One could argue that James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar continues to be one of the biggest enigmas in cinematic history. The film, at the time of this writing, is the most lucrative film of all time yet again after passing Avengers: Endgame‘s brief time at the top during the COVID-19 pandemic. The film had an insane amount of acclaim bestowed upon it when it was first released, including a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. It was also the springboard for a brand-new 3D tech that helped launch it into the stratosphere of box office returns. Currently, there are four sequels in the works, including this month’s Avatar: The Way of Water, as well as a new video game from Ubisoft. But does a brand like Avatar really deserve that much prestige?
In order to answer this question, I figured it would be best to rewatch James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic. It marked the first time I had watched Avatar since it was initially released in 3D on the big screen. Since then, I haven’t felt the need to return to Pandora, the fictional planet where the movie takes place. Why is this? Pandora is one of the most gorgeous-looking and original landscapes to hit the big screen. No wonder they turned it into a theme park ride, and the concept of exploring it in a potentially open-world video game on current-gen consoles should be wonderful to look at, to say the least. But for all its visual wonder and spectacle from an iconic filmmaker, the movie just lacks inspiration.
It also doesn’t help that, from a storytelling perspective, Avatar is definitely Cameron’s weakest film. Filled with exposition-heavy and clunky dialogue coupled with a wooden performance from lead Sam Worthington makes watching the movie a bit of a chore. The film is better when Sam’s Jake Sully is in his avatar and is emersed in the world of the Na’vi but this is still the same character with a different skin. Jake is a painfully bland character and since he’s the protagonist of this almost three-hour epic, it makes spending that much time with him tiresome. I really had to push myself to continue to watch the movie and it honestly felt like time wasted as opposed to something joyous to revel in.
That’s not to say the movie is a trainwreck or anything. It’s just perfectly average and surprisingly familiar, despite the original setting. The story, however, is simply Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas only with mechs and aliens instead of Native Americans and the King’s Navy. When the film was being marketed back in 2009, audiences were promised a big, original and epic science fiction adventure from James Cameron, the guy who gave us the first two Terminator films, Titanic and True Lies. And while there is plenty of imagination in the world and the setting, the tale is ultimately nothing new.
Perhaps that’s why the film has sort of vanished from the pop culture lexicon over the years. Or perhaps this is due to the film having a definitive ending. This was before the concept of the cinematic universe had really kicked off, where films are engineered to set up the next installment to continuously generate buzz. Or maybe audiences just saw the movie a few times in cinemas and didn’t feel the need to rewatch it as often as other popular films because the film wears out its welcome the more you watch it.
Which is an odd thing to say. Despite the big bucks the movie made, no one talks about Avatar the way we talk about Star Wars, Marvel, Jurassic Park or even Harry Potter. How many people do you see wearing an Avatar t-shirt at conventions? Why are there no consistent conversations about the film, its contributions to the genre and cinema landscape or its influence on pop culture? Instead of being a thought-provoking science fiction epic, the film comes off as a so-so roller coaster-fun the first time (to the point of there being a theme park based on Pandora now) but no need to go back.
Naturally, the chatter around Avatar has spiked significantly since the release of the first teaser for its first sequel, The Way of Water. The Avatar sequels have been delayed numerous times over the years, to the point of it being something of a running joke that the movies would never get made. Director James Cameron has also made some eyebrow-raising statements, such as no need to time bathroom breaks due to the want of repeat viewings. The man does have a bit of an ego, but the first social media reactions for Way of Water have seemingly confirmed the movie is a masterpiece. But considering the first movie was also given heaps of praise and got that Best Picture nomination, I do remain skeptical, but also a bit curious. Perhaps The Way of Water will be able to do what the original Avatar couldn’t and create a lasting impression for the franchise, one that I’ll look forward to watch again. After all, The Way of Water needs to be the fourth or fifth highest-grossing film ever just to break even, so it’s got to leave some sort of impression to justify those sequels.