Classic Review: Avatar (2009)
"Avatar" stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriquez, and Sigourney Weaver. Released on December 18, 2009, the film has a former Marine and a mining team exploring a mysterious planet.
The film was written and directed by James Cameron, who also directed films such as "The Terminator", "Aliens", "True Lies", and "Titanic". We have several directors who understand the importance of cinematic experiences, including Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, and James Cameron. Cameron has been widely known for pushing the boundaries of cinema, not just in storytelling but mainly in the technology he uses. Time after time, he has impressed thousands of film enthusiasts and audiences with his groundbreaking visuals in his movies, mainly "Terminator 2" and "Titanic". In 2009, the filmmaker made cinematic history once again with an original sci-fi movie that transported people to a world unlike any other.
That movie was "Avatar", an epic blockbuster that utilized new types of technology, including motion capture, and revived the 3D trend, for better or worse. Thanks to its groundbreaking visuals, the movie broke several box office records and became the highest-grossing film in the world at the time. Additionally, it earned three Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. As time passed, however, the film was quietly forgotten by people who only see it as a good or bad movie, with most of them calling it "Pocahontas in Space". The visuals are the only reason why "Avatar" earned its popularity. Its storytelling, not so much. However, that didn't stop Cameron from expanding his blockbuster with its sequels, with the first long-awaited follow-up arriving this weekend. To celebrate this occasion, I decided to look back on the one that started it all and see if it's highly misunderstood or a typical blockbuster that favors spectacle over substance. With that in mind, let's head to Pandora and find out for ourselves.
The movie takes place in the year 2154. Humanity has left Earth due to the depletion of natural resources. They eventually arrived at Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system where it houses a valuable mineral known as unobtainable. Additionally, it is inhabited by the Na'vi, a species of tall, blue humanoids that live in harmony with nature. The Resources Development Administration is formed to colonize Pandora and mine the rare mineral hidden underneath the planet.
The story's primary focus is Jake Sully (Worthington), a disabled former Marine sent to Pandora to replace his deceased twin brother. He participates in the Avatar Program, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), which has humans using genetically engineered Na'vi bodies to explore Pandora and interact with its natives. While exploring the wildlife, Jake meets and befriends Neytiri (Saldana) and her clan, the Omaticaya, who teaches him the ways of the Na'vi. However, when the head of the mining operation, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Lang), plans to destroy the Na'vi's way of life, Jake attempts to save his new home.
The first time I experienced this visual marvel was undoubtedly at the theater. I remember inviting my dad to see "Avatar" because we don't go to the movies as much as I do with my mom. We saw it in 3D, and I was blown away by how fantastic everything looked, from its lush locations to the designs. My dad also enjoyed it, to my surprise. So much so that we got the collector's extended cut of the film on DVD for him. In case you're wondering, this was before I switched to getting movies on Blu-ray. I haven't gone back to the film since then, mainly due to the 3D version being the best way to watch it and its waning reputation. However, since "The Way of Water" is coming out, I figured now would be the best time to revisit it with a fresh pair of critical eyes.
For this review, I watched the collector's extended cut version of the movie, which includes 16 minutes of scenes not shown in the original version. Additionally, it has an alternate opening set on Earth before Jake's trip to Pandora. It's been a while since I watched the regular cut, so I can't compare the two in full detail. But I can say that the collector's extended cut is why I enjoy the director's cut more than the theatrical cut. It gives us plenty of additional scenes left on the cutting room floor and delivers more context to the film's plot. The extended cut of "Avatar" further explores Jake's background and his journey from being a former Marine to becoming the leader of an alien planet. It also showcases more of the conflict between the humans and the Na'vi. Because of this, the collector's extended cut is now my preferred version of the movie.
As for the film in its entirety, it's still an impressive achievement for James Cameron and visual effects in cinema. The movie is a dazzling and visually immersive roller coaster that reflects the mass creativity of its environment and the creatures that inhabit it. When looking at it from a storytelling perspective, it's understandable where the criticisms came from regarding its similarities. It borrows plenty of elements from other movies like "Dances with Wolves", "Pocahontas", and "FernGully", making its plot far from an original piece of work. But, of course, just because a film is similar to the others doesn't mean it's automatically bad. It all comes down to the story's execution and entertainment values. Fortunately for me, "Avatar" is entertaining and emotionally grasping enough to overshadow its familiar tropes.
The story represents a journey of self-discovery for Jake and an anti-war message that sees him preventing his own kind from destroying the Na'vi's home for their personal gain. While it may not be a perfect representation of its themes, the movie does benefit from its likable characters and Cameron's direction. Cameron is a beast when he's showcasing the majesty and grandness of the visuals. However, "Avatar" also proved that Cameron can make the story entertaining and the action epic and intense, mainly in its third act. The showdown between the RDA and the Na'vi is one of my favorite parts of the film, mainly for its visual splendor and thrilling set pieces.
The cast also did a solid job with their performances, including Sam Worthington, who offered a considerate amount of charm and drama for Jake. "Avatar" is one of the few movies where I was introduced to Worthington. The last film I saw him in was "Hacksaw Ridge", which was way back in 2016, as he only appeared in lesser-known movies after that. Let's hope that "The Way of Water" can put him back on the Hollywood map. Zoe Saldana also did very well with her motion capture performance as Neytiri regarding her emotional weight. Stephen Lang was compelling as the heartless and vicious colonel, and Sigourney Weaver is undeniably attention-grabbing as Grace.
As I mentioned earlier, the visual effects played a huge part in the film's success. Regarding its production designs, the Na'vi, and the creatures, the visuals represent something you'd find in a dream or a "Star Wars" film, whichever makes sense to you. The fact that it took Cameron years to complete due to waiting for the technology to involve shows how ambitious he is with his intended vision. So did the visual effects still hold up 13 years later? Honestly, yes, it did. The CGI still looks fantastic when considering the designs and the memorable settings. It's one of the few films that don't look dated even after decades of existence. You can rewatch it 30 years later and think, "Wow, these effects still look great". If that's the case, I have high hopes that its sequel will blow me away as this film did.
Overall, James Cameron's "Avatar" remains a technical marvel that relies on imaginative visuals and a strong sense of wonder. Its storytelling may not be on the same levels as the other sci-fi masterpieces, but it serves as a great example of Cameron's ambition for filmmaking technology. The cast was solid in their roles, Cameron's direction was top-notch in displaying the background's grandness, and the visual effects were brilliant and absorbing. Some may argue that the movie only existed to popularize the 3D trend. However, when you look at the bigger picture, "Avatar" is part of the reason cinema still exists, even after the COVID pandemic. People go to the theater to be immersed in the unknown and be captivated by the imagination and thrills, whether the narrative is excellent or not. Films like "Avatar" succeed in providing that escapism, which led to their massive successes at the box office. As long as there are more films that can deliver a unique cinematic experience, especially "The Way of Water", there's still hope that cinema can survive the future.
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