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James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar returns to theaters, but has its magic faded?

There were plenty of reasons to wonder, in the autumn of 2009, if James Cameron had finally flown too close to the sun, burning a big budget on a boondoggle. Nearly a dozen years after emerging from a troubled production with the biggest movie of all time, the disaster-weepie phenomenon Titanic, the blockbuster maestro had once more secured enormous investment in pursuit of a bank-busting special-effects spectacle to rule them all. Except this time, the movie in question looked, from a distance, like the height of overreaching silliness: A sci-fi fantasy about a species of lithe, ocean-blue, vaguely feline aliens, prancing through a tropical paradise. The first trailer prompted chortles. Cameron, however, would have the last laugh.

Avatar, like Titanic before it, did more than silence the skeptics. It vindicated all the grand, hubristic ambition of its creator, at least from a commercial standpoint. Somehow, Cameron had done it again, and unbelievably surpassed the box-office success of his last conquest of the record books. Avatar, a hodgepodge of science fiction tropes in a cutting-edge package, was the big-screen event that everyone had to attend. Globally speaking, it quickly became the biggest movie of all time — a title it lost a decade later to Avengers: Endgame, then won again thanks to a rerelease in Chinaduring the pandemic. Even adjusted for inflation, the movie sits toward the top of the all-time charts.

Cameron reached such heights by promising something like the ultimate F/X eye-candy experience, and then arguably delivering on that promise. On the big screen (especially the towering IMAX variety), Avatar was as immersive and retina-tickling as advertised. Certainly, no blockbuster before it had better justified the upcharge of 3D, making the most of that cyclical fad (and, in fact, extending its life span over the years that followed). The movie opens with its hero, the disabled military grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), awakening from cryosleep, and as he emerges into a zero-gravity hull, Cameron uses the latest in stereoscopic technology to create the impression of vast depth, reaching back almost infinitely through this enormous fictional space. The movie had barely begun, and it was already dazzling us with its innovation.

A male and female alien prepare to fight in Avatar.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

A slightly less impressive technical marvel

To watch Avatar in its original run, seated alongside other curious witnesses in theaters that became cathedrals devoted to his vision, was to feel really, truly transported. That remains the movie’s singular achievement — the way it marshaled impossible resources to plunk the whole world into a meticulously rendered new one. Where Cameron was really depositing us, of course, was his own imagination. He built Pandora, the deadly but beautiful outer space nirvana where the movie takes place, from a supercut of past sci-fi visions, all swirled together in his noggin over a lifetime and then recreated on the most advanced computers 20th Century Fox’s money could reluctantly buy.

This weekend, audiences will have a chance to enter his mind anew. Avatar is back in theaters, where it belongs — an attempt to add a little more to the mountainous heap of money the movie has already amassed, and also to drum up fresh interest in Cameron’s long-awaited sequel (the first of four), which finally opens this December. The rerelease is a fine excuse to revisit an epic that plenty of viewers, even admiring ones, may know only from their memories of those first screenings, during the film’s magical run into the early weeks of 2010. How does this fluke sensation hold up today, in a present born of its technological advances, but not as clearly indebted to any other aspect of the movie?

Avatar | Back in Theatres

Visually, better than you might expect. There’s no denying that, 13 years later (aka just a little longer than the amount of time that passed between Cameron’s first all-time smash and his second), Avatar’s once groundbreaking effects work now looks a touch more primitive. That’s just the nature — and the curse — of computer-generated imagery, whose wonders are always doomed to degrade as our eyes adjust to the constant, ongoing refinement of the technology, rendering last year’s grand illusions gimcrack by comparison. What was once state of the art is destined to become outdated.

Yet if the seams show more in Avatar’s once revolutionary motion-capture — the Na’vi moving and emoting a little less convincingly — it’s still relatively easy to fall under the spell of Cameron’s wizardry. However detrimental it’s proved to the larger art of event-movie spectacle, the director’s decision to essentially thrust the entire film into the digital realm rescues it from a full plummet into the uncanny valley. There’s no jarring friction between the “real” and fantastical elements of Avatar, because they’ve all been fed through the same scrim of 0s and 1s. What’s more, Cameron’s human characters aren’t rendered cutscene unreal by the makeover (we accept them as flesh and blood), and the otherworldly foliage still glows brilliantly.

Avatar (2009) – Seeds Of A Sacred Tree Scene HD movie clip

Cameron, too, has never been one to simply farm out the duties of enchantment to his mouse-click technicians, even as he’s moved steadily away from the practical shock and awe that elevates his earlier extravaganzas like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic. While plenty of modern green-screen epics devolve into weightless previsualized action (it’s hard to see many hints of directorial involvement in the firework displays on which most Marvel movies end), Avatar is the work of a filmmaker devoted to guiding our perspective from shot to shot … which is one reason its climactic battle scene remains stirring. Cameron cares about the fundamentals of visual storytelling.

Narrative weaknesses more glaring

Narrative storytelling is another matter. That’s where Avatar has always come up short, and far from smoothing over its failures in this department, time has thrown them into sharper relief. Watching the movie today, far beyond the outermost boundaries of its reign as a pinnacle of technical accomplishment, it’s impossible to ignore its limitations as a piece of derivative mythmaking.

Cameron has never denied the patchwork nature of his vision. He once called Avatar a product of “every single science fiction book” he read in his youth — a bit of candor that accounts for how much it feels like a mélange of other stories, mashing together spare parts from his own filmography (including Aliens, the Terminator films, The Abyss, and Titanic) with archetypal elements from a library of sci-fi classics. Some one-size-fits-all critiques of military occupation and colonialist atrocity are alsowoven into the mix. In truth, that crazy-quilt construction may well have fed into the movie’s huge success. By drawing on multiple modern myths and popular stories, Cameron made an epic all but guaranteed to travel well. It’s like he tapped into a mighty oak of shared storytelling devices, its roots reaching across continents and decades.

An alien preps to fight in Avatar.
20th Century Studios

Yet Avatar, for all its craft and grandeur, doesn’t have the rousing emotional alchemy that characterizes truly timeless fantasias. Its characters are too archetypal, its themes too predigested. The movie is meant to hinge on Jake’s moral awakening —the way he switches over to the side of the Na’Vi after being opened up to the beauty and purity of their way of life. But Cameron’s portrait of that world is mostly a romanticized caricature of indigenous culture: it’s all the clichés of Dances With Wolves and the Disney Pocahontas with the high-tech version of rubber antennas placed on top. And the love story, so crucial to Jake’s conversion, is star-crossed boilerplate, try as Worthington and Zoe Saldana do to emote through their elongated digital masks.

You don’t mess around with Jim

None of these critiques are new, of course. They’ve plagued Avatar since release, though the most withering reviews put no discernible dent in the film’s inescapable multiweek dominance of the multiplex. But back then, such plain flaws were easier to ignore. They were overshadowed by the sheer scope and ingenuity of Cameron’s production. The movie’s spectacle redeemed its, well, yes, overarching silliness. But that’s the rub with technological groundbreakers: Their ooh-and-awe factor always fades. And to watch Avatar now, especially on the small screen, is to recognize how much the novelty of its breathtaking aesthetics propped up its thin drama. The less objectively impressive it becomes over the years, the brighter its weaknesses shine.

AVATAR Clip - "Thanator" (2009)

Whether Avatar is now, as many have insisted, the all-time blockbuster with no cultural footprint is debatable. But it isn’t difficult to wonder if it touches people as consistently and deeply as Cameron’s earlier milestones. Titanic isn’t state of the art anymore either, but that was always only half of its appeal; the dreamy-doomy melodrama of its love story is what kept people going back to it again and again — and what probably keeps them coming back to it now. Avatar generally treats its human dimension like an afterthought, which is why it’s possible to buy that it’s become one to audiences.

But maybe not for long. The sequel, The Way of Water, is on the horizon, and if reports are to be believed, it’s every bit the technological game changer its predecessor was — if not more so. There’s little doubt it will amaze the giant crowds it draws. Whether Cameron has invested more deeply in the soul beneath the dazzle, and created a story worthy of the cosmetic wonders of Pandora, remains to be seen. But don’t rule it out. The writer, director, and self-proclaimed king of the world has made some grand sequels in the past, after all. And generally speaking, it rarely pays to bet against him.

Avatar is now playing again in select theaters. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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