Over a decade since its predecessor had the world in a chokehold, Avatar: The Way of Water is finally here. But we're not here to talk about that. Here's a cursory look at the Academy Award-winning first installment and its questionable relevance.
James Cameron’s sci fi epic, often touted as one of the most influential films of the 21st century, cooked up quite the storm when it hit theatres in December 2009. Within a few weeks, the film had already broken multiple box office records and was on its way to win big at the Oscars as well.
Thanks to its merciless campaigning and prolonged theatrical run, Avatar was the talk of every household across the world. Fans adored the never-before-seen visual spectacle and critics gobbled up the technical marvels that the film laid out for them. With just under $3 billion and a few dozen awards in hand, Universal was most definitely satisfied with its performance.
However, shrouded beneath its thick cover of glitz and glory, Avatar has successfully managed to get away with something very fundamental for the most part: it’s a garbage film.
Up until recently, the only appropriate response elicited from Cameron diehards and Avatar simps (who curiously somehow always find themselves in close proximity to me) for such statements would include a chair flung in my general direction in staunch protest.
Yet it seems that much like myself, most of the aforementioned aficionados never really caught the film, having first watched it over a decade ago. It’s only as of late upon revisiting their beloved Cameronian masterpiece before its much-awaited sequel that these hardcores might just hesitate before flinging that chair.
Like myself, those of whom happened to watch Avatar on the big screen in 2009 at an impressionable young age were blown away by the marvellous visual treat that the film had to offer and happened to turn a blind eye to finer details that had been imperceivable at the time. What’s concerning is the hordes of mature fans and critics who went gaga over the film nonetheless, even going to the extent of branding it as one of the greatest films of the decade if not all time.
But let’s take a moment to peel away the millions of dollars worth special effects and technical prowess for a moment and strip Avatar bare down to its blue Na'vi bottom to reveal it for what it truly is.
To label the film derivative would be to deflect its mediocrity. At its core, the inescapable truth behind Avatar is that its writing is terrible through and through, regardless of where it happens to draw inspiration from. A little demonstration of the same are the few bits of corny dialogue littered across this piece.
Those of whom went in for nothing other than the CGI-generated aliens and explosions, congratulations! Avatar must have really been one of the best theatrical experiences for you in the recent past. However, for those who went in expecting a morsel of storytelling nuance, if not a narrative epic to rival the likes of Star Wars or Dune in its scope for worldbuilding - you were probably better off watching paint dry.
Sam Worthington gives what is probably one of his career-worst performances as Jake Sully, a paraplegic bereft of any personality with a saviour complex larger than the Tree of Souls on Pandora. The integrity of your lead performance really comes into question when you happen to show more emotional depth playing a literal cyborg in Terminator Salvation.
Of course that doesn’t seem to deter Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in the slightest. Despite knowing fully well how dangerously incompetent Sully is, she falls head over heels for the outsider for nothing other than furthering a generic romance through the narrative.
But pulpy character development aside, why the plot fails so miserably is because Cameron cannot seem to navigate Sully’s relationship with the Na’vi. The Pocahontas-esque dynamic between the alien species and the white saviour tropes are actually the least of our concerns.
Rather, Cameron’s portrayal of the Na’vi as an advanced species with a hive-mind that effectively collects the entirety of Pandora as a one giant organism is in stark contrast to his attempts at humanising them. Cameron cannot seem to make up his mind whether the Na’vi serve as a metaphor for the indigenous, by blending every native culture into a fluorescent blue juice personified in the Na’vi, or whether this alien species that is quite literally beyond death itself is beyond the confines of human comprehension altogether.
The Na’vi are just like humans in every way that doesn’t matter at all by reinforcing ethnic stereotypes, cover up their crackless and nipple-less modesty with garments despite having tails and even partake in weird USB-wired sex. It’s all superficial and a product of poor worldbuilding.
The Na’vi are familiar yet unfamiliar, in the process of which, Cameron inevitably alienates (pun intended) any semblance of a connection that they could possibly share with the outsider human race. And yet, despite all of the above, somehow, the entirety of Pandora rallies behind a primitive human outsider (after having their giant sacred tree decimated that too) only and only because he mounted a slightly larger and slightly redder pterodactyl-dragon than usual.
At the end of the day, whether intentionally or otherwise, Jake Sully is a little more unhinged than Cameron would choose to let on. Turning his back on his entire species is pretty forgivable given how intolerable Colonel Quaritch and his military grunt stereotypes were. However, Sully’s level of appropriation stems from nothing but personal gain.
Functional legs, a hot alien girlfriend and serving as the defunct new leader of the tribe seem to be Sully’s possible motivations. But what do the Omaticaya gain in the process? For all the talks of indigenous upliftment, one cannot help but agree with the Orientalist critique of the film: How could a species so advanced be reduced to one that champions a puny human outsider as their leader?
The novelty of the 3D spectacle (which certainly did not add anything to the film beyond a dimensional advantage over its contemporaries) is probably what added to its success - both among the fans and for the producers enjoying those inflated 3D ticket prices.
For all the flak the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been receiving lately, people tend to forget that James Cameron pulled off the biggest scam the 21st century had to offer, long before the MCU was a thing, by producing a mindless, money-making machine in Avatar.
Given its traction, it doesn’t seem like the pedestalising will slow down anytime soon and rather unfortunately, the overhyped business venture that is Avatar, will remain a gift that keeps giving (profits) for the foreseeable sequel-ridden future.