In 2009 there was a movie that was bigger than Marvel. Bigger, even, than Star Wars. Granted, Marvel had just begun, and the Star Wars prequels were in the past, but James Cameron produced a movie that eclipsed the highest grossing movie of all time - which just happened to be James Cameron's Titanic.
Avatar was a vanity project that Cameron had wanted to do since the 1990s. Even though he pioneered computer effects, it wasn't until the Lord of the Rings series that Cameron finally thought he could bring his project to fruition. Even then the movie cost $280 million. It was worth it as it brought in over two billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide. Everywhere one looked in 2009 there was Avatar. It was an original property poised to be the next cultural touchstone.
However, by late 2010, and definitely by 2011, no one cared anymore, despite new "revised" versions of the movie. Marvel had taken over as the biggest box office draw and, outside of that, big budget effects movies one after the other flopped while trying to achieve what Avatar did. The only lasting impact on culture, other than some of the graphical designs in the video game No Man's Sky, was in Hollywood, where studios became even more risk averse as the success with new properties eluded them time and time again. It is only recently that Cameron has stated that there will be more movies set in this universe - four more, in fact - after over a decade, with the first of them not scheduled to surface until 2022.
It is strange that he never moved on to something else. While there is some interesting worldbuilding going on, the only person who seems to care about the Avatar universe is James Cameron. Still, it was a popular movie, and one that I avoided seeing when it came out for a number of reasons. At this late date I figured it would be interesting to finally visit the world of Pandora and see just what all the fuss was about back then.
When his brother is killed paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to take his place in the Avatar Program on the moon of Pandora, which orbits a gas giant around one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system. His only qualification is his DNA and the fact that the program is expensive, and they don't want the Avatar that was grown to go to waste. The reason they need it is for contact with the local natives called the Na'vi, who are hostile due to destructive mining operations that are damaging their forest. Grace (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the Avatar Project, is not pleased to be getting someone who doesn't know the culture of the language.
During his first trip out Sully gets separated from his group and is saved from an animal attack by the native woman Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who decides to spare his life after she receives what she perceives as a sign from their deity Eywa that he may serve a purpose for her people. Soon Jake learns the ways of the Na'vi and is accepted as one of them. Unfortunately, the mining company is set on destroying their Hometree, under which lies a large deposit of the mineral they are after - unobtanium - and they will stop at nothing to get to it.
The Na'vi, the planet Pandora, the interconnected forest making the moon an aware, living being - all that is Cameron. He and others working on the creatures and effects tried their best to make everything scientifically plausible, including creatures that develop in a low-gravity environment. So much thought went into making a living, breathing world, and Cameron succeeds. The Na'vi come across as people, not animations, even more than a decade later, and the world they inhabit is unique.
What is also Cameron, unfortunately, is something like unobtanium. It's scientific shorthand for a fantasy material, in this case an element that remains aloft in a magnetic field. On Pandora this causes a number of mountains over a particularly heavy magnetic area to levitate, thus turning parts of Pandora into a living Roger Dean painting. It's not that such an element cannot exist, but the name is lazy. It undercuts all the other work done by giving a weak excuse for why humans would be on a hostile moon with an unbreathable atmosphere in the first place. It's not the only place the laziness shows up; Avatar cobbles its general plot from a number movies, the most recognizable to Americans being Dances with Wolves. There were lines taken almost verbatim from Kevin Costner's film.
It is also frustrating to see a great white savior going native and leading the "noble savages" to victory against the evils of civilization. The corporation is bad, and Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), originally friendly to Jake, turns out to be heartless and actually relishes the excuse to go out and kill with impunity. It isn't until Jake Sully does all the legendary things needed that the Na'vi come together and, along with their moon, fight back. If these were actually Native Americans (they are portrayed as such, using every stereotype a New Age shop in Sedona would try to peddle) being led to victory against the Union Army by a white man that united the tribes, there would have been such an outcry even in 2009 that the movie would have been sharing the same cell with Song of the South. However, Cameron, at least at first, got away with it because it was giant blue aliens rather than stoic warriors of the American plains.
What does partially save the movie, other than the visuals, is despite the cliched script we never get into George Lucas style dialog. Sam Worthington is actually solid in his first major lead role, while Sigourney Weaver is great in her part as usual. Stephen Lang does some scene chewing as Quaritch, while Zoe Saldana adds the humanity needed to Neytiri. It helps that none of them are given anything too stupid to say, and they all seem invested in making the best movie they can. I would not say that any of them are wasted in the movie either; in fact, just the opposite, as even the smaller roles help make this quite watchable and enjoyable despite its many flaws.
What I think has soured the memory of this film is both that it borrowed from better films and that there are no surprises throughout. It is visually stunning, but every single scene leads to something that happens later on, even if it is simply just learning how to properly fall. It is predictable already without every single scene being telegraphed, right down to the last one. A movie that had this much thought going into the world it was creating (and even what Earth is like in 2154, although we never see it) deserves something more than a hero's journey on autopilot.
Time: 162 minutes
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldna, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang
Director: James Cameron