Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Avatar is an epic science fiction film released in 2009 and was written and directed by James Cameron, his first feature length film since Titanic in 1997. The film is set in the future where mankind is attempting to colonise the lush jungle moon of Pandora while dealing with the persistent native species known as the Na'vi. Into this conflict, a paraplegic man is enlisted to play as an avatar - a remote-controlled genetic clone designed to infiltrate the Na'vi in order to gather intelligence. The film stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Steven Lang, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver. The film heavily utilises CG for its visual effects and Cameron had written a treatment for the film in the mid 1990s but was unable to pursue the idea due to technical limitations at the time. Despite being one of the most expensive productions in history, the film was a huge success at the box office - it became the first film ever to earn more than $2 billion and later $2.5 billion worldwide and held the record for the highest ever earnings until it was overtaken by Avengers: Endgame in 2019 (although it has since reclaimed the record). Critics were largely impressed and the film scooped three Academy Awards at that year's ceremony. Considered a technical masterpiece by many, the film is due to be followed by a number of sequels with the first sequel (filmed concurrently with Avatar 3) due in December 2022.
What's It About?
By 2154, Earth's natural resources have been depleted and humanity has branched out into the galaxy in order to sustain itself. Around the gas giant known as Polyphemus is the lush jungle moon of Pandora which has vast amounts of a precious ore known as unobtainium and before long, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) arrives and begins conducting extensive mining on the mineral to the detriment of the moon's natural ecosystem. In addition to the environmental damage caused, the mining operation threats the peaceful native community on Pandora known as the Na'vi - tall, blue-skinned aliens who co-exist with the natural world around them and can survive in Pandora's dangerously toxic (to humans) atmosphere. The RDA's security forces, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch, could easily over-run the technologically inferior Na'vi but head of operations Parker Selfridge would rather achieve a more diplomatic solution.
To that end, he has employed Dr Grace Augustine - head of the Avatar program which produces genetically engineered clones of the Na'vi which can be operated remotely by those matched to them. One such avatar belonged to the recently deceased twin brother of paraplegic Jake Sully, a former Marine who is instead offered the chance to replace his brother in the program. After he accepts and rediscovers the joy of having the use of his legs again via his Na'vi avatar, Sully is thrown into the field to discover more about the enemy. And after a close encounter with some of Pandora's deadly local wildlife, he gets the chances after he is rescued by native Na'vi warrior Neytiri...
What's to Like?
I was all ready to pour scorn on Avatar due to the somewhat polarised reviews I had previously seen. I have seen plenty of films that used fancy visuals to paper over weak story-telling and at first glance, you might think this film makes the same mistake. Yet, on some occasions, the visuals themselves are the reason to watch a film - think of the first Star Wars back in the Seventies or The Matrix more than twenty years ago. Both came to define visual effects after their release and this film takes things to a new, even higher level. Like Star Wars, the film brings such a rich and vibrant world to life in astonishing detail that you instantly comprehend the wider setting without the need for exposition. The graphics on dozens of screens and tablets on board the RDA vessels, the exquisite detail on Na'vi characters that make them so lifelike, the wide array of flora and fauna that illuminate the screen with dazzling colours. It's full of the little details that make such effects feel real and by the end of the film, you buy into it completely. The only film I can think of to compare it to are those stunning battle scenes in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy - you don't care about the how or the why because you're too busy believing the illusion.
Into this living and breathing world, Cameron brings us a number of characters who all bring something to the narrative. I accept that some are stronger than others, either due to being underwritten (Rodriguez's pilot who felt too similar to Vasquez in Cameron's earlier film Aliens) or underperformed like, I'm sorry to say, Worthington. He's not bad in the role by any means but I felt he put more effort into his Na'vi character than his human one. Anyway, there is still much to enjoy from the scene-chewing of Weaver as belligerent bio-scientist Augustine to Lang's trigger-happy commander, who is basically a cigar away from being Sarge from the Doom video-game series. And much like Andy Serkis inhabiting the computer character of Gollum, all the cast who play Na'vi are extraordinary especially Saldana who brings real emotion to her role. It gives the narrative some much needed heft and helps you enjoy the film even more.
I'll get onto the weakness of the narrative in a second and explain why, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter. Few films these days are entirely original and there's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other sources - the only person who complained about A Fistful Of Dollars being a rip-off of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo was Akira Kurosawa. The fact is that despite my initial scepticism, this movie completely won me over. Try to see it on as big a screen as possible and in 3D if you can - I saw the film in traditional 2D but I imagine that the effects would still be incredible. Few filmmakers can pour so much effort into a film as Cameron can and this feels like a genuine labour of love from him. There is little hint of studio interference or any attempt to water down the vision to appeal to bigger markets. It may be self-indulgent but few films leave me speechless when the end credits roll.
- Cameron has a reputation for being something of a tyrant when it comes to directing. There are rumours that he had a nail gun on set to pin phones to the wall if they happened to go off during the shoot. Interestingly, Weaver later claimed that her interpretation of her character was essentially imitating Cameron's own personality.
- Among the many box office records the film initially set, the film was the highest grossing IMAX release in history, had the highest opening weekend for an original property and was the highest earning 3D release in history. It still holds these records. It became the highest grossing film of all time after just 41 days before losing the title to Avengers: Endgame. Thanks to a 2021 rerelease in China, it then reclaimed the record.
- Unobtainium is a term often used to refer some theoretical material that is perfect for a particular application, something extremely expensive or something that violates the laws of physics. In the film, it is seen floating about a platform on Selfridge's desk and is worth $20 million a kilo although we don't learn how the mineral is used.
- The Na'vi were inspired by a dream Cameron's mother had about a tall, blue-skinned woman. Cameron also said that the idea behind making them blue to mimic traditional Hindu depictions of God such as Vishnu and his 'avatars' like Krishna and Rama. It's also Cameron's favourite colour.
What's Not to Like?
The most common complaint levelled at the film was the derivative nature of the script and sure enough, it's easy enough to spot any number of references and imitations in Avatar. Even if you're not a movie nerd like myself, you can easily spot narrative references in films like Disney's Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai and so on. To which I say, who cares? Nobody accused George Lucas of being derivative when he produced his Star Wars prequels or even the original trilogy which, if we're brutally honest, aren't the best written films in history. The film does feel quite preachy at times with an obvious political message regarding environmentalism, US foreign policy, America's troubled treatment of Native Americans, militarisation and many other topics. This might put some viewers off, same as the film's similarity to other stories. But this is a shame - I didn't care about the politics and the supposed allegories within the film. I was simply captivated throughout.
You could dismiss Avatar as liberal Hollywood preaching to the masses, another example of the so-called elite being condescending to an unwashed, uneducated society. But then again, you can argue that Casablanca is a simple exercise in provoking the US to get involved in World War II. Quite simply, you are wrong. The film is too good to simply to write off as environmental propaganda - it's an engrossing and energetic survival film that becomes much more than the sum of its parts. It's exciting, dazzling, imaginative and crucially unique in the way it stands out from so many other pretenders. Cameron knows how to direct a successful blockbuster (after all, his Titanic was the previous record holder in terms of global takings before this came along) and take it from me, there are few directors who can touch him when he's on form like he is here. I just wish he didn't take so long and spend so much when making a film.
Should I Watch It?
Honestly, I wasn't expecting the film to surprise me in the way it did. I knew it was eye-wateringly expensive to make and featured lots of blue aliens running through trees but only an idiot would avoid this film. Visually, the film is still among the best looking movies of all time and it takes us on a journey beyond anything we've seen before on screen. From feeling indifferent about the forthcoming sequels (which have taken their sweet time so far!) to now feeling eager to see them, Avatar completely won me over and if you give it a chance, it will win you over as all.
Great For: film geeks, sci-fi fans, James Cameron's standing among directors, indigenous peoples all over the world, cosplayers
Not So Great For: CEOs, Republicans, Donald Trump
What Else Should I Watch?
Few films can build such an expansive universe in just one film - even Star Wars relied on sequels and fan fiction for much of what came after A New Hope. I have no doubt that Cameron has more wondrous sights and effects to bring us for the next instalment which has been in development since 2010 - more than twice as long as this first film spent in production. It feels like there is still so much more to see, whether it's on Pandora or other planets including Earth. I would argue that Avatar is Cameron's most complete film so far, which kinda casts the rest of his back catalogue in a bad light. A pity because most of his films - The Terminator and its sequel Judgment Day, True Lies, Aliens, The Abyss - are still first rate films.
Of course, whether these sequels will maintain the enormously high standards set by this film as well as meet sky-high expectations remains to be seen. Cameron would do well to speak to George Lucas who eventually caved in to fan demand for more Star Wars and released the first of the prequel trilogy The Phantom Menace in 1999. Unfortunately, the rabid fanbase were disappointed as a whole and further films didn't do much to salvage his reputation. Today, with Disney now in charge of the franchise, the Star Wars universe is being mined at an unprecedented rate with animated TV shows, serial spin-offs like The Mandalorian and even standalone movies - all to fairly mixed results.
Zoe Saldana (voice & performance capture)
Dr Grace Augustine
Colonel Miles Quaritch
Joel David Moore
Dr Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder (voice & performance capture)
Wes Studi (voice & performance capture)
Laz Alonso (voice & performance capture)
Release Date (UK)
10th December, 2009
Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing
© 2021 Benjamin Cox