There’s no doubting the success of Avatar, James Cameron’s all-conquering sci-fi that saw the self proclaimed king of the world defy skeptics once again and do the double by topping the highing grossing movie of all time while beating his his own personal best.
The filmmaking skills that saw the utilizing of bleeding edge digital technology and the resurrection of 3D movies back from the dead is undeniably majestic, but among the news reports of some movie goers becoming addicted to multiple trips to the world of Pandora and suffering withdrawal symptoms and even depression when the movie left cinemas, was loud an persistent voices of dissent. Some turned their nose up at a plot that hued suspiciously close to both Dances With Wolves and even animated action-adventure Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, while others thought the co-opting and adapting Native American cultures and their “mystic” properties to commune with nature through the blue, alien Na’vi was noticably too on the nose for comfort. Regardless of your personal stance, it’s certainly true that in the time between Avatar and it’s long overdue sequel (due imminently) there’s been a surprising lack of cultural impact for a movie that eventually unseated even Avengers: Endgame; so what’s the truth? Is Avatar overrated, misunderstood or neither?
After the death of his scientist twin brother, crippled ex-marine Jake Sully finds himself approached with a tantalising prospect: take his brother’s place on a colonizing mission on the moon of Pandora and join an expedition to study the native population of the Na’vi.
This is done via the use of Avatars, Na’vi/human clone bodies that’s tailor made for their pilots (hence the need for Jake) to download their consciousness into so they can interact with the natives. Needless to say, Sully is overjoyed to have working legs again – even if they’re attached to a nine foot, blue, monkey/cat alien.
However, not long after arriving to this harsh, but undeniably beautiful world, Sully finds himself trapped between two ideals with the first being blunt-talking but passionate project leader Dr. Grace Augustine who wants to study the Na’vi. However, the second is the scar-faced, head of security Colonal Quaritch, a man tougher than two dollar steak who uses Jake’s military background to convince him to collect insider intel on the Na’vi in order for the mining operation to find large deposits of “unobtainium”, a valuable mineral that a depleted Earth desperately needs.
On his first outing out, Jake is separated from his group and is found by the initially distrustful Neytiri, the daughter of the leaders of the Omaticaya clan, who brings Jake to her people. In an attempt to broach the differences, Jake stays with the Na’vi as a reluctant Neytiri is tasked with teaching him the ways of her people. Able to physically connect with nature and the usually lethal wildlife thanks to a biological “connector” located in their ponytails that they “plug” into whatever they want to commune with, Jake slowly starts to fall for this way of life and Neytiri but sooner or later, he’s going to have to make a choice. That choice is made even more fateful when the RDA mining corporation make a violent push on the Omaticaya village and their scared Tree Of Souls in order to get their hands on the unmined minerals located in the earth underneath. So yeah, like I said, Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully.
Glib comparisons aside, Avatar is truly at it’s best when viewed in the third dimension, just how Cameron envisioned it, but when you watch a flat, 2D version on a screen significantly smaller than a two story house, a sizable portion of the movie’s power is notably reduced. It’s here where the complaints about the over familiarity of the plot starts to ring true with even the basic concept of earthlings being the villains being a well covered topic from everything from Clive Barker’s Nightbreed to Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy 2 – however, Cameron manages to do this humans as baddies arc so well I’m willing to think most people watching it never even ponder how quick they turn their back on their own species.
The secret is the same kind of economical story telling the director used for Titanic that utilises broad strokes to acclimate us to this world and its characters at first glance, leaving us in no doubt as to who we should be rooting for a casting the militaristic and corporate sides of humanity in almost cartoonishly villainous terms (Giovanni Ribisi’s golf loving suit might as well be sporting a “Greed Is Good” t-shirt”). On the flip side are the human scientists led by a wecolmly brazen Sigourney Weaver and, of course, the Na’vi themselves are one with nature and surround themselves in all the eyeball searing beauty that Pandora has to offer and the only inbetween (even Michelle Rodriguez’s Vasquez-from-Aliens style pilot seems pre-ready to ditch her gun-toting comrades in a New York second) is Sam Worthington’s amiable paraplegic Jake Sully, who continuously struggles with his conscience as much as the actor struggles to suppress his Aussie accent. However, forming incredibly strong opposing poles for Sully to be stuck between are the two actors who really make Avatar so gripping with the first being Zoe Saldãna’s beguiling Neytiri who’s part sensitive, part warrior woman role may actually be the finest example of a mo-cap performance seen outside of a modern Planet Of The Apes movie. Playing jacked-up devil to Neytiri’s blue angel is Stephen Lang’s grizzled Quaritch who almost walks away with the whole damn movie under one pumped bicep and is a magnificently hissable villain. Whether ordering a missile strike on the Na’vi’s home while casually sipping on a mug of coffee or actually scoring more air punching action beats than some of the heroes (his power suit assisted escape from an exploding gunships is deliriously awesome), Lang’s jaw-clenched determination end up making him one of the best villains of the decade.
However, the reason for all these mostly over familiar procession of story and character tropes is actually quite simple as Avatar is simply one huge excuse for Cameron to take us by the hand and walk us step by step through this world he’s created without any massive twists or suprises to divert our attention from the jaw-unhinging detail he’s packed in. There’s a reason most of the film is Jake simply learning the Na’vi ways while bonding and communing with the extraterrestrial nature and it’s all because were being exposed to some instinctual storytelling that’s there to skillfully indoctrinate you into Cameron’s unmatched world building. Make no mistake, he’s done a damn sight more than simply oversee the design of a couple of cool alien animals and simply chosen to make the plant life colourful – Cameron’s literally created an entire fucking ecosystem from scratch, not just the Na’vi and all their customs, but all the animals (all land dwellers have six legs) and the bio-luminescent fauna too. When the realisation hits that Avatar is actually a glorified, but detailed travelogue through an alien wilderness, it’s here you finally understand where the true genius of its storytelling has been focused and it’s Pandora that brings the wonder and the fascination that ensnared so many people so many times.
To wax lyrical about the technical aspects of the film is almost redundant at this point as WETA digital refining their mo-cap tech to focus on the humanity rather than the outlandish of an alien performance is really Avatar’s truest, most endearing legacy, but without it’s stunning 3D work (favouring depth over popcorn spilling, jumpy out bits) a lot of the nuances are lost as the world literally and figuratively seems flatter.
Whack on another star onto the rating if you’re immersing yourself in a version that requires thick, black tinted glasses, Avatar, like Titanic, is a case of a four star film blessed with five star filmmaking and is best enjoyed when you stop questioning its flaws and you simply give yourself up to the experience.
Overrated? No, not when the film is watched properly in it’s natural environment – but as it’s so rare that we can actually do that, perhaps it’s also no real surprise that we all just stopped talking about it. Maybe we all just forgot what experiencing Pandora is really like when we’re reduced to watching it on a tablet on a streaming service in with only measly two dimension to view it in.
I see you, Avatar.