Avatar is, by most accounts, a modern classic: a technological masterpiece and the arguable founder of Hollywood’s current CGI era, all while consistently defending its spot as the highest–grossing film of all time. And yet, before last week, I had never seen it. Remaining an Avatar virgin, so to speak, wasn’t a deliberate move; I just happened to miss it when it came out and never felt very compelled to catch up on it. There isn’t exactly a lack of graphics–heavy Disney content these days, after all, and there is much more media touting that the movie’s plot is mostly forgettable than singing its praises.
With the 13–year–wait for the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, almost over and the original film back in cinemas in a remastered, 4K version, I decided to pop my Avatar cherry to see how the film holds up in today’s oversaturated climate.
First and foremost, Avatar simply has to be seen in a cinema. This movie was intended to be viewed in 3D on the big screen, and its graphics absolutely deliver. Before our protagonist even starts talking, the stunning visuals come in: sweeping space vistas as his spaceship comes in to land on the harsh, concrete military base, surrounded by the rich and vibrant Pandoran jungle and the breathtaking cliffs of the Hallelujah mountains. The Na’vi also look far better than most MCU computer animation released today (look no further than She–Hulk). The initially awkward lankiness of the Na’vi, too, is quickly forgotten as their beautifully animated features blend into the spectacular landscapes. Even though Avatar came out in 2009, it doesn’t look dated at all. In fact, it looks a lot more polished than some movies this year—although to be fair, this version is remastered from the original. Between the stunning visuals and the rich lore of this alien moon (which avoids too many obtuse exposition dumps), the world of Pandora is incredibly immersive. Unlike the relentless business model of the average Disney franchise, this truly feels like a passion project 50 years in the making. It makes complete sense why Avatar so enamored audiences 13 years ago, but however lovely she may have been, the woman who turned up to my screening in a full Na’vi costume may have been a bit over the top.
While the visuals are stunning, the reasons why nobody seems to remember the plot are obvious. In particular, the character development is severely lacking. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a disabled ex–marine who takes the six–year flight to Pandora after his brother, the scientist intended to go on the trip, unexplainably dies. This concept of a stoic yet uneducated everyman heading into a complex alien world occupied by scientists makes for a compelling audience surrogate. But the execution lacks any emotional resonance, as his brother’s tragic death isn’t touched on or even mentioned after about 30 minutes in, and Sully himself has about as much personality as a wet blanket. Sully has little to no agency throughout the film, essentially being dragged around and told what to do by other characters up until the finale. While his transition from order–following corporal to heroic rebel leader by the end is good on paper, he didn’t grow much during the film. Zoe Saldana is fine as Neytiri, Sully’s Na’vi teacher and eventual lover (which is quite predictable), but their romance overall lacked chemistry. Their relationship seemed to exist more because the plot needed it than due to a real connection.
The supporting cast also consists of mostly one–dimensional caricatures. Avatar’s main villains, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), feel like cheap space copies of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from The Wolf of Wall Street and Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) from A Few Good Men. Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) almost has an interesting betrayal arc after his years of preparation for the Avatar program are overshadowed by Jake’s Mary–Sue natural ability, but he quickly joins our heroes again and proceeds to contribute next to nothing to the rest of the story.
Michelle Rodriguez’s badass helicopter pilot is well–acted, but her characters lack any originality and could’ve come from literally any action flick. Meanwhile, most of the Na’vi, the truly unique part of this movie, barely get any screen time. Of all the characters, Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine stole the show. Her frustration over her scientific research being repeatedly disregarded by greedy corporatists hellbent on destroying the beautiful world of Pandora was deeply compelling.
This leads into what is Avatar’s greatest triumph, aside from its visuals: its thematic cohesiveness. The concept of colonization is far from new in the science–fiction genre, but Avatar really nails the narrative here, from the perfectly happy native people continually being called “savages” in need of “development,” to the forced removal justified by talks of “humaneness,” to the general destruction of nature and culture as the unfair negotiation fails. The story serves as an effective recontextualization and reminder of the sins of the world’s own history with colonization. Despite all the issues with the characters, the plot absolutely delivers when taking revenge against colonization: Fewer deaths are more satisfying than when Quaritch (who simply refuses to die) finally bites the dust.
Overall, Avatar definitely holds up today as a cinematic icon, and the spectacle of the visuals and themes far outweigh most of the issues with the plot. As for round two, which comes out this November, there was a post–credit teaser at the end of the screening featuring Jake and Neytiri’s Na’vi family. Anticipations for the release are mixed, though. While the visuals are sure to be stunning, the return of Quaritch as an antagonist and the more–than–likely return of humans to Pandora invites worries that the major plot themes that were so well–explored during the original are doomed to be disappointingly rehashed in another shallow Disney cash–grab. But with James Cameron back at the helm with years to work on it, Avatar: The Way of Water is a film I want to believe in. Its opening is sure to be a spectacle: Seeing it in theaters—in 3D, of course—will be mandatory.