I have a very complicated relationship with James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar.
In December of 2009 I sat down to watch what I assumed would be a huge film. I had paid for the 3D edition because…well, James Cameron. We had some friends with us, my buddy and I, and no one was quite sure what we were going to see. My eyes beheld the glory of a beautifully realized world, stunning to behold and designed with the love a geeky storyteller has for their most thought-out creations. There was a lot to like within it, from the designs of Turok and the Thanators to some of the mech designs. Hell, I got Sigourney Weaver for a lot of the film and that’s always a treat in my book.
And yet…I was disappointed. I came out bored and irritated at how much love and attention the film got from everyone. It was the highest-grossing film of all time, having brought in a ridiculous $2.8bn at the global box office as viewers flocked to theatres over and over again. This thing was so popular that people sank into a depression because they couldn’t live on Pandora. The imaginary planet’s biosphere has its own Wikipedia page. Like with other Cameron films, I harbored seriously different opinions than the general population. I found Aliens far lesser than Alien, an opinion that would change as I grew until I considered them about even. I hated Titanic, but the day came when I had a mindmeld with it and grokked the whole thing. I’m of the opinion that The Terminator is preferable to T2: Judgement Day, something that I sometimes keep quiet because I’m afraid I’ll be crucified for it. When Avatar came out on blu-ray I watched it again, this time in the basement of my at-the-time girlfriend. I was surrounded by her family, people that weren’t fond of me. We’d had a fight privately, so we sat there and stewed in the frustrations we felt for each other. The TV was only like…twenty-something inches, and not the kind of thing you’d want to watch this movie on.
This is one of the biggest filmmaker on the planet and his body of work is something I’ve got strange feelings about. Due to so many of them changing in my eyes over the years I decided to give it another go with Avatar.
It’s been twelve years and I still can’t connect with this damn thing.
You won’t hear me say a word about the visuals and the design of this world. A ton of it is just variations on things we have on Earth, with giant rhinos and panthers rendered in reptilian form. The Na’vi are very pretty blue cat people, lanky and rendered beautifully by the motion capture performances. It’s astounding that they got such good performances out of much of the cast when they didn’t really understand what they were even doing half of the time. There’s perhaps no more luscious image in the film than Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonso) leaping from his Ikran to fire arrows on the side of a drop shit. I know, those words don’t make sense together, but just vibe with the whole thing because that’s what the film is asking you to do. Does plugging yourself into your horse or flying dactyl-like creature make sense? No, but it’s neat. Should Stephen Lang’s character Colonel Miles Quaritch have any brain matter left when it looks like his face has been raked deeply by claws? No, but it looks rad.
Films like Avatar frustrate me because so much has been put into enticing us with imagery that many things fell by the wayside. There’s no original idea, but there’s being lazy about borrowing plot to the point that some of your scenes are shot-for-shot from another movie. I can sort of understand why this was so appealing to most people. Wrapping something very familiar in a pretty package can often feel like coming home. Just a few weeks ago I mildly enjoyed The Little Things, a movie in which I was given a hit of Denzel Washington playing a confident old cop. Offerings like that, like the plot of Avatar, can be so comforting and allow you to just sink into it for a little bit. There’s no need to elaborate on the problems with the familiarity of the plot. It’s a retelling of Dances with Wolves, of Ferngully, of The Smurfs. There’s plenty of essays out there that decry the film for these things, but I’d rather say that I understand why Cameron took the story that direction. We are all, every one of us, made of the media we consume. You read the Bible religiously? There’s a good chance you’re hardcore into your church and your creations will reflect that. Are you like me, steeped in sci-fi and horror? Seems like what you create will be part of that as well. James Cameron has created a world build on pulpy sci-fi, environmentalism, and multiple spiritual influences. Who are we to decry that? He’s having fun! I just…I can’t connect with his ideas through such a recycled story.
Maybe things would have been better if it weren’t for Sam Worthington. 2009 was his year to have a shot, with starring roles both here and in Terminator Salvation. The world took a good look, thought about it, and answered with a hard “no thank you.” The film may have grossed an amount of money that would make the career of anyone else, but instead it wound up being a swan song for the Aussie. His performance in the film is the worst of the main cast, and I don’t think it’s entirely his fault. Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore, they all seem to have a simpler time working with the tech than he does. Worthington isn’t seeing Pandora, his tall alien body, or the beautiful creatures near him. Instead he’s merely saddled with the task of performing outside of his native accent (for no discernable reason) and having to act against things he isn’t fathoming. Many performers suffer from performance anxiety when put into the mo-cap and that’s okay, but when I’m sitting down in the theatre and can’t buy any of his work it makes the whole film hard to connect with.
It’s a shame the film has so many great things going for it that don’t keep me involved. James Horner’s score (his final collaboration with Cameron) is great, one of his best! It’s no Titanic, but it’s a lively and exciting score all the same. I had never sat and listened to it isolated until after my most recent viewing of the film. Turns out it’s a lot of fun and very pretty, like the film, but it isn’t saddled with some of the more disappointing aspects and can be enjoyed separately.
I tried so hard to love this thing. Most of the world, from critics to those just casually headed to the movies, loved it. Box office records were set that year, ones that wouldn’t be broken until a decade later. I watched Avatar in my parents’ home, in glorious 4K, and I found myself latching onto it a bit more. I hadn’t seen the film in so long and had heard so many adulations that I figured it might be something I’d come around on. Titanic was something I did a complete, one-eighty on, but this I just wasn’t able to. I’m glad it exists, and I want more of it if James Cameron wants to keep making these things, but this first one just feels like a dud to me. A fun dud, but a dud.