A Trip Back To: Avatar (2009)

By Christian DiMartino

I’ve noticed that if a film, or a filmmaker, gains a certain level of popularity, the internet, after a certain time, has this knack for dissecting it, nitpicking them and tearing them apart. Take, for example, Avengers: Endgame. Obviously a huge movie, and a very enjoyable one, but after a little while, a person or two started to pick nits, and then others joined. Guys, can’t we just have nice things? I think James Cameron has dealt with a lot of this, especially since Film Twitter (I’ll put my monocle on and proudly announce that I am not a part of that) became a thing. His movies have as well, and even though Avatar: The Way of Water is drawing near and it’ll probably be a sensation, there are people out there who think Avatar is bad.

Guys, honey… no.

Allow me to say a few things. I have much to say, but I’ll lead with this: Avatar is imperfect. The flaws within this film have been pointed out, yet they’re undeniable, and it’s probably why people pretend it’s bad. That or to be edgy or something. That or certain people really can’t stomach people or movies that are tremendously successful, for which just about all of Cameron’s films are. I get it. But… this movie? Like again, it’s not a masterpiece, but… Avatar is a total banger. Like it had been a while since I’d seen it, the last time probably being on a portable DVD player. Truth be told, I skipped out on this movie on its theatrical run, but had the pleasure of seeing it in IMAX 3-D last night. And whew. Like, yeah, there’s flaws, but… f**k’em, look at what Cameron did here.

I’ll also say, I have had a deep love for my guy Jim from a very young age. Third grade me was obsessed with The Terminator, and its sequels (the third one, which Cameron didn’t make, is fun, sue me). The older I get, the better he and his movies get. Maybe he’s something of a narcissist, I don’t know. But everything he touches appears to be gold. Similar to Titanic, which I also adore despite its imperfections, Avatar is a film in which the faults are pushed aside because of the filmmaking. Titanic was made 25 years ago. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (his masterpiece) is 31 years old. Aliens is 36 years old. Besides Cameron, what these films have in common is that they’ve all passed the test of time, and they look better than most movies do today. Avatar falls into that camp as well. This film was made 13 years ago. Zemeckis cranked out Pinocchio this year and it looks like s**t.

I guess my point is, you can try to knock Daddy Jim all you want, but… the guy is exceptional at his job. You could give him a billion dollars to make a movie, and he’s probably not going to churn out a Heaven’s Gate. Because he truly is an artist, and a filmmaker. Think back to The Terminator, which was really him getting his foot in the door. A great film- one that doesn’t always hold up visually, but it’s a really low budget movie for a huge concept, and it’s a wonder. You could tell that there was a true talent in there that wasn’t given the full canvas… and he still worked wonders with it. Which is why Terminator 2 was so remarkable: he was finally given the chance to prove his powers, he was at the peak of his powers, and it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.

Okay, okay, I could yack on about how much I love Jimbo all day (True Lies, another bop). But Avatar, the highest grossing movie ever (I think), winner of three Academy Awards and nominated for Best Picture and Director. I’ll just say it: I always really liked it, but it has gotten lost somewhere in my visitation rotation. Perhaps because it is long, and I can’t say that I find these characters to be as interesting as ones in other Cameron movies. I do get the complaints surrounding the movie and all, but ultimately, can’t we just enjoy something? Must we pick things apart and judge heavily?

The plot of Avatar feels yanked from either/or Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, both of which, if I’m not mistaken, are true stories. This, alas, is not. There is also no denying the fact that the bulk of the characters are one-dimensional- Sam Worthington and his friends are the heroes, Stephen Lang and the military are essentially the villains, and Zoe Saldana and company are the middle-men; the Na’vi come in peace, but we as humans fear what we don’t understand. It’s plain and simple, and not much else. Revisiting Avatar though, certain things became clearer.

On one hand, while these characters are thin (Saldana honestly being really terrific here, if you care to notice), it occurred to me that Avatar often feels like a movie that Cameron might’ve made in the 80’s, in a contemporary film’s clothing. The dialogue is… not great, but whether it be Lang or Sigourney Weaver, these actors are handed dialogue that would’ve worked in an 80’s action movie and many of these characters feel thinly designed in the way that they did back then. The Lang character and his military compadres and their thirst for carnage especially reminded me of something out of Aliens. Ultimately though, this isn’t about the plot, nor its characters. It’s about the world in which Cameron transports us to, and these people and this plot are a placeholder and a gateway into it.

The world being, of course, Pandora. It comes as old news that the visual effects, cinematography, and production design in Avatar are among the most breathtaking you will ever see. I am not really a champion for 3D, but will give it a chance if it is a filmmaker who knows what they’re doing (Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life). Avatar is worth the 3D, truly. It took maybe 30 seconds for this to be apparent, because with Avatar, it’s not used as a distraction, it’s used as an enhancement. Cameron is delivering an experience, and the one in Avatar is, to be cliché, jaw-dropping. He created a world here that you not only want to visit, but you can’t tear your eyes away from.

Much of the first half of Avatar is just immersing yourself in this world and feasting your eyes on it. I enjoyed this movie on a DVD, but seeing this in a theatre is the name of the game. The latter half of Avatar is where Cameron starts his quest for nature preservation, which isn’t exactly fresh, but it’s earned. Because like our own planet, he shows us the beauty of this place for such a long stretch that to see it ruined is nothing short of devastating. Heavy-handed? Sure, but it’s earned. The latter half of Avatar is when the action really kicks in, and truthfully, it’s gripping stuff. He’s giving us a rollicking, old-fashioned adventure while ALSO constantly delivering the beauty and the majesty of the world he created.

Watching Avatar again, there were multiple times where I had to stop and ask, “How did he do that?” I would still like the answers. I know that it’s all through the magic of visual effects, but this isn’t just one setting; Cameron created a universe here. I mean, sure, the guy already thinks he’s God or something, but in the case of Avatar… yeah, he kind of is. I know that he promised Avatar: The Way of Water for many years. It took him 12 years to bring Avatar. You cannot help but see the effort, and the time and care for which he brought this grand vision to life. Avatar isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a tremendous achievement and a great experience. If we’re being honest, Avatar, for all its accomplishments, feels like an entryway to what could ultimately be something even bigger and better: the sequel. I hardly ever get high, but the next time I do, I’m popping in this Blu-ray.

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