Avatar (2009)

Directed by: James Cameron
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios

Written by Nick McCann


How things have changed. If you want to make an absolute box office killing now, you can’t just make a movie. You have to pull from somewhere already existing, sequel the hell out of it, crossover into other movies, and then break records. Large-scale cinematic originality is almost non-existent these days. But let’s rewind back to 2009, with arguably one of the last blockbusters that earned its audience and numbers by building from the ground up. 

“Avatar” is a true sci-fi epic on a faraway moon full of danger and wonder. With such a massive blank slate as this one, it’s impressive that there is always forward momentum while it effortlessly keeps you in the loop. You can feel yourself getting educated as much as our characters, all the while soaring on a rollercoaster tale about alienation, alliance, and finding a purpose to fight. The real-world parallels are inescapable, pulling from dark times of colonization and even our own modern failings. Personally, I never got the sense I was being beaten over the head with these callouts. It’s all proper fuel for the story’s direction and the constantly shifting motivations. 

Of course, this movie is famous for breaking new ground in visual effects technology. Thirteen years on from its release and it still looks incredible! The level of detail in everything elevates it, the environments, creature designs, lighting, textures, and all in between are rendered with immense photorealism. You’d be hard-pressed to find a subpar shot. The motion capture of the actors is quite impressive above all, capturing even the smallest of nuances on their faces.

On top of that, James Cameron proves he’s still got an eye for action. Every set piece is exciting, from the many monster encounters to the final battle for Pandora. The cinematography is excellent, exhibiting dynamic shots even outside of the conflict. James Horner’s score maintains a constant flow, utilizing tribal sounds prominently to accentuate the beauty and tragedy of the planet. It brings me back not just to when this movie came out but when action movies actually felt like you went on a real adventure. It’s big in every sense and alternative meaning of the word.

Grounding the film is a solid cast to help bring to life this extraordinary moon. Despite characters starting with broad-stroke personalities, complexity ends up coming through among each one of them. Sam Worthington takes the lead as we see almost everything from his perspective. He’s a likable blank slate as Jake Sully, possessing tenacity, fearlessness, and an internal drive to prove himself. Zoe Saldaña is yet another powerhouse female role in James Cameron’s legacy. Her Na’vi warrior Neytiri is fiercely tough but not without occasional vulnerability. Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, and the extended cast are excellent as well, leaving plenty to remember them by.

Many have said “Avatar” bears too strong of a resemblance to other film epics without much variation. While you can certainly see similarities, it’s surface level at best. There’s nothing to say it’s derivative or completely copying from elsewhere. The visuals are immersive, the characters are drawn nicely, their world is rich, the action is exciting, and the story is worth investing in. For me, it stands as a testament to how a movie of this size in our lifetime can draw a huge audience while being built from scratch. I was impressed as a teenager and I’m still delighted. The fact we are still talking about it after more than a decade indicates its cultural impact regardless of personal opinions.

“Avatar” Trailer

You can connect with Nick on his Facebook and Letterboxd.

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