Now I already know what you’re thinking. Yan, “Avatar” came out thirteen years ago. Why review it now?
Some of us saw “Avatar” when we were in grade school. Most of us saw “Avatar” before we knew what a cinematic universe was, arguably before the concept of cinematic universe even existed. But the world has changed since the blue-skinned Na’vi first graced the silver screen in 2009 and became the first movie ever to gross more than $2 billion. Now, it shares that achievement with four other films, three of which were produced by Disney. In 2019, Disney bought 20th Century Fox, the owners of “Avatar,” making it one of their many lucrative properties. In 2021, Disney re-released “Avatar” in China to increase its box office revenue, and now in preparation for sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” this year, they are releasing “Avatar” once again, this time across the world. That re-release had me wondering: Surely “Avatar,” a movie I already found middling at its launch, could not have aged well. But I had to find out. I had to check whether the film was as overrated as I remembered, as undeservedly lauded as a visual feat, if Sam Worthington was as wooden as I recalled.
So, that curiosity drove me to break a promise I had made to myself years ago. I donned those cursed sleek 3D glasses once again, a headache-inducing device that I had decided would never live up to its potential. I went to the cinema, an IMAX 3D one specifically, to see the film as James Cameron intended, not as I had seen it on a plain old boring screen 13 years before. And now, much to my own surprise, I am going to extoll the value and worth of “Avatar” as if it is the underdog, and not the most lucrative film of all time.
The plot is as stodgy as you may remember. Jake Sully, a parapalegic veteran, signs up for a tour in Pandora, where he will serve as an avatar, an envoy meant to broker peace between the militant, metal-seeking humans and Pandora’s indigenous population, the Na’vi. But what he thought would be a routine mission goes awry when his loyalty to his military commander falters and he starts to fall for the magic of Pandora and, more specifically, Neytiri, a Na’vi warrior who teaches him her people’s ways. Is this still the plot to Disney’s “Pocahantas?” Yes. Does it work? Somehow, also yes. It’s not original, nor is it very complex. But it’s never offensive enough to distract you from the film’s vast visual splendor. That could be because the plot is too thin to be a bother, or it could be because Cameron knows what he’s doing with a camera.
This movie is 13 years old and looks better than every single Marvel movie that has come out since. Granted, this release is in part a re-master, with the film being upgraded to 4K and select scenes having specific updates to their frame rate. But the film’s original colors remain just as vibrant, as does its imagination. Cameron is enamored by the biome of Pandora with all its bioluminescence and interconnectivity. It’s an excitement that is infectious, particularly through 3D glasses. I understand how ridiculous this sounds, but the floating seeds of the trees of Pandora’s mega-tree are positively ethereal in 3D. Each part of Pandora is fully rendered in exquisite visual detail, making it a sight to behold. Cameron has always been hailed as ahead of his time, and now, even a decade later, that remains true.
Now, you’re thinking: It’s just “Avatar.” Relax. It’s nothing special.
Except, I regret to inform you, that in this day and age, it is.
Yes, there’s a white savior but also he’s incredibly bad at his job. He’s saved by everyone else, and fails multiple times. Sam Worthington gives one of the stiffest performances you’ll ever see, but you’re also not here to look at the humans. And at the very least, he reacts to Pandora with reverence and awe, emulating our experience as an audience, rather than with the derisive quips that have plagued most action movies of the last ten years.
Some have argued that there’s a problematic binary of savage and civilized in the Na’vi and the humans, reinforcing stereotypes about indigeneity. But it’s also startlingly obvious who Cameron thinks the real savages are. When the humans begin their assault on the Na’vi mega-tree, Cameron does not lean into the spectacle of explosions that have become the norm of Dwayne-The-Rock-Johnson-infected action films. Instead, every explosion is devastating and in the background, with the Na’vi’s emotional distress being the real focus of each shot. It’s impossible to root for the humans in this movie as their greed causes them to demolish the Na’vi’s ancestral home. Again, this seemed like nothing special in 2009. But since then, if an eco-conscious character exists in an action movie, they are much more likely to be its terrorizing villain than its hero. Even though cultural mores have shifted against the reckless environmental destruction of capitalism, more and more of our movies side with the corporate status quo. “Avatar” stands alone.
The messaging is pretty on-the-nose. Colonialism is bad; forcible occupation is bad; territorial destruction is bad; wanton ecological destruction for the sake of endless progress is bad. The hormones in my teenage blood made me rebel against the film for telling me what to think. But now, with the acceleration of the climate crisis over the last decade, I wish “Avatar” could have been more direct, direct enough to stall or slow our society’s drift towards collapse.
“Avatar” did not change. But we have. Our context has shifted. The world has kept spinning, freezing, and melting. But the film stayed static, until we returned to it. Watching “Avatar” was a reminder of how bland the blockbuster has become. This last year alone we have had “Bullet Train,” “Free Guy,” “The Gray Man,” and “Red Notice,” droll pictures that seem to think movies are more the smarmy faces of their lead actors than the potential to create cinematic magic. We have been flooded with drivel.
And so now, I stand before you, my 3D glasses on, as an “Avatar” apologist, a sympathizer, a zealot. The bar has fallen so much that it seems unlikely we will ever come back to a place where spectacle and imagination work in conjunction. But hopefully, something great lies over to the horizon. So now, I look to December, beckoning James Cameron, begging him to drown us Pandora’s sweet water, to raise that bar again, to remind us that action movies can still be bold and brave, to show us the Way of Water.