Amazingly, a full decade has dripped on by since James Cameron’s space epic Avatar hit the big screen. Whilst it’s not the Canadian director’s best film, at least in our opinion, it was a landmark moment for special effects, as well as a mighty imaginative achievement.
The space epic concerns the year 2154 and one Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former marine who heads out to the distant planet Pandora to help explore its biosphere.
Up there, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) is mining essential resources from the planet—unobtanium. That’s then shipped back to Earth.
Simultaneously, there’s a scientific crew hard at work to appease a local community of intelligent beings – the Naʼvi. These sorts are giant, blue-skinned sapient humanoids who have a troubled relationship with RDA.
The company is trying to keep them happy with the help of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who heads up the Avatar Program.
It’s a scientific project researching the local population. They can get up close and personal through the use of Na’vi-human hybrids operated by genetically matched humans.
These are the avatars—it basically allows the scientists to wander about as one of the aliens.
Unfortunately, mad bastard military man Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephan Lang) and RDA corporate administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) want the blue aliens out of the way entirely.
The Na’vi’s home (a giant tree) is blocking access to an equally giant batch of unobtanium. And those corporate bad boys want the stuff.
They enlist Sully to try and infiltrate the Na’vi community using his avatar. After a mishap whilst out on a scientific trip, he’s separated from his fellow avatars and rescued by the enigmatic Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
She introduces him to her clan (they’re aware Sully is an avatar) and he begins to comprehend their way of life.
Although a bumbling idiot to begin with, after a while he comes to appreciate their way of life, bond with Neytiri, and forget about RDA’s mission.
That triggers off a whole batch of conflict right there and it all, in spectacular cinematic fashion, goes apeshit—there are battles, explosions, and lots of blue aliens in a classic good VS evil type battle to the death.
Despite the colossal success of Titanic, studio Fox began to waver on Cameron’s Avatar project in its infancy. It was freaking out because his last one suffered costly overruns.
Filming of Titanic also led to several actors, most notably Kate Winslet, becoming convinced Cameron was a lunatic.
Such was his reputation post-1997, British comedy duo French and Saunders parodied his on-set reputation in a spoof (that’s Saunder’s husband Ade Edmondson portraying Cameron, incidentally).
When Fox did sign off on it and handed over the budget, one exec told Cameron he wasn’t sure if he or the director were insane for even thinking the film was manageable.
The pessimistic outlook was mainly due to the nature of the special effects.
Previously, Cameron put the project on hold during the 1990s as the technology just wasn’t there to complete his vision. But this was the result of waiting a decade.
In 2009, the motion capture work was groundbreaking. And the director knew it was possible after watching Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films.
For Avatar (as with Peter Jackson’s efforts), a lot of filming took place in everyone’s favourite dramatic scenery location: New Zealand. But the motion capture work was shot in LA.
A lot of innovative technology went into it and everyone was clearly pushing absolutely everything to the bloody limits.
Such was his commitment, Cameron took to jokingly (probably) slamming crew member’s mobile phones into walls with a nailgun if they disrupted filming.
But the result – especially if you saw the film on the big screen a decade ago – was something else. A visual treat like few others.
Critical Acclaim & Criticisms
Since its release, Avatar has received praise and backlashes in equal measure. At the time, along with the mass critical acclaim, the likes of Dr. Mark Kermode from the Church of Wittertainment took issue with it.
Avatar is by no means perfect. Some of the dialogue is hamfisted, plus the plot similarities to the likes of Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai are more than evident.
And the latter (a Tom Cruise vehicle) circumvents the genre tropes to provide a thoughtful consideration on different cultures.
Cameron doesn’t quite deliver such an innovative plot experience. This is primarily as the director’s focus was so clearly on big screen spectacle—the film really has to be seen at the cinema, which was an astonishing, almost overwhelming experience back in 2009.
Since then, Avatar has become something of an easy target for anyone keen to try and prove an intellectual point.
Like Avatar and you’re a bit dumb, apparently. It’s for casual cinemagoers. Only stupid people like it—that’s what Rick and Morty told us, anyway.
For example, a lot of fuss is still made about the resource available on Pandora: “unobtanium”.
At first glance that does look stupid, but if you research this term it’s used in fiction, engineering, and thought experiments to label an extremely rare and costly material. It’s not just a crap term the director lazily dreamt up.
But there are issues. One of our main gripes is the dialogue isn’t always amazing (away from certain unobtainable terminology).
The acting from the man playing the film’s main protagonist isn’t always first-rate, either.
Sam Worthington (living in his car before landing the role) does a decent job with Jake Sully (on the whole), but compare that to the conflicted Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai.
Or Lieutenant John J. Dunbar in Dances With Wolves.
You sense a lost opportunity to flesh Sully out for more emotional and philosophical heft.
Even by the end of the film, although in love with Neytiri and supposedly having developed as a man, he’s still a bit of an annoying git.
Plus it’s obvious where the narrative is going—who will cop it, which person will do what, and the overall outcome. In many films that’d be a flaw, but Avatar’s many, many magnificent moments and living breathing world you’re drawn into more than makeup for it.
For what it is, we fail to see major issues. Ultimately, many criticisms of Avatar are over-intellectualised.
The film isn’t trying to be Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Primer, or Blade Runner. It’s big-budget popcorn entertainment—and it does that extremely well. Turn your brain off and enjoy. It’s a blast.
That isn’t to suggest it’s immune from criticism. But Avatar isn’t the unholy abomination to science fiction and cinema as some individuals are now overly keen to make out.
Cameron famously takes his time with projects, but a decade after Avatar and he’s hard at work on FOUR sequels. The expected release dates are for late 2020, 2021, 2024, and 2025.
That’s one hell of a schedule, with the Canadian directing and co-writing all of them. And it’s all well on the way, too, as in November 2018 Cameron confirmed filming across the first two is finished.
Let’s not forget he’s also working on the next Terminator film here, so it’s clear his workaholic ways aren’t backing off at 64 years of age. He’s even started using Twitter properly.
Kids these days. pic.twitter.com/Xo7u8j7awu
— James Cameron (@JimCameron) March 4, 2019
Anyway, as big fans of the director we’re looking forward to the sequels and what he has to offer.
The idea they’ll be generic romp alongs isn’t likely – over his career, he’s almost always delivered the unexpected. So we wait with great avatarantipation. Yeah?