Cameron’s monster-hit is an exciting slide of traditional story-telling, that had less cultural impact than you might expect
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Sigourney Weaver (Dr Grace Augustine), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacón), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Dr Norm Spellman), CCH Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan), Laz Alonzo (Tsu-tey), Dileep Rao (Dr Max Patel)
Why is Avatar so easy to mock? It’s the second biggest box office hit ever (Cameron holds slots two and three with this and Titanic:only Avengers: Endgame grossed more). But its cultural impact feels wide but not deep. As FOUR more Avatar films start to arrive from 2022, the question remains: why has no-one really talked about Avatar since 2009?
Perhaps it’s because there isn’t really much new or unique in Avatar, beyond the magic of its visuals and the magnificent showmanship of Cameron. For all the striking blue design of the aliens, their story was too reminiscent of too many other things. The script lacked punch, distinctive lines and unique characters. There was little to quote and few truly original pivotal moments that could be embraced by our cultural memory. Narratively and structurally, it’s all a little too safe, predictable and conventional.
Avatar partly became a “must see” cinematic event, because it was the film that finally nailed 3D. Maybe it is the best 3D film ever made. I don’t know, I’ve only ever seen it in 2D. To be very fair, Cameron doesn’t fill the film with crappy shots of things pointing at the camera. Instead, concentrating on telling a cracking (if predictable) story and filling the screen with beautiful, imaginative imagery that works in any dimension.
Avatar’s imagery is so striking because it’s set on the magical alien world of Pandora. In 2154, with Earth’s resources depleted, mankind has struck out into the stars – and Pandora is a rich seam of an insanely valuable mineral called unobtanium (chuckles presumably intended). Pandora is a carefully balanced biosphere, peopled by exotic animals and 10-foot, blue-skinned natives called the Na’vi. Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans, so scientists – led by Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) – use Na’vi “avatars”, operated by genetically matched humans, to explore. The mission is carefully balanced between science and financial exploitation by a sinister corporation, backed by mercenary army, led by the fanatical Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang).
Into this magical set-up drops paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), taking the place of his dead scientist brother because he is a genetic match for a freshly grown Na’vi avatar. With this warrior background, Jake is welcomed by the Na’vi, becoming an ambassador to the people. But Jake’s loyalties split as he finds a purpose in Na’vi life he has long since lost on Earth – and as he falls in love with Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). When the company decide to destroy the Na’vi’s home to gain access to the rich unobtanium deposits beneath, which side will Jake back?
It’s not hard to guess. At heart, Avatar fits very neatly into a series of Dances with Wolves-esque films, in which a wounded and lost (white) soldier finds a spiritual peace and solace with a native people, eventually rising up to fight for their rights against his own people. Avatar also finds roots in The Mission, with the scientists as the missionaries fighting alongside the natives (although with much better results), the conclusion of Return of the Jedi and Cruise’s The Last Samurai. Not to mention more than a few stylistic and plot echoes from Cameron’s own Aliens (you can even hear them at several points in Horner’s score), from technology (those stomping war suits) and cocky marines lost in a world they don’t understand (except this time, we love to see them killed off).
Avatar doesn’t challenge you, presenting its humble message of environmentalism and peaceful co-existence within a familiar framework where military forces and corporations are very bad and enlightened missionaries and Indigenous people are good. It entertains because it’s told with such skill. Cameron, while never the greatest screenwriter in the world, knows how to marshal his clichés and standard narrative tricks into something exciting and involving.
It also helps that the stock characters he creates a played with such forceful engagement by the actors. Stephen Lang is a growlingly hateable racist, delighting in the prospect of genocide, while Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate boss is a snivelling opportunist who couldn’t care less about the impacts of his actions. Opposite them, Sigourney Weaver gives huge weight to a fairly standard irritated-boss-turned-mentor role as the head scientist, Sully’s bridge to learning the Na’vi way. As Sully, Sam Worthington is not the most charismatic performer but he has an earnest intensity and emotional honesty that helps us invest in his pre-Pandora misery and his growing love of his adopted home.
Cameron’s greatest achievement though is the vision he creates for the Na’vi. All are played by actors using cutting-edge (and still impressive now) motion capture. Cameron builds a whole world for these people: a language, belief system, culture and bond with the environment. Sure, it’s heavily inspired by Indigenous American culture, but it feels real. Its bought to the screen with grace and tenderness and gains a huge amount from Zoë Saldana’s committed and emotionally open performance as Neytiri. Cameron so successfully builds a bond between audience and the Na’vi that you feel your heart wrench to see mankind tear their beautiful world apart.
It’s that emotional connection Cameron successfully builds that helps make the film work. After all we’ve all seen effects stuffed films before, but they don’t all become monster hits. And if the film was a dog, all the 3D magic in the world wouldn’t have helped. Few directors have as much skill with threading emotional bonds within the epic as Cameron. He shoots Avatar with a stunning majesty, carefully placed shots and graceful, almost traditional, editing help to build a sense of magic and wonder around the awe-inspiring alien vista. Avatar has a lot of action, but it never feels like just an action film: it’s a relationship drama, inspired by the beauty of its setting, with action in it.
More people have mocked Avatar with comparisons to the visually and thematically similar Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest than have actually seen Fern Gully. Narratively it does little new or unique and offers very little surprises. But its visuals are stunning and Cameron’s superb direction knows how to engage you. Clichés last because they carry a sort of truth: Avatar uses these truths to help you invest in a gripping, if conventional, story. But it’s also why its impact over time has been so slight – there aren’t any new ideas for viewers to tie themselves to and almost nothing that stands out as a unique cultural reference point – even if the conventional plot helped make it a short-term monster hit. But it’s also why it still makes for enjoyable rewatching.