Most of this review comes from what I wrote in 2009. I tweaked and edited them to update for 2022. Having had the opportunity to watch the film again with the new 4K transmission, I will add some comments at the very end. (If you’re reading this before September 25th, you’re not there yet.)
avatar was described as a “game changer”, and maybe it was. I leave that to future historians to determine. At the time of its original release, it was among the most anticipated openings of the decade. Expectations can be a double-edged sword; ask George Lucas. But when a filmmaker meets or exceeds them, the results are tremendous, and that’s the case with avatar. When it first hit theaters in 2009, James Cameron had a lot to do with this film, its long-delayed sequel titanic (which came out a dozen years earlier). Under “normal” circumstances, only Cameron’s reputation and future autonomy with astronomical budgets would have been at stake. But Cameron switched to 3D and if every filmmaker could have done in 3D what Cameron did, I would have happily worn the uncomfortable glasses to every screening.
avatar is entertainment at the highest level. I ranked it as the best film of 2009. In 3D, it’s immersive (that’s the catchphrase everyone uses for the 3D experience), but the traditional film elements – story, character, editing, theme, emotional resonance, etc. – are presented with enough know-how to handle even the 2D version into an immersive 2 1/2 hour experience. Although Cameron invested an inordinate amount of time, money and effort in perfecting the 3D elements, he never lost sight of the essentials. His narration could almost be considered a science fiction version Dance with wolves (through substitute), and it works for many reasons dances worked. Cameron also borrows from his own catalogue. The space/military culture is reminiscent of this in Foreigner and the cross-cultural romance remembered titanic. avatar doesn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio, but his love story is in some ways stronger than the one it tells titanic because the stakes are higher. From a purely visual perspective, Cameron offers us one of the most amazing presentations of an extraterrestrial world, building towards an epic clash.
avatar takes us to the planet Pandora in the year 2154. Pandora is a jungle world where Earth people have arrived with the intention of open pit mining. Though corporations run the show, the military, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), stands by to provide protection and support. Human clashes with the indigenous humanoid population, the 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned Na’vi, were contentious and bordered on hostility. For a while, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) had some success interacting with the natives, using “avatars” (synthetic human-remote controlled Na’vi) to provide education and technological advancement, but progress slowed and Grace was excluded from society the Na’vi. Now she and her group of avatars are trying to find a way back inside.
That portal comes in the unlikely persona of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine. Sam’s trip to Pandora is a coincidence. His twin brother, who had trained for years to inhabit an avatar and whose genetic identity was imprinted on one, died unexpectedly and Jake was the only one who could take his place. He is caught between two masters: Colonel Quartich, who wants the soldier to establish a link with the Na’vi so he can relay valuable tactical information, and Grace, who wants to reestablish lines of communication. A series of events in the jungle separates Jake from the other avatars and puts his life in danger. His life is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who distrusts him but believes he is being touched by the Na’vi god. She takes him to the “home tree” where he must plead not only for his life, but for an opportunity to learn her ways. Neytiri becomes his mentor, and soon he sympathizes more with his blue-skinned “brothers” than with Colonel Quartich, who is planning a massive operation to take the Na’vi away from a rich shipment of ore.
Cameron understands how the pieces of the puzzle must fit together to make a complete film, and he puts them together as only a master can. The story, while simple, resonates deeply at a time when it has become apparent that humanity is a less than perfect steward of the planet we live on. As in Dance with wolves and The Last Samurai, is a military man who finds himself transformed by the culture he adopts and ultimately faces his own people in an impossible fight. Jake’s love affair with Neytiri confirms that Cameron is a romantic at heart. The Pandora Menagerie is like something out of a dungeon master’s wet dream: dinosaur-like creatures that are bulletproof, vicious carnivores that make T-rexes look tame, scavengers that roam and attack in packs, dragon-like flying creatures that… the world populates skies and vegetation as alive as the beasts. Clearly modeled after Native Americans, the blue-skinned Na’vi are among the most “normal” of Pandora’s inhabitants.