Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
After what seems like an eternity this week we finally received a trailer to the belated sequel to James Cameron’s 2009 epic science fiction film Avatar. It’s called Avatar: The Way of Water and the first trailer looks decent if not mind blowing.
In case you missed it you can check it out below:
While we wait until its December release to see how The Way of Water turns out and also prepare for the other three planned sequels it’s a good time to look back at the original. Holding the record for the highest grossing film of all time (it re-released in China just to retake the crown from Avengers: Endgame) Avatar is something of a film oddity. For a movie that made so much money the world of Avatar never truly entered the cultural zeitgeist like other blockbuster franchises such as the MCU, Harry Potter, Star Wars and so forth.
Maybe it was because the sequel took so long to get made. Or maybe the film wasn’t all that great to begin with. But I wanted to be fair, so I rewatched the film today after having not seen it since it was released (I really felt no urge to revisit it previously). And now it is time to retroactive review this bad boy. So with a Mother Tree-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s plug into my review of Avatar.
In case you forgot the plot (and who can blame you, it’s been a while) Avatar is set in 2154 where humans have depleted the planet’s natural resources. So the Resources Development Administration (RDA) heads to the forest moon Pandora with scientists and a platoon of marines in tow to mine a mineral called unobtanium, though their efforts are stymied by the 10-foot tall, blue skinned, cat-like indigenous species called the Na’vi who live in harmony with nature and worship a goddess called Eywa. We pick up the story with paraplegic former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who replaces his late identical twin brother in the titular avatar programme where humans inhabit Na’vi avatars to be able to exist in the atmosphere (which is poisonous to humans) and integrate with the natives. After avatar Jake is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya he is accepted to learn of their ways, but his true mission is to find a way to get them to leave their home the Home Tree so the RDA can mine a large deposit of unobtanium.
Wow, that took a while just to explain the basic plot. Onward to the review. Let’s start with the unobtanium. That has to be the dumbest name of any McGuffin that ever McGuffined. And we don’t even know what the heck it does! All we know it is worth a whole lot of money. Now maybe if they explored the unobtanium (I hate even writing it) and it’s importance to Earth then that could have added another layer and nuance to the human forces. What we got instead was the vague catalyst for a very black and white, and less intriguing, conflict.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest let’s talk about the visual effects. I remember watching Avatar in 3D in cinema and it was truly an eyegasmic experience. It is a film best watched on the largest cinema screen one can find. And what about watching it again on a home television? The effects still looking pretty great. The Na’vi look and feel real, the flora and fauna of the planet are varied and intriguing, and the environments, from the vibrant Tree of Souls to the breathtaking vistas of the floating “Hallelujah Mountains”, Avatar remains a visually immersive experience. The cinematography by Mauro Fiore is a master class, with extraordinarily striking images, including the Na’vi arms intertwined overhead shot following Jake’s acceptance into the tribe. The music by maestro James Horner is also astoundingly good, though they do repeat the “I See You” theme a few times too many.
And what about the characters populating Pandora, indigenous and otherwise? Of the Na’vi Neytiri is the only one who stands out. Saldana’s voice and motion capture performance is quite good and truly lifts the film. And she has wonderful chemistry with Avatar Jake. The other Na’vi get little to no development and are just there to give exposition and keep the plot rolling along. It’s not much better with the humans. Worthington has all the charisma of a wet wipe and thankfully he spends most of his time in avatar form as this is where any personality seems to come out. Kudos to the animators there. Michelle Rodriguez plays yet another tough girl character as the combat pilot with a heart Trudy Chacón. Veteran actress Sigourney Weaver is good in everything she does and she is easily the highlight as sardonic exobiologist Dr Grace Augustine. In terms of bad guys Steven Lang and Giovanni Ribisi as security head Colonel Quaritch and RDA corporate administrator Parker Selfridge respectively are almost cartoonish in their simplistic villainy.
The biggest knock against Avatar is the plot. Much has been said of how derivative it is of films like Dances with Wolves and Princess Mononoke (Cameron has acknowledged it shares themes with this and others). The Na’vi are clearly representative of American Indians and it is so obvious that it takes you out of the experience. And the marines are just so one dimensional it is kind of boring. Of all those soldiers only Trudy had a conscience? Seriously? It is just good Na’vi versus bad soldiers/corporation and it feels like a story we have seen a million times before, only on an alien moon. And the film is long. Really, really long. At two hours and 42 minutes it a lot of trudging along. Yeah, Pandora is still interesting but for a film all about connection I felt mostly disconnected from the characters and what was happening. I was like, “Just get to the battle already!”
And yeah, along with the effects the final battle is what holds up best. The final half hour is one of the greatest Sci Fi action sequences ever put to film and remains as thrilling as it was more than a decade ago. That definitely makes the film worth revisiting, though it feels like it takes forever to get there. So does Avatar still hold up? Effects, music and action-wise, yes. The story and the world though? Not so much. While the Na’vi and their planet are interesting and I enjoyed both it was not somewhere I immediately wanted to revisit. And to be frank, I’m not all that excited to see it again for the sequel. I think the two people who are most excited are James and Cameron. Maybe The Way of Water will change my mind. For now, the original remains lightning in a bottle. The highest grossing film that very few talk about or seem to care about. And a film with an overabundance of style but lacking in depth and substance.
Editor Jules’s Score: 7 out of 10
So that’s my review. Do you think Avatar holds up today? And you can check out more great content below:
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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.