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James Cameron’s Avatar: Clichéd Grand Spectacle

We’re getting close to the long awaited sequel to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009): let’s take  a look at the original film as it’s rereleased in theaters.

So much has changed in the world of entertainment in the last thirteen years. The mid-budget movie has almost nearly disappeared from the spectrum, comic-book adaptations are the hot thing at the moment, television is more cinematic than ever before, and the advances in technology being used across the film industry have seen great developments. It took great filmmakers to get to where we are today, and the legendary James Cameron is certainly one of those directors whose mark has changed the game several times now.

Treating us to films such as The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, Titanic, and, of course, Avatar, the man knows how to deliver pure blockbuster spectacle unlike no other. Anytime the audience and the industry doubt Cameron’s abilities as an artist, he proves them wrong and ends up creating massive cultural phenomenons. Take Titanic as an example: 20th Century Fox executives were unhappy with how much money the director was spending on his three-hour long epic. They wanted him to cut down the film in fear that, with such a runtime, it wouldn’t be shown as many times per day at the movie theaters, thus not making the profit the studio wished for. As history tells us, Cameron stuck to his vision and Titanic went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time for twelve long years — and was the first film to ever reach the billion dollar mark — only to be dethroned by another Cameron film that people had their doubts about, Avatar.

James Cameron’s Avatar takes us on an other-worldly adventure with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Under the Banner of Heaven). Jake is a  paraplegic ex-Marine that’s dispatched to an alien planet named Pandora on a mission to infiltrate the humanoid species of the Na’vi, so he can aid a greedy corporation mine for precious minerals scattered across the land. Because Pandora’s environment is filled with dangerous life forms and its atmosphere is toxic for humans, Jake and his colleagues are forced to enter the Avatar program, where they’re given artificial Na’vi vessels so they can transport their minds into the alien bodies. After spending time with the Na’vi and learning to appreciate their culture, Jake finds himself torn between worlds. Should he help the alien species survive against the outsiders, or remain loyal to humanity?

It is no easy task to build a completely new world from the ground up. Like some of the most iconic locations in fiction, Pandora feels tangible. It gives out the idea that it is a real place in outer space that you could visit. For a fictional planet that is entirely brought to life through computer generated effects, it feels alive and oozes personality, certainly more so than most franchises do today with their attempts at world-building. The grand, colorful landscapes of Pandora to this day does not fail to impress and take your breath away, not even thirteen years later since its inception.

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Avatar (2009) (Twentieth Century Fox)

Avatar’s visuals are as photoreal as they are because of Cameron and his team’s innovative methods to bring the film to life. WetaDigital, one of the VFX production companies that worked on the project, used motion capture to make Cameron ambitious vision a reality. This kind of technique wasn’t necessarily new, as Andy Serkis (The Batman) had been playing with motion capture years prior during the making of Peter Jackson’s King Kong and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What the crew of Avatar did do new, though, is not only use motion capture, but reinvent what was possible by creating facial motion capture. With the help of their own developed software, WetaDigital was able to map out the performers’ individual facial muscle movements, allowing the actors to emote without their performances being lost in translation, resulting in realistic looking humanoid creatures.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Cameron dedicated a large amount of time developing the rules and visuals of his sci-fi epic than he did with his characters, for better or for worse. On top of his difficult work with WetaDigital, the visionary director asked for a virtual camera to be created that’d allow Cameron to see what Pandora’s surroundings would look like during filming. This tool was called the volume, which would later on evolve into the grand LED sets we know today through The Mandalorian and The Batman. Was the effort worth it? Well, the finished product speaks for itself. From the jungles of Pandora to the planet’s floating rocks, the Na’vi, the beautiful flying banshees, the intimidating thanator, and the direhorses, all of the creature designs in Avatar are unique, yet familiar enough for us to comprehend what kind of threat they present to our characters. All of this thanks to Cameron’s determination to push the technology forward in order to make his dream project a reality.

A major criticism Avatar faced back in the day, and still does today, was the fact that its storytelling is very simplistic and by the numbers. Immediate comparisons were made to films such as Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, where an outsider comes into the home of an indigenous people, has a change of heart, and decides to help the natives protect their lands from the evil, greedy colonizers. You would be correct to make such connections between these works of art. Avatar is guilty of all charges, especially of carrying the white-savior trope on its back. The thing about this controversy is that I don’t believe we come to James Cameron’s Pandora to be blown away by the originality in its premise. We come to the world of the Na’vi to be amazed by the sheer scale and sense of wonder that Cameron created and how he plays with the classic sci-fi/fantasy archetypes.

Sam Worthington’s career has been brutally criticized ever since Hollywood tried to push him to be the next action star back in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Yes, some of the parts he played weren’t necessarily Shakespearean, but I wouldn’t blame the man for being handed poor scripts. Worthington has proven he’s an exceptional actor when he is given the opportunity to shine, like with his supporting roles in Hacksaw Ridge and Everest. Jake Sully might not be the most fascinating protagonist of the modern era, but he’s definitely not the worst, nor is he nearly as bad as people make him out to be. He fits the role of the arrogant underdog who needs to see there is more to life beyond what’s on the surface, making him a better person by the time he nears the end of his journey. We can criticize the white-messiah undertones that are built around the character, coming in to save the natives of Pandora, but I wouldn’t say Jake is in any way near the worst character in the film.

People love Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe), who plays Colonel Miles Quaritch in the film. Lang has that perfect on screen balance where he can be equally likable and terrifying. His character in Avatar, though, just falls flat from achieving either of these things. Quaritch is overly serious to be charming, and too silly to be threatening, hence ending up with a character that is not memorable at all. Same thing can be said for Giovanni Ribisi (The Offer), who plays your typical corporate guy, and Michelle Rodriguez (F9: The Fast Saga), who is incredibly underutilized. Then there is Sigourney Weaver (Call Jane), who is as delightful as she usually is, but we aren’t sure if her character is written that way, or if it is Weaver’s charisma that shines through.

The one real standout in Avatar is Zoe Saldana (The Adam Project) as Neytiri, the daughter of the chief of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Neytiri is the only character in the film that everyone seems to remember. Saldana’s character has so much heart to the point that it is tough to find a reason not to like her. Throughout the years, the argument has been made that the film should’ve focused on her and not Jake Sully. Beliefs that are only reinforced with the marketing campaign of the rerelease for Avatar, as Naytiri is front and center of the new posters. For what is worth though, Worthington does shine the brightest in the film when he shares the screen with Saldana. They bring out the best in each other, and for two blue aliens that look like giant cats, their romance is genuinely believable. You can’t expect less from the man that brought us the epic love story between Rose and Jack in Titanic. Is it as good or epic as that romance? No, but Jake and Neytiri’s relationship brings a much necessary sense of urgency to the film in terms of what’s at stake and what they could potentially lose.

When it comes to the action genre, James Cameron is one of the very best at it. As opposed to some of his peers, such as  Christopher McQuarrie, the Wachowskis, Michael Mann, George Miller, or Michael Bay, Cameron may not have a distinct visual language to showcase his vision, but what he lacks in this area he makes up for in his characters and simplicity. Many of the already mentioned filmmakers are well-known for their stylish and innovative action. Michael Bay is remembered for his “Bay-hem” approach to set pieces, where there needs to be explosions and a sunset every five to ten minutes. In contrast, the reason why both of Cameron’s Terminator films are as iconic as they are is because they are character-driven stories. James places his protagonist against impossible odds, a mother and son against a time-traveling killing machine for example, and goes up and beyond to exploit what is possible with such a premise.

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Avatar (2009) (Twentieth Century Fox)

In Avatar, we might not be as invested in the characters as we should, but the action still resonates with us because James Cameron manages to present his set pieces in a grounded manner. Instead of falling victim of overusing techniques such as one-continuous takes or shaky cams, things that have become widely popular in the action genre, Cameron shoots his action in a more traditional way, using helicopter-shots for example, despite the movie itself taking large leaps into the future of visual effects. I think that is one of the many beauties of Avatar and James Cameron’s eye for storytelling. He does try to push the envelope, but not at the expense of what makes a film, well, a film. Nowadays we see so many blockbusters abuse VFX to the point that it gives their movies an almost fake look to them. Sure, seeing Thor fight against an entire army by himself in the latest MCU film is visually cool, but not always engaging. Avatar, on the other hand, holds up better than most movies made today because it provides an out of body experience, while also remaining simple to follow.

I believe it is inevitable to discuss the elephant in the room: is Avatar truly the mega-hit that nobody remembers, or are viewers simply exaggerating because it is easy to hate on a popular film? The answer, I think, isn’t as simple as we may hope for. For starters, it would be silly to ignore the wave of 3D-driven films that followed in the coming decade after Avatar was released to the public in 2009. I mean, 3D was everywhere. Every major summer blockbuster had a 3D option playing opposite to their 2D counterparts. In addition, we saw the rise, and fall, of 3D television and Blu-ray sets. While an immersive viewing experience at the movie theater, most consumers felt the technology to be unnecessary and even distracting at home, leading to the decline in sales of 3D TV sets.

Then there’s the issue of 3D in theaters. Rather than being an extra layer in the moviegoing experience, as James Cameron intended with Avatar, the technology became a lame gimmick. Filmmakers and studios alike would soon use the technique to throw things into people’s faces in hopes that would be enough to create a strong positive reaction. What instead happened was the death of 3D as we know it. There are 3D showings of certain films every once in a while, but it isn’t the juggernaut it once was when Cameron revolutionized it.

Aside from the fatigue with the technology, society just didn’t seem to care to keep a fandom going for the world of Pandora. You don’t really see people dressing up as Na’vi for Halloween. It is rare for Avatar to be brought up during a film related discussion. I hardly ever hear moviegoers describe Cameron’s sci-fi epic as one of their favorite films ever made. I’ve heard this argument being made for both of his Terminator entries, Titanic and Aliens, but not really for Avatar. I’m certain those people exist, but they surely don’t make themselves known very often. As a result, Avatar’s story, or lack of, became a laughing punchline. It wasn’t just that it was too cliché, it was that nobody remembered how the film handled such tropes to begin with. To make matters worse, we’ve been forced to wait over a decade to return to this world, allowing critics to tear the original film apart, and people’s memories of Avatar fading away in the meantime.

In a world where there are, at the very least, five comic book movies released in a singular calendar year, with just as many big budget TV series on the small screen, I can’t really take the argument that Avatar is forgettable seriously. You mean to tell me you vividly remember every tiny little detail about the plot of Thor: Love & Thunder? Or that somehow the Fast and Furious series is a far superior storytelling achievement than a James Cameron production? Opinions are subjective: that’s true. But to make such statements seems hypocritical to me when half of today’s box office hits utilize the same clichés and technological techniques Avatar was criticized for. Perhaps some films might use James Cameron’s techniques better than he did at the time, but my point remains the same.

This is not to say we haven’t seen great blockbusters in the past thirteen years. Some standouts include Dune, Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Blade Runner 2049, and most recently Top Gun: Maverick. Like your average audience members, I do enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I love all kinds of films. Blockbusters and independent movies. I don’t discriminate based on the genre. Overused clichés or not. This is why I give storytellers the benefit of the doubt, and why I know way too well not to doubt James Cameron when he has his mind set on a project. When I see people joke that Cameron has spent the last decade of his life making sequels to his blue aliens movie, I have no other option but to roll my eyes. If the man is taking his time, it is for a good reason. After the release of the first teaser trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water, cinephiles have not failed to point out how the madman of a director seems to have yet again revolutionized the VFX industry with his new technology for underwater scenes. If this is a reminder of anything, it is to never bet against James Cameron because he will prove you wrong.

Avatar (2009) will be re-released globally in theaters on September 23, 2022, in stunning 4K High Dynamic Range.

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