Avatar remains a far more ambitious and challenging blockbuster than much of what has come since.
In the PR build to the release of Avengers: Infinity War, James Cameron made some waves by saying he hopes Hollywood develops Marvel fatigue soon, decrying a variety of options for moviegoers hungry for non-superhero genre fiction. Many considered this opinion hypocritical, given that Cameron is in the process of foisting four new Avatar sequels upon an unsuspecting world. But that’s not quite a fair assessment.
MCU followers, by and large dogmatic in their fandom, were only able to muster variations of Avatar disses because, for all of the film’s financial success, it’s failed in the last decade to make the sort of pop cultural penetration all 19 Marvel films have enjoyed in its stead. While it’s true that Avatar is easily the highest grossing movie that no one seems to give an actual fuck about, that does not mean it’s entirely without merit, or that Cameron is wrong to see his own unasked-for sequel films as an antidote to the MCU formula for box office dominance.
Revisiting Avatar in 2018, the old stalwart weaknesses are still on display. On a very basic level, the film still feels like a really expensive remake of FernGully: The Last Rainforest grafted to a more colorful take on Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. Some may only remember the broad strokes. The big blue aliens that seemed designed to be Rule 34’d all over DeviantArt, the exhaustive CGI work and the nail on the head environmentalist themes spring to mind, but the film’s plot feels like a blur the further out the viewer gets from first watch.
In 2154, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a disabled former Marine brought into a scientific program on the far flung moon Pandora. His twin brother trained for years to be one of the subjects to control an “avatar,” a genetically grown host body that blends human DNA with Pandora’s natives, the Na’vi, 10 foot tall blue humanoids with tails. Since his brother has been slain in a mugging, Jake is brought in as the only person with the right genes for the job. For Jake, it means an opportunity to walk again, even if it’s inside a body not his own. It’s something of a complicated premise, but all of that is established in literally 10 minutes of screentime, an absolute radar blip in comparison to most of today’s bloated blockbusters.
Jake’s background as a soldier puts him in the middle of the conflict between the big business interests who just want to ravage Pandora for its goofily named, highly profitable natural resource “unobtainium” and the natives he grows to admire and love. The metaphors are still a rudimentary cudgel as far as nuanced storytelling goes and it would be lying to imply much of the film’s middle act isn’t riddled with moments of cringe. At nearly three hours, the movie as a whole isn’t as tight and efficient as the opening act. And yes, the world Cameron has designed here isn’t as engrossing as the one from the Terminator universe, or the Marvel Universe for that matter.
But you know what? This movie is a million times better than I had believed it to be for the past nine years. When I first saw Avatar opening weekend, I thought it was an entertaining movie, but not one I cared much about or was planning to rewatch ever again. It felt like a poorly written, competently directed base hit, not a home run. The film’s box office run baffled me and I, like most, spent the better part of a decade partaking in easy lay-up jokes about how indulgent and lame it was.
That’s all well and good, but those repetitive gags about the film’s failings pale in comparison to the spectacle Cameron created. The special effects, production design and cinematography in Avatar, even a decade later, trounce that of any three MCU films combined. It reminds me of how T2: Judgement Day continued looking ahead of its time years after its initial release. When it comes to lensing action, staging big set pieces and conceiving believable worlds, there is literally no one working in film today on Cameron’s level and it’s not even close.
Nothing Peter Jackson, Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, Christopher Nolan or any of the contract player helmers of the MCU have conjured the majesty and intensity of Avatar’s third act battle sequences, each laid out with such meticulous detail and artful cohesion. Watching scores of Na’vi wage war against capitalist war dogs armed only with archery skills and oneness with nature makes every one of the post-Disney acquisition Star Wars films feel like SyFy channel pilots. Yet this film is still a laughing stock and the notion of watching four more entries in this franchise elicits little more than an eye roll.
It comes down to mediocre screenwriting and themes that fail to resonate with the mainstream audience. Cameron’s message about eco-friendly lifestyles over slavish consumer culture fell on deaf ears and it’s very likely any new iteration of the same themes will be met with similar apathy. It’s true that Avatar doesn’t have the best dialogue or the most compelling characters, but in terms of mood and visuals and the more nebulous elements of cinema, Avatar remains a far more ambitious and challenging blockbuster than much of what has come since.
In a world where every other release week is a new superhero film or another unnecessary entry into the Star Wars canon, is another trip to Pandora really the worst thing Hollywood can inflict on us? If it means James Cameron reminding every mainstream director how far from his level they are, then maybe not.