Nine years ago, in 2009, the self-proclaimed King of the World unleashed the blue cat alien people, better known as the Na’vi, to the world. Somehow, the world took to these creatures to the tune of nearly 2.8 billion dollars at the box office. Miraculously, James Cameron had done it again. In 1997, his previous film, Titanic, had broken all manner of previously unheard of box office records at the time. It took 12 years and the man himself to dethrone his own movie from the top spot, repeating history. Only this time Avatar wasn’t just a movie, it was a revolutionary technological breakthrough (much of what was developed for it is widely used in CGI-laden films today), and James Cameron’s decision to design it as a 3D spectacle from top to bottom created a seismic shift in the landscape of cinema.
One would think this runaway success would mean the immediate fast-tracking of multiple sequels. Alas, it was not meant to be. Cameron had better things to do, such as diving to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Eventually, he came back to his biggest success and for the last several years has been developing not one, not two, not three, but four Avatar sequels, with a total production budget of one billion dollars (for the time being). James Cameron is if nothing else a big believer in the phrase “Go big or go home.” But how has Avatar held up all these years?
Taking place in the 22nd century, Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a disabled marine en route to the alien extrasolar paradise moon of Pandora, a lush and lavish world filled with unique fauna and flora not found anywhere on Earth. Most importantly, it houses the alien race of the Na’vi, an indigenous people far less technologically advanced than their would-be human conquerors. Jake comes to replace his recently murdered twin brother on a science project that entails transferring his consciousness into an Avatar body, a lab-grown Na’vi body that houses both Na’vi and his dead brother’s DNA (that’s why he comes into the picture). The purpose of these Avatars is to establish a diplomatic relationship with the Pandora natives and to eventually convince them to move their habitat elsewhere as it’s sitting on top of a vast resource of a mineral greatly valuable to humanity, known as Unobtanium. Anyway, you get the picture. Jake makes friends with the natives, particularly the badass, virtually-Amazon warrior Neytiri.
This sounds like a story seen multiple times, except not quite. One of Avatar’s most unique quirks is that it’s essentially an alien invasion story; however, this time around the humans are the ones doing the invading, and the events unfold from the perspective of the aliens. The real-world parallels of a military superpower occupying the lands of a vastly under-powered nation aren’t subtle and aren’t meant to be either (I think we can all see where Cameron is going with this). Avatar wears its anti-militaristic tinge on its sleeve, as does its pro-environmental messaging. The Na’vi live essentially in an idyllic paradise, living as one with Mother Nature (who by the way has an actual name and in fact seems to be a somewhat sentient being running deep through the roots of the planet…there’s actually quite a bit of story in the picture), that is until the money-grubbing conquerors come to take away their land, their resources, and wreck this precious balance without a single care. Again, it paints its ideas with broad strokes. The movie quickly submerges you into Pandora, making you feel as if you’re stepping into Jake Sully’s shoes, so that you yourself are making this journey and going on his adventures, either alongside him or as him. The aforementioned 3D obviously heightened this effect greatly when the film was tearing up the box office, but in fact, the entire movie is crafted as pure cinema escapism. Great care has been put into the presentation of the world and the creatures that inhabit it, with gorgeous vistas and establishing shots that take the time to make Pandora seem like a real place. And it’s not just the world, but the Na’vi culture itself. Jake has to go through several rites of passage to become “One of the People”, including a still exhilarating scene involving mounting an alien dragon (a “Banshee”) and making it his own. This “First Flight” sequence is among the most gorgeous sequences in the movie, accompanied by a wonderful score from dearly missed composer James Horner, who tragically died a few years ago. His work on Avatar is fantastic and does much to elevate several scenes in the film.
Cameron’s panache for incredible action set pieces is on full display during the last 30 minutes of the movie, where a spectacular war sequence takes place after tensions come to a head. In the air, you have hundreds of banshee-riders engaging with helicopters and airships. On the ground, a company of mecha-wielding mercenaries faces off against a horde of Na’vi cavalry riding alien horse-like beings. It’s truly epic in scale and probably the most ambitious action sequence Cameron has ever made and is just as amazing to watch unfold today as it was nine years ago.
While it’s true Avatar never had particularly amazing writing, as a complete movie experience, it’s still as exciting to watch as it has always been, 3D or 2D. It had been a while since the last time I spent some time with Avatar, and honestly once again the Extended Edition’s three hour run-time seemed to fly-by.
As Roger Ebert once put it:
“It takes a hell of a lot of nerve for a man to stand up at the Oscarcast and proclaim himself King of the World. James Cameron just got re-elected.”
Looking forward to the upcoming Avatar Cinematic Universe.