There is a sharp division at TheGamer, and in the centre is James Cameron’s Avatar. On one side we have Features Editor Eric Switzer, long-time Avatar defender. On the other side, we have pretty much everyone else, who have either not seen Avatar in years (or never seen it at all), who regurgitate internet talking points about the film without really knowing (or particularly caring) if they’re true. Avatar is easy to score points off online, and even easier as the sequels bring it back into the spotlight. But I saw Avatar at the weekend as it came back to theatres, and literally everyone everywhere is wrong about it.
I saw Avatar the way it was meant to be seen, in 4K IMAX 3D. The first (and previously, only) time I had seen Avatar prior to this was in 2010 on a crappy laptop over a choppy internet connection. I maintain that you can watch a truly great movie anywhere – it was on that same laptop that I first watched Lost in Translation, my favourite movie of all time – but Avatar does not set out to be a great movie. Avatar is event cinema. Stars always say that you need to see their movie on the big screen (see: Harry Styles and ‘this movie is like a movie’), but that’s mainly because they’re chasing box office receipts. I can say as someone with no skin in the game that if you haven’t seen Avatar on the big screen, you haven’t seen Avatar at all.
Let’s get into how everyone’s wrong. The biggest criticism levelled against Avatar is that it has no pop culture footprint, which I find bizarre for a number of reasons. How good or bad a movie (or any piece of art is) should not be determined by its popularity. I suppose I understand that the lack of cultural might has some credence when you consider how many people saw it (lots of eyeballs + lack of memory = bad film), but I’m not sure that holds up. We’re used to there being a new Marvel or Star Wars film every week, while Avatar is content to be an event rather than a franchise.
In truth, there are few movies that have no sequels with the same cultural power as Avatar. Avatar sequels are coming, but for now it remains standalone. We all know the Na’Vi, we all know they’re blue, we all know Pandora, and the floating mountains, and the 3D effects. For better or worse, we all know Unobtainium. Most people know Jake Sully and Neytiri. We all know the story. Granted, there aren’t many memorable lines, or super fans, or people lining up to get Avatar tattoos, but why are we giving that any merit?
Other standalone movies that came out in the same year as Avatar include Inglourious Basterds, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, (500) Days of Summer, Coraline, Jennifer’s Body, Watchmen, and District 9. Up is the only one that even comes close to Avatar’s mark on pop culture, and even then that’s with a specific audience. But sure, we don’t all have Neytiri action figures so I guess Avatar is garbage after all.
On the film itself, a major criticism I hear is that the story is predictable. The good guys win, is that what people mean? Are these people surprised when they kill the shark in Jaws, when Luke destroys the Death Star, when they escape Jurassic Park? Avatar is held up against Marvel frequently, but then isn’t every Marvel movie a good guy facing off against a bad guy with similar powers who seems stronger but then loses? In all of the movies mentioned, victory comes at a cost, but that’s true of Avatar too. Heroes die in glory and tragedy. It’s no less predictable than any other movie in the genre.
Finally we come to the white saviour argument. It’s remarkable that the same people who insist they remember nothing about Avatar and that it has no pop culture footprint can seamlessly transition to ragging on Unobtainium and calling out its white saviour tropes. There’s certainly a bit of the white saviour to it, but far less than I remember – while the comparisons to Pocahontas seem wide of the mark.
It all centres around Jake becoming Toruk Makto when he is able to ride the larger, red flying creature over the smaller blue flying creatures the Na’Vi ride. We are told of the mythos around Toruk Makto, and that only five people have ever done it. Jake being the sixth leads weight to him being a white saviour. However, he does not become Toruk Makto through any greatness, but simply by trying. He flies above Turok, assumes it won’t look up, and is right. It’s not that he’s worthy enough, but that he’s stupid enough.
Then there’s the fact he unites the clans. Again, this is a white saviour trope. But he unites the clans the way you unite your mates for a night out via WhatsApp. He asks and they say yes. There’s no hint that they’re at war or even hostile, they’re just separated across the planet because of its sheer size. He doesn’t do anything the Na’Vi can’t do, and it’s not even like there’s any sign the other clans would refuse to help without him being Toruk Makto. He’s not a white saviour, he’s just a white guy.
That all being said, the most passionate Avatar defenders often overlook its worst issue. In a way, I don’t blame them. Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time, yet everyone seems to hate it. That’s a hard thing to square. One look at the grossing charts though, dominated by Marvel, Fast movies, and live action Disney remakes no one asked for, tells you that perhaps as a culture we don’t always hold our most successful art to the highest standards.
Perhaps because it has been positioned as an enemy of Marvel (particularly as an opponent for Endgame), perhaps because of such a huge gap between the original and the sequel, or perhaps because we’re collectively embarrassed to admit that sometimes technology dazzles us, whatever love we have for Avatar has turned sour. Avatar is not as bad as people have decided it is, but it’s not all too wonderful under the magic of the tech either.
The predictable criticism I’ve already dealt with – the good guys winning is not a dealbreaker in the movie business. However, Avatar’s structure is messy. Jake narrates the movie with the in-world justification that he’s recording video diaries, but the logic of what he would record, and how (and when) is stretched thin as cheesecloth. Sam Worthington also just isn’t that good. Zoe Saldana carries the movie but Worthington wobbles whenever he’s left holding it up alone. There are definitely script problems, but this is a James Cameron movie. “Sometimes your life boils down to one insane move” is a terrible line, but no worse than “Hasta la vista, baby”. Avatar doesn’t lack a writer so much as it lacks an Arnie. With a better lead, perhaps the much discussed pop culture footprint would be deeper.
That said, the script isn’t great. TheGamer’s resident Avatar defender has gone to bat for Unobtainium, surmising that Giovanni Ribisi’s Parker represents the frat bro CEO, giving the substance a deliberately stupid name to underline his lack of respect for the Na’Vi and his own arrogance. I believe the theory. I don’t think the movie sells us on that particularly well. It’s there and gone, and we’re never asked to question it.
Parker himself is also a poorly written character. He begins well, goofing off while insisting on results – a quietly intimidating little man. But then as his army burns Pandora, he seems moved. He watches in horror, turns off the monitors, then returns to cracking wise and launches the next attack. It teases character development then takes it away. Similarly Norm is extremely jealous and resentful of Jake being taken in by the Na’Vi, until one day he isn’t. The end.
The pacing is also all over the place. Some of the Jake-discovers-Pandora sequences are wonderful, but they eat into the unite-the-clans arc, which is over in about 30 seconds. It’s also not especially clear what anyone who isn’t Grace or Jake has been doing for, well, any of the runtime.
Avatar is not a great movie, but it is a great movie to go and see, and it’s in this gap where we as a culture have failed to distinguish. I believe you all when you say you don’t remember it, but Avatar has not insisted it be in our lives every day like Marvel and Star Wars, yet it still comes out on top. It’s odd that fans have taken ‘I like these movies’ into ‘I hope these movies make more money than other movies’ territory. Avatar needs to be seen on the big screen, and The Way of Water will be the biggest spectacle of the year. Go watch Avatar now that it’s back in theatres. Literally everything you’ve been told about it is wrong.
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