As of the most recently published results, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now within $10 million of passing Avatar as the highest grossing film of all-time at the domestic box office. It’s likely that today, Wednesday, will be the day Star Wars officially moves into the #1 slot. The moment it became clear that The Force Awakens would eventually topple James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza, the conversation around Avatar and its quality began. Being that it was released more than six years ago – ages in Internet time – it seems as if many have forgotten whether or not they really liked Avatar. To be completely honest, I myself had to go back and look up my own review. As it turns out, I was pretty high on Avatar during its theatrical release. In my review, I was concerned about how the “hype” around the film would affect me. And with tempered expectations, I found myself enamored with a vibrant 3D world full of Pandora and its Dances with Wolves knock-off story. The impressive visuals were enough to lay down my critical stamp of approval.
Earlier this week, before re-reading my own review, I attempted to answer the question: is Avatar a good movie? It was a harder question to answer than I expected. Which is perhaps part of the greater problem on the web this past week. Avatar was a movie that millions of people saw, in theaters, with 3D glasses on. But not everyone seems to remember whether or not they liked it. This has led us to re-evaluation of the highest grossing blockbuster of all-time. Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders made a splash arguing that Avatar is a much better movie than you remember. Looking over the copious amount of comments on her article and the responses on Twitter, the collective doesn’t completely agree. “It’s a pretty movie with a derivative story,” seems to be the consensus. In hindsight, that was about the consensus when it came out. So perhaps Avatar has always been properly rated. As a Film School Rejects team, we decided to revisit the film and find out for ourselves.
My own revisit included opening, for the first time, the Deluxe Edition Blu-ray set. I found it on my shelf with a healthy layer of dust across the top of its jacket, which speaks more to my need to go through and dust my Blu-ray collection, but also to the fact that it’s remained unopened for six years.
Upon completing my re-watch of Avatar, one thought continues to stick in my mind. We use the word “spectacle” nowadays in a way that’s usually negative. We look at movies like the Transformers films or even some of the Marvel films and say, “Eh. These are all spectacle.” What we really mean when we use the term with a negative connotation is that they are empty spectacle, experiments in style over substance. And in some cases, this is true. But what James Cameron created with Avatar was a movie in which the spectacle was the substance. It’s true, the story is derivative. It’s a mishmash of Dances with Wolves, Ferngully and Pocahontas. A very classic story about reluctant hero who finds love and a new perspective by immersing himself in a foreign culture, ultimately finding his place fighting an an unexpected side of a great battle. That’s nothing new. But we have to appreciate all the things that Avatar did accomplish. It’s a spectacular accomplishment in both world building and visual storytelling. Just like Cameron’s previous highest grossing movie of all-time Titanic, it’s a technological marvel. Re-watching it at the onset of 2016, very little of what was created at the end of the last decade fails to hold up. Some of the animals of Pandora look like they were extracted from video game cut scenes. But all of the humanoid stuff – especially the completely-CGI Na’vi – is still astonishing to behold.
There were things that stuck out a little more on this, my third time seeing the movie (I saw it twice during its theatrical run.) James Horner’s score isn’t particularly present or impactful, save for the scene in which the giant tree comes down. And when it is present later in the film, it’s somewhat distracting. Sam Worthington’s performance really is terrible. Like a block of wood, that guy. It was hard for me to watch it now and not imagine what the movie would have been had Cameron chosen a better actor. Worthington’s existence in this franchise is the only thing that has me worried about all those sequels Cameron is going to make.
But on the whole, Avatar is still a spectacular experience. So to answer the question, it probably is better than I remember. But just as good today as I rated it in 2009. The difference seems to be that there’s nothing to Avatar outside of the movie Avatar. It’s not like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both of which exist as part of the fabric of my everyday geek life. I’m not playing Avatar video games or scouring the Avatar Rumors subreddit for new details about the sequels. When I’m enclosed within the Avatar movie experience, it’s the best thing going. But once the credits roll and the Celine Dion-light Leona Lewis song starts playing, Avatar gets placed on the shelf, to collect dust. Sadly, that’s its legacy. As both a monumental cinematic experience and a dust-collectingly forgettable franchise. That’s a weird sort thing to say about the soon-to-be second highest grossing movie of all-time.
On the next page, I asked the Film School Rejects team to weigh in with their thoughts on the great question of the day: is Avatar better than we remember?
Rob Hunter: Avatar is not a good movie. It wasn’t good in 2009, it’s not good now, and it still won’t be good when many of you re-watch it in 2017 before sitting down for James Cameron’s sequel. Its numerous failings aren’t news to anyone who’s seen it, but despite being little more than an animated Dances with Wolves remake it went on to become the highest grossing film of all time. I’m no fan of the film, but instead of spending a handful of sentences expounding further on my dislike for it I’m instead going to defend it on two fronts.
Dismiss “average” moviegoers all you want – I often do – but their love for Avatar was/is based on something more than simply bad taste. Cameron’s film brought a generic story to life with spectacular visual effects the likes of which we had never seen before. A new world was created before our very eyes, a world where the line between CG and real environments blurred towards invisibility. Whether watched in 3D or 2D the film immersed viewers and simultaneously raised the bar for future movies. Just as relevant, and something for which Cameron is never quite given the credit he deserves – like his own Titanic before it, Avatar became the #1 film of all time without the typically necessary benefit of being a sequel, an animated kids film, or a comic-book adaptation. Avatar and Titanic are the only two “original” works in the top eleven highest-grossing films (domestic), and their presence there – along with the fact that they’re both from the same director – is a damn impressive feat that demands respect.
That said, I still give no shits about Avatar or its upcoming sequels and instead wish Cameron would focus on another original creation.
Alisha Grauso: I gave Avatar another watch last night, and I must confess that it was the first time I’d watched it since it was originally in theaters.And was it better than I remembered?
Well, yes…and no. Simply put, the things I loved then I appreciate even more now, and the things I disliked I dislike even more. The visuals are still breathtaking, absolutely stunning. As an immersive spectacle for your eyes to drink in, Avatar holds up today as well as any other movie out there – better, even. It is remarkable, considering how much CGI has advanced in the last six years since Avatar was first released, that the world of Pandora is just as gorgeously rendered, that the visuals are just as awe-inspiring. It is still a film that continues to surprise at every turn with its beauty.
But beyond the gorgeousness of the movie, Avatar is a film that kind of just…slides right out of your mind soon after you watch it. It doesn’t resonate and stick with you the way Jurassic Park or Titanic and other films did and do. The problem isn’t the story, which so many have dismissed as simply being “Dances with Wolves with blue people” or overly simplistic. Star Wars: The Force Awakens just proved that you can have a very simple story about good vs. evil and it can still profoundly move and stick with you.
The problem is the character development. As in, there is none. A simple story is fine if it’s carried by characters that are dynamic and engaging and that you truly care about, but the majority of characters that populate the world of Pandora are nothing more than sketches of characters, two-dimensional stock characters at best. Even Jake Sully, who has the vast majority of dialogue in the movie, is hard to relate to – his evolution seems to happen from one scene to the next. One minute, he’s a jarhead ready to sell out the enemy troops, in the next, he’s suddenly done a 180 on his stance and embraced the Na’vi culture.
So as a visual feast, yes, Avatar is stunning, even better than we remember. It has aged like a gloriously fine wine there. But as a movie that will stand the test of time as being one of the greats, sadly, eye candy is all it really has to offer.
Christopher Campbell: I actually don’t remember much of Avatar, except that I was wowed by it. I also don’t remember details of the first circus I went to or the best fireworks display I ever saw. Avatar is the rare sort of movie that is almost entirely for the theatrical experience or get the fuck out. Thats’s one reason most of us can’t remember it: we didn’t have a desire to re-watch it on the small screen in 2D. And if we had a 3D TV when it came out on video, it still wasn’t the same.
I’m pretty certain it hasn’t been the same on the big screen for 3D movies in general, either. I mean that we haven’t seen anything on the same level in the five years since. We’ve seen some decent 3D and a lot of bad 3D and it’s all clouded our memory of when we saw truly amazing 3D spectacle. So, it’s easy to forget that Avatar was that awesome and the format had much to do with it. The movie was basically a one-time-only event. The carnival arrived, we had fun, then it left.
Nate Saienni: Is Avatar better than I remember? The short answer: no. Here’s why: story always has the most lasting appeal. Avatar was epic, the CGI was stunning, 3-D was still cool, and when it was all mashed together and thrown on a big screen, wow the movie looked great. But looks aren’t everything. While it was and still is a technical achievement, fast-forward to now and people don’t remember its story – they only remember its brilliant visuals.
That gorgeous CGI-covered veneer has worn off over time – enough that under Avatar’s exoskeleton there’s just a body made up of recycled parts. Sure, there’s the world of Pandora and the Na’vi and this and that, but most of the plot has been cannibalized from movies like Dances With Wolves and Ferngully, and just updated. Nor was it done particularly well or had very compelling or memorable characters. Honestly, does anyone still even care about them? All the ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ we did was at its technical merits, so much so we didn’t realize the story and characters were so half-assed. Until now – because time is kinder to a great story than it is to special effects and technology.
Matthew Monagle: Although I have never before or since had an interest in screenwriting, I did take one screenwriting class in college. The teacher – a Media Department mainstay who honestly had very little business teaching a screenwriting class – put several scripts by James Cameron on the syllabus as suggested reading. I remember flipping the pages and being completely won over by the sheer exuberance that Cameron had for his action sequences; the man couldn’t help but editorialize, and even his screenplay for Avatar contains more capitalizations, exclamation points, and sound effects than you’d ever expect to see in a script of that scale. Whatever your opinion of the man may be, you cannot deny his earnestness.
In some ways, Cameron serves as an interesting counterpart to George Lucas, a director who has spent the past few weeks being alternately dragged over the coals and defended as a modest philanthropist. Like Lucas, Cameron’s strength as a director is present in his talent for spectacle and world-building (if not his well-rounded screenplays). Like Lucas, too, Cameron’s most infamous work has suffered over time as people formed strong opinions of the overall use of the notable technology; for Lucas it was green-screen special effects in the Star Wars prequels while Cameron’s Avatar ushered in a new era of 3D filmmaking that almost everyone regarded with suspicion from the get-go. Unlike Lucas, though, Cameron’s biggest indulgence still found fertile ground in both audiences and critics alike. Cameron may share the former’s penchant for thematic tropes, but he never forgot to include the types of characters that would support his operatic bombast.
Next: Are the Star Wars Prequels Better Than You Remember?
While none of this speaks specifically to Avatar, the film acts as the director writ large, an earnest display of both Cameron’s environmentalism and love of technology peppered with his flair for the loud. For one, no director stages action so effortlessly across vertical planes. A career of gunfights occurring in air ducts, elevators, and helicopters has led to Cameron’s work on Avatar’s climactic air battle, with Na’vi steeds and mercenary helicopters falling out of the sky above the chaotic ground battle. For another, Cameron has continued his tradition of writing strong female characters who serve as both mentor and equal to the film’s leads. No movie giving generous screen time to both Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez can ever do complete wrong in my book; even at their thinnest, these characters – as well as Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri – serve as the true center of Cameron’s film.
Is Avatar a great film? Should it even count as one of Cameron’s best works? It is possible to answer no to both questions without punting on the things that film and filmmaker do very right. I stand by Avatar as a film worth remembering.
Let us know what you think in the comments below.