Retro Review – Avatar

Avatar 2009 poster

Overview

Synopsis A paraplegic Marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home. (IMDB)

Length 2 hours, 42 minutes

Release Date December 18, 2009

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Twentieth Century Fox (theatrical), 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (DVD/Blu-ray), Disney+ (VOD)

Directing James Cameron

Writing James Cameron

Composition James Horner

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez

In 2009, James Cameron gave the world a technical marvel of a film that at the time encapsulated all that was grand about blockbuster spectacle filmmaking. Avatar was (and still is at the time of writing) the highest grossing movie of all time. Yet with that accolade came its fair share of criticism.

It was a raging success at the time of release, but like with most popular films, eventually the pendulum swings, it loses its shine, and the dissonant voices grow louder. When something grows as popular as Avatar, eventually it becomes cool to be different and people start to like hating on it. Since it’s a film best seen on the biggest screen possible, a lot of people didn’t opt for a rewatch once it hit the home market, causing the good feelings and memory to fade, the criticisms to grow ever louder, eventually causing some viewers to develop an almost embarrassed reaction to ever liking the movie in the first place.

The sequels to the film have notoriously been in production for over a decade. The landscape of cinema has changed a lot since then. In preparation for the release of the first sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, the film was rereleased on the silver screen. As a huge fan with fond memories, I was eager to revisit this story and the vibrant world of Pandora. Yet was it how I remembered? Has it lost its shine? Are its criticisms valid?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Set on a mythical moon, the jungle is filled with dangerous animals, and characters narrowly avoid getting hurt. These scenes might be scary for younger viewers. There are multiple battle sequences where characters are killed by explosions, bows and arrows, gun shot wounds, or blunt force trauma. Corpses are shown and some characters die on screen, although there is minimal blood involved.

Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent swearing—it’s mostly done by characters within the army. The s-word is said multiple times, along with other offensive language (no f-bombs). God’s name is used in vain. There are some derogatory slurs given to a wheelchair user, and towards a sentient native species on the alien moon.

Drug/Alcohol References: One character smokes cigarettes frequently.

Sexual Content: No nudity. The native alien species wear loincloths. Two characters have intercourse as part of a marriage ritual; viewers see them straddling before the scene fades away, and there’s an ensuing conversation about them being a mated pair.

Spiritual Content: All the species on Pandora have a biological appendage which they can use to link to each other’s or the moon’s neural pathways. Pantheistic in nature, the moon Pandora is thought to be sentient, where connecting your neural pathways is a deeply spiritual exercise, and is one way to share one’s thoughts and feelings with the moon’s deity, called Eywa. Prayers are given to Eywa in this manner, which may or may not be answered through natural forces.

Other Negative Content: Other sentient beings are frequently disrespected, with their lives and culture treated with little sense of importance in some human circles. Certain military actions are done with the express purpose of culturally scarring an entire race. There are numerous instances of double crossing and lying through omission.  

Positive Content: The film harbours a deep respect for the prominence religion can have in our lives, and displays how a person’s beliefs can be more important and hold more worth compared to material things. There are strong environmental messages regarding the destruction of mining, and the need to respect nature and local cultures.

Review

I loved this film the first time I watched it. Avatar was one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life. Recommended to be viewed on the biggest screen possible, I remember feeling lucky to live in Sydney, Australia, as I had the opportunity to watch it in 3D at Darling Harbour, which at the time was literally the largest IMAX screen in the world. With the screen filling my eyeballs, I didn’t merely watch the action occurring on the fictional moon Pandora—no—I was in Pandora. I was living it. Breathing it. Running alongside Jake and taking flying lessons in the sky. Avatar is possibly one of the most immersive experiences you can have in mainstream cinema.

To set the scene for those that are unaware, James Cameron didn’t invent 3D technology. Using Darling Harbour’s IMAX as an example, they frequently hosted gimmicky specially-made documentaries where a light-hearted trip to a Pharoah’s tomb in Egypt would consist of contrived moments where rocks or bats would “fly out of the screen” as archaeologists descended into the darkness. As a little kiddie I went on school excursions there, and that’s what 3D was—a special outing or a gimmick of cinema that remained firmly in the realm of spectacle, where kids would reflexively reach out and try and touch the optical illusions that transcended past the screen.

James Cameron’s Avatar shook things up because he flipped things around. Instead of objects reaching out towards the audiences, instead things tended to recede. With 3D technology he created a sense of depth perception, producing a more life-like experience as though viewers were seeing the world alongside the characters. In a clever move, this choice also went hand-in-hand with one of the story’s major motifs. The native people on Pandora, the Na’vi, frequently say “I see you” as a greeting or a way to strengthen bonds, and it’s not a matter of physically seeing someone, rather it’s about understanding the individual on a deeper level, connecting with their soul, much like the difference between watching something that’s two-dimensional, and viewing something ordained in three-dimensional splendour.

Try as they might, no other film really managed to capture the same magic Avatar generated when it came to the use of 3D. Animated films made the best attempt; Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole featured some breathtakingly beautiful moments, while some of the flying sequences in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy were also epic. Generally speaking, scenes that took flight or were set in space tended to reap the most from the 3D treatment, with Gravity being another cinematic achievement. By far, from what I personally saw, it’s Disney’s short film Get a Horse! which featured the most creative use of this optical film technique before it fell back into the realm of being nothing but a gimmick. Once studios realised they could charge audiences a few extra dollars for the 3D treatment, a number of blockbuster films were rendered in post, cheapening the quality of the 3D visuals. For a lot of films, it didn’t add a whole lot to the picture, making it feel like a useless, tacked on addition. Along with complaints from those with visual aids or difficulties, since Avatar, we’ve seen the full rise and fall of 3D effects, where it has once again returned to being a cinematic novelty and gimmick.

Avatar was also heavily praised for its CGI in general. Created just before the Marvel Cinematic Universe came into existence, it was also made in a time when graphic designers and animators were given reasonable deadlines to complete their work. Released over a decade ago, modern audiences may wonder if Avatar’s special effects have aged well, as once again, it’s pre-MCU and we’ve had a plethora of CGI-heavy films since then, whereas Avatar stood rather alone in that department at the time. Watching it on the big screen again in 2022, it’s gobsmacking how well Avatar holds up. The backgrounds don’t seem as well-rendered in parts, but the attention to detail on the main action is still top notch. Not sure if that’s more of a comment on the greatness of Avatar or how time-poor CGI-heavy films have been since then.

However, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Avatar still manages to hold its own; just how Jurassic Park made a giant leap in cinematic technology (which also still holds up), Avatar was the next big step, and there hasn’t exactly been much more development in this field. Experimentation in cinemas has since focussed more on higher frame rates (Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy and Gemini Man being the ones of note), 4D cinematic experiences (where I had a very enjoyable time with Aquaman), zero gravity special effects (Inception and Gravity being the most ground-breaking), and new animation styles (such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). It just goes to show just how revolutionary Avatar was, and how little development has occurred in some areas since its creation.

Yet of course, cinematic technology still needs good storytelling working alongside it if it hopes to be more than a mere experimental art piece, and despite what people might say, Avatar is still strong in this area. The narrative has a familiarity to it as it’s a classic example of a hero’s journey told within a traditional three act structure. We meet with Jake Sully, an ex-Marine due to recently becoming a paraplegic, who through an unfortunate set of circumstances, finds himself unwittingly part of a science experiment that has him mentally driving the avatar (an empty shell of a body) of an indigenous species (the Na’vi) on a foreign moon (Pandora). We see the joy of a character that gets the opportunity to walk again as he makes the most of his experience. As he slowly befriends the Na’vi and learns their ways, it becomes clear the CGI has a role to play as well; the more we follow Jake on his journey through the beautiful forests of Pandora, the easier it is to understand Jake’s growing love for his new life and the conflict he endures, while we also adore and appreciate this foreign landscape as well all thanks to awe-inspiring visuals. As soon as audiences fall in love with the place, James Cameron gets to work on ripping it apart, emotionally traumatising viewers who are by then in-step with the characters. It creates a guttural urge to see certain events come to fruition, making the story of Avatar predictable in the best sense as it hits all the needed story beats with satisfying gusto.

Is the story particularly deep? No. Since Avatar achieved so much in regards to box office earnings and award recognition, I find people do tend to hold it to a higher standard compared to other blockbuster movies. Those that criticise it for not being as emotionally deep or nuanced as an independent film need to take a step back and recognise that a large part of Avatar’s success is due to its universal and approachable nature in terms of plot and character. In contrast, indie films don’t get the equivalent financial support because they typically are only appealing to a niche market. Simply put, Avatar is as rich and developed as it needs to be in order to entertain its mass market, nothing more, nothing less. Compared to other blockbuster films in terms of story and character development, it’s one of the better ones.

What particularly struck me upon my latest rewatch was how heavy Avatar’s representation was concerning spirituality. Religion in the context of this story takes on a pantheistic approach, where everything is connected through nature, and Pandora may have a sentient quality. Of course, since it’s all rooted in the physical world, it means that god can die, which provides the central source of conflict in the plot. There are massive fundamental differences between the theology depicted in Avatar and Christianity, though what the film really nails which Christians will also relate towards, is the prominence and priority the characters give their religious beliefs. It’s a narrative that respects and understands the importance of religion, and the reason why it struck me this time around compared to previous viewings, is because this is now a rare feature in cinema. The spiritual side of a character’s personality is mostly absent or underexplored in modern films, as movies have tried to express themes regarding the death, uselessness or dissatisfaction of god, or not factor in this side of the human experience at all. Avatar feels like a final remnant of an era of cinema before it shifted to a more atheistic stance.

This epic story in terms of scale and spiritual yearning is all enhanced by a wonderous soundtrack. Like most blockbuster films, the music noticeably crescendos in action sequences, denoting the highs and lows of emotion, and while its usage is nothing out of the ordinary, the tunes themselves are highly memorable and varied. It’s instantly recognisable with its ethereal quality and occasionally heavy overtones, making the soundtrack to this film above average compared to others of its ilk.

At the time of its release, Avatar featured some of the most intense mocap acting committed to screen, and along with Andy Serkis’ contributions in other franchises, it sparked a debate as to whether such roles should be eligible for acting categories at the Academy Awards. There’s been a lot more output in this area since then which has dulled Avatar’s shine, although Zoe Saldana as Neytiri still delivers an emotional and standout performance. Sigourney Weaver is great as always, while Stephen Lang works well with what he’s given. Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by Lang, is the villain of the piece, and his motivations are very straightforward and simple. He’d be a very bland and one-dimensional antagonist if it weren’t for Stephen Lang’s signature likeability in these types of roles. There’s one scene where Quaritch marches out into a deadly toxic environment in order to keep shooting, before finally turning to equip an oxygen mask—it’s just a cool moment for the character that encapsulates the type of man Quaritch is along with his priorities.

One of the weirder criticisms that has popped up since the film’s rerelease is Sam Worthington’s presence. Many have noted that his career hasn’t progressed despite starring in the biggest box office blockbuster of all time. Now some are questioning whether James Cameron made a good choice in casting Worthington, as now he’s effectively stuck with an actor with little star power in the sequels going forward. Honestly, Worthington is fine. His performance isn’t phenomenal, but it’s not awful either. In terms of acting, I always like to ask whether there’s a moment in the film where I didn’t believe the actor; if there’s a line that didn’t ring true or land right. I can’t recall such a time. So, it’s fine.

Similar to Worthington’s lacklustre appeal, one of the larger criticisms of the film that has popped up over the years is that, given Avatar’s box office performance, it hasn’t maintained much presence within the world of pop culture. Well, it certainly is spoken about more often than The Hurt Locker; the film Avatar famously lost to for the Best Picture Academy Award. For a movie that many claim had no lasting impact, it still swept the awards circuit. There was plenty of merchandise at the time, including game releases and books. Learning Photoshop and turning yourself into a Na’vi was all the rage on social media. I remember my sister and I used to call each other “babies” whenever we found something new, interacting with it like Jake Sully did with the reactive forest floor. So it’s not entirely true the film had no impact—I recall it maintained its popularity for some length of time.

But to compare it to some of the more iconic films of the past, they have a point. However, if we look at the latest list of the world’s highest-grossing films, it seems this issue isn’t unique to Avatar. There are three of the Avengers films (the original, Infinity War, and Endgame), Spider-Man: No Way Home, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and even The Lion King (the remake, not the original—I know, it’s depressing). They were huge cinematic events, but none of them are highly quotable. Compare this to another on the list, Titanic. Thanks to that film: Molly Brown taught us how use fancy cutlery, Jack showed us how to spit, people jokingly smeared their hands on misty glass, cruise ships had to close off their bows to passengers that wished to scream they were the king of the world, the cast all went insane thanks to Celine Dion, “draw me like one of your French girls”, and the debate is still raging over that door. It made a huge cultural splash. Let’s be honest, most of the movies now on the highest-grossing list are there not because the individual film itself is special, rather it’s because they’re standing on the back of other cinematic legends. A lot of them are like a flash in the pan in terms of their cultural impact. This isn’t an Avatar problem, rather, with the release cycle now faster than ever before, we’re seeing a symptom of a much larger cultural issue which may speak into how quickly we’re now consuming and disposing of art.

Another critique I hear is that the film is very long. At two hours and forty-two minutes, it’s not on the short side. However, Avatar doesn’t tend to drag. Its pacing is reasonable, the third act is filled with action, and it’s difficult to say what could be cut without losing some of its magic and sense of awe. Some tales need more time to be told, and Avatar is simply a longer story. Back in 2009, producers recoiled at the idea of longer runtimes. It caused audiences to baulk, and it meant less sessions could be played at the cinema per day. A hundred and ten minutes was the standard average that studios aimed towards. Once again, times have changed. Over the past decade the MCU in particular has pushed those optimal runtime boundaries, and now it’s not that strange to see films running over two hours and beyond. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is only one minute shorter than Avatar. So while Avatar will still test bladders, it’s no longer an outlier to warrant such criticism.

The greatest complaint Avatar receives, and the one I hear most often, is that “Avatar is just Dances With Wolves”. Sometimes it’s Pocahontas instead, while the true film buffs or Aussie fans will compare it to FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Occasionally the words, “in space”, are added as well. “Avatar is just Dances With Wolves in space!”

So?

That sounds amazing!

I’m always a little baffled as to why this is said as a criticism of the film. It’s possibly because it’s unknown how the person feels about those aforementioned movies. I really enjoyed Dances With Wolves (and Pocahontas and FernGully). That movie swept the Oscars and even won Best Picture. It’s possible to have multiple films covering similar topics and for them to all be good. If anything, that’s a wonderful thing to happen. That’s the whole purpose of dividing things into different genres in the first place—the grouping together of similar-presenting films started off as a marketing strategy for studios and theatres, so they could inform potential viewers “if you liked that movie, then chances are you’ll enjoy this film as well!” Without further enquiry, “Avatar is just Dances With Wolves in space,” is a critique that doesn’t effectively say anything. It’s like uttering:

Predator is Alien but in the jungle.”

Die Hard is just First Blood.”

Friday the 13th is just Halloween but at a camp in the woods.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is just Avengers: Endgame.”

If you were irritated by any of those statements (mostly because they are bland generalisations that make no actual comment on whether the film was good or bad), now you know how I feel.

The aggravating thing, however, is that Avatar and Dances With Wolves aren’t actually that similar. Dances With Wolves is a slow-moving drama set within a light Western historical atmosphere, whereas Avatar is an epic science fiction fantasy with heavy action elements. It’s not pulling from the same demographic markets. The comparison could work as an oversimplified descriptor of the plot, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend fans of Dances With Wolves to see Avatar and vice versa as there are far more differences than similarities. Of course, this isn’t what is meant by people who compare the two: usually it’s said with a sneer, so obviously it’s meant as a derogatory remark against Avatar. But given the chance to elaborate, it’s not uncommon for the critic to admit that they can’t remember the plot of Avatar… Basically it’s a statement that has made the rounds on the Internet and people have repeated it ad nauseum without pausing to think about what they’re actually saying. Because if people are struggling to remember what happened in Avatar, then HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE THEY’VE SEEN DANCES WITH WOLVES!?

But I’ll throw them a bone since I have used that style of criticism before as well. Usually I reserve it for films that are obviously pulling inspiration from a well-known movie in the same sub-genre, but it’s not crafting its own voice or identity, nor is its quality on par with others. For example, a Netflix Original superhero movie that is obviously riding the coattails of much larger films, hoping to rake in some money off the trend. What they offer that’s new to the genre is very little, and they’re otherwise rather bland. Mediocre. Generic.

None of this bears any resemblance to what Avatar has done and achieved. It felt so good to rewatch Avatar. After so many years, it was refreshing to watch original content once again. It came out in 2009 like a last hoorah before it died and cinema succumbed to corporate studio manufacturing. I own one of the accompanying books of the film entitled Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide. Inside contains descriptions of multiple species of fictious Pandorian species, examples of the Na’vi language, explanations of the ecosystem, and observations of Na’vi culture and religion. It’s nothing short of impressive how much James Cameron created. This is the type of depth usually associated with larger fictional works such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but here Cameron has reduced it all down to one fully contained and highly entertaining epic movie. When people sneer about some similarity to Dances With Wolves, are people really trying to argue that Avatar is unoriginal, or worse, uncreative? In a year that brought us three Pinocchio adaptations and a decade with three different Batman actors (four if you include The Lego Batman Movie), are we really going to persist with the debate that somehow Avatar is unoriginal? If you want to talk about all things generic, go watch this year’s remake of Firestarter and get back to me on that. If you watched Black Adam and were impressed by its modicum of originality because of the fact the central character is slightly bad and the story is set in a fictional Middle Eastern stylised country, then you’re the person that needs to revisit Avatar. It’ll blow your mind.

The last criticism Avatar frequently receives, and the most serious, is that it contains the White Saviour trope. For those unaware, this is where a white protagonist will interact with a minority group and eventually save them from their oppressive forces. Dances With Wolves is frequently cited as a classic example. There are two main problems with this trope. First, it subconsciously states that minority groups are too incompetent to solve their own issues and need the interference of an outsider. Secondly, it robs the minority of having the tale told from their own perspective, using their own voice. The reason this trope was rather prevalent in years past was because of how easily it fell in line with the art of screenwriting: if the viewer was presented with a people group they were unfamiliar with, it was easier to feature a protagonist that was ignorant of their culture so that supporting characters could offer exposition, allowing audiences to expand their knowledge alongside the protagonist.

At a glance, it’s easy to see where this critique comes from. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Avatar is not the best example of this trope. There are a number of reasons, though the biggest is simply that there is no minority group that’s being oppressed in this film. The Na’vi are a giant blue alien species. Sure, one could be coy and say they are inspired from a number of Earth’s older cultures from around the world, though their use of bows and arrows and horse-like creatures does bear more resemblance to Native American culture than other people groups. Though that’s where the similarities end. No human race lived in giant trees, connected their neural pathways with wildlife, or flew on dragons for transport. That’s all from the mind of James Cameron. The Na’vi are no more Native American than Wakandans are Maasai.

The “Indigenous culture” the director is drawing inspiration from is non-descript, and this is supported further by the universality of the central conflict. The destruction of cultural heritage sites for industrial expansion and the mining of resources is not unique to the United States, and it’s clear the film isn’t a direct analogy to some current pinpointed issue. Rather the message is very broad in that we need to respect the voices and wishes of those in local communities, and we need to protect our forests and Earth’s ecosystems. To be facetious for a second, if there’s anything we’ve learnt over the debacle over Disney’s casting of The Little Mermaid remake, is that the Internet consensus was that when it comes to fictional creatures, no matter the cultural heritage that inspired the tale, race doesn’t matter as it’s a fictional character in a fictional world. There is no minority group, so Avatar has not committed the real-world applicable sins through the White Saviour trope.

It’s clear Avatar has taken a beating over the years most likely due to having a target on its back from its jaw-dropping box office success. Though most complaints don’t stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t mean the film is perfect. Its environmental message is heavy-handed and some dialogue is on the nose. The villain is basic and some of its plot progression is a little too formulaic. However it has aged exceptionally well. No one can take away its technical achievements or its rich imaginative setting. Not everyone will like the story, but a rewatch in today’s environment feels fresh and revitalising in a cinematic landscape that has recently become stale with corporate management. If it has been a while since you visited Pandora, now is the best time to return. It’s the epitome of blockbuster filmmaking.

Positives

+ The CGI is 13 years old and yet still looks brand new
+ Cinematic experience
+ Original content!!!
+ Awe-inspiring
+ Mocap acting
+ Has dragons
+ Soundtrack
+ Classic story told well

Negatives

- Heavy handed environmental message
- Some on the nose dialogue
- Backgrounds starting to look simplistic
- Occasionally formulaic to a fault
- Can't always see it in its full glory

The Bottom Line

For a film predominantly praised for its visual prowess back in 2009, Avatar still holds up well. However, it’s the movie’s heavily critiqued story which feels the most fresh in today’s media landscape.

 

9.7

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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