisham novel. But this small quote is emblematic of why the first 30 minutes of this movie is the worst part. The dialogue is either convoluted, like the aforementioned line, bland (“There’s nothing like an old school safety brief to put your mind at ease”), or incredibly try-hard (“Who has my goddamn cigarette??!!”). Cameron wrote the initial screenplay in the mid 90s, but filming didn’t commence until a decade later. While I’m sure there were many elements added in the preceding 15 years, most of the early dialogue does sound like it was conceived in the 90s, as if it were a PG-13 version of Cameron’s Aliens (1986).
In these early moments, the characters don’t feel authentic; they seem like composites generated by an AI, gradually learning how to sound like a real human. Moreover, it’s an upset that Cameron could just throw the audience into the deep-end of this pool and we’re still able to follow along. Ideally, you’d want an opening similar to The Matrix (1999), where we get to know Jake in his everyday life, before he’s launched into a brave new world. Shouldn’t we understand who our protagonist is before we see the man he becomes? I think Cameron would agree, as this backstory was filmed, but ultimately cut because the filmmakers felt the scenes were not good and hurt the pacing of the movie (some of these scenes were re-added to the Extended Edition, but they feel very generic). That’s why Cameron opted for the voice-over to explain what’s going on. It ultimately hurts the movie because it takes us longer to warm up to Jake Sully, as the initial coldness of the film’s opening is a bit off-putting.
In an astounding example of sci-fi yada yada, Jake’s overlapping DNA makeup with his twin makes him the only suitable match for the genetically engineered Avatar. Which is created to mimic the look and structure of Pandora’s Na’vi population – a group of blue, 10 feet tall colossuses with super strength and agility, as well as a neurological link to the soul and spirit of Pandora itself. Jake’s inexperience draws the ire of Grace, as she views his inclusion as a slap in the face. She sees the Avatar program as a means for the humans to establish an amicable relationship with the Na’vi in the midst of growing tensions and violence between the two groups, as the humans continue to explore and mine from the lush moon. To her, the ignorant Marine doesn’t have the intelligence to traverse these sociopolitical waters. However, Jake’s ascension into this world soon brings him into contact with Neytiri (Zoe Sandana), a skilled warrior who begrudgingly acts on a fortuitous sign that Jake is worth saving and teaching, leading to a bond between the unlikely pair.
It’s around this period that we not only settle in, but that the movie actually becomes… pretty good. The first act is so damn awkward and stiff, but once Jake gets lost in a Pandora forest, the movie goes up a level and starts to fulfill its own promise. It’s also not a coincidence that the characters don’t speak as much during this portion – when we’re around the Na’vi, there’s less of an opportunity for a cheesy, cliche line. This movie is often at its best when it just shuts up and let’s Pandora perform its magic. Seeing Jake and Neytiri train their banshees, the small moments where the movie scales to show you the vast sleeping arrangements and home life of the Na’vi, as well as the visualization of Eywa and Hometree are just some of what makes Avatar a visual marvel and the reigning gold-standard of 3D filmmaking. At times, 3D movies can feel like just turning on “All Borders” in Microsoft Excel, but Avatar’s 3D does envelop you, feeling as if Pandora is surrounding you as opposed to in front of you. That, mixed with an insane amount of CGI rendering and Mo-Cap wizardry makes the movie feel grand at all times.
If there are issues, it’s that the special effects don’t quite feel tangible enough, and the film’s depiction of motion is a bit jittery at times. Despite those problems, scenes like the visit to the Hallelujah Mountains still feel like you’re viewing it for the first time; it simultaneously looks real yet impossible, so your brain is consistently fascinated with the image. I don’t think that Avatar is the best looking movie of all time. But it is great spectacle, a unique looking movie that features a host of breathtaking shots and some really well orchestrated action. Also, Cameron knows how to frame his characters to consistently look photogenic, striking, and dynamic. That goes for the movie’s heroes, and its main villain. Jake and Grace’s attempts at establishing peace are often threatened by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), an arrogant jock who looks to entertain the necessity of diplomacy with the Na’vi for a little while. But his patience eventually wears thin as he really just wants to burn it all down. Lang’s performance is cartoonish, but lively, fun, and intimidating. He has genuine screen presence, and one of the few characters here that have an abundance of personality.
Another such character is Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the RDA head that wants to move the Na’vi from their home so he can mine that sweet Unobtanium. Ribisi is incredibly over the top, he’s practically eating the scenery with a fork. But I disagree with folks that surmise that this character is distracting. Other than his introduction scene, where he’s required to spit out some very forced exposition, his character makes sense for this conflict. He’s essentially a redux of the slimy and corrupt Carter Burke, in Aliens (1986), but both characters are two different flavors of the same archetype. Heartless businessman, except one is deceitful about it, while Selfridge is in your face with his callousness. Quaritch and Selfridge are typically pulpy villains, with on the nose personalities. But the reason they believe so strongly in their worldview is because they’ve never had a reason not to. Their myopia has never been challenged. People like that are usually insufferable about their opinions; give them power, and they’re ten times worse. Contrast that with a character like Jake, or even Grace and Neytiri to a certain extent, and you see that Avatar has a consistent theme of change. That you must keep an open mind and embrace what you do not understand. All three of Jake, Grace, and Neytiri take a leap of faith that goes against their preconceived notions, and they eventually learn they were right to take those risks.
It’s through the Avatar program, through experiencing this world through the eyes of the Na’vi, that the characters learn what is so special about this land. Grace’s goal is remarkably a success, as Avatar argues that experience is the deepest form of understanding. There’s also thematic elements of reincarnation, as well as devoting your spirit in service of a greater community and ecosystem. The film also illustrates something important about life – Jake benefits from his Na’vi body, freeing himself from the realities of his disability. Yet, this turn in fortune comes with a heavy price, and threatens the lives of everyone he holds dear. Despite his choice to become a Na’vi, he migrated from one set of obstacles to another. No matter what choices you make in life, trials will find you.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that despite Avatar’s reputation as an environmentalist film, both its characters and Cameron himself are obsessed with technology and the possibilities they promise. Cameron had to wait years for the tech to catch up to his vision of Pandora, and he waited several more years for it to evolve for his plans in the sequels. Why? Perhaps a big part of him is still chasing 1977, and the movie that inspired him to make his own space opera. It’s ironic that he’s forwarding technology to chase a feeling from the past, but many of our great artists do just that. The hope is that the creative process improves upon the original production. Cameron wrote the first film largely by himself, but surrounded himself with a team of writers for the sequels. I think he knew that the story needed to be stronger in order to justify its continuation. The best way to accomplish that is perhaps through collaboration, by lending your talents to a network of creative energy. It’s what aided George Lucas in his depiction of the Galaxy far, far away, and it may ultimately extend the life of Avatar.
So is the original film worth all the derision? Probably not, it is so uniquely criticized due to its notoriety and the sincere hand the story is written with. Avatar isn’t a bad movie, but the things it is bad at are loud, garish, and easily identifiable. You do not have to be a film scholar or lifelong cinephile to criticize Avatar’s shortcomings on the page. The clichéd dialogue, the ham-fisted messaging, and the well-worn story are easy markers. But the same earnestness that marks its flaws is also what makes its strongest moments sing louder. The criticism it inspires, however, is understandable. When you promise a movie that will revolutionize the theater experience, you will have critics that kick you in the nuts over visibly apparent story issues. Avatar plays it safe with its screenplay, and that juxtaposed with its risk taking efforts to accelerate the future of special effects is a very noticeable dichotomy that invites ridicule.
Overall, Avatar is a strong movie that takes a little while to find it’s footing. The majesty of its visuals, action, and the careful depictions of its character arcs is blockbuster cinema done right, even if the tropes are very familiar and weary. But this movie isn’t even the best version of its own concept, which is what Cameron may be chasing in the sequels. He’s accomplished it all, but it’s possible he’s yet to make his Star Wars.