Best known as the highest-grossing film of all time before Avengers: Endgame beat it at the box office, James Cameron’s Avatar is back in cinemas to reclaim its crown, while hyping audiences for the upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. Read on to learn just how and why this 13-year-old film remains a thrilling watch, and the undisputed standard against which all other 3D films continue to be judged.
In the 22nd century, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Clash of the Titans, Hacksaw Ridge) travels to the alien moon of Pandora, where humans mine minerals to make up for the depletion of Earth’s own. A paraplegic former marine, Sully has signed on to place his consciousness in an “Avatar”, a biological body cloned for the purpose of interacting with Pandora’s main indigenous race, the Na’vi. Insinuating himself into a local tribe through his budding friendship with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy), Sully discovers a newfound appreciation for life and nature. But when his fellow humans begin expanding their operation by way of genocide, Jake must decide which side he is willing to fight for.
A mixed legacy
Despite ranking among the biggest blockbusters of all time, Avatar is a film regularly derided for being a mere blip on the pop culture landscape. While Marvel and Star Wars have been endlessly referenced, spoofed, and homaged in the years following their films’ respective releases, Avatar… just hasn’t. Indeed, apart from the breathtaking Disney theme park ride, when was the last time you heard anyone call back to it, much less saw any merch to remind you it existed?
Much of this can be traced to the film’s status as a groundbreaking 3D experience, which is both its greatest strength, as well as its biggest weakness – while the story remains a barely reskinned version of Fern Gully, Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and/or The Last Samurai, it has aged surprisingly well on a technical level. Granted, the CGI powering the motion-captured performances doesn’t look as photorealistic as it did back in the day, it is nevertheless impressive in its overall quality and consistency.
The 3D is (still) god-tier
The main draw of this film has always been its 3D presentation, and that remains as spectacular as ever in this remastered presentation. Boasting a completely new 4K transfer, with some sequences rendered at 48 frames per second to reduce flicker, the film has never looked better, backed by a completely new 9.1 audio mix that demands to be experienced and heard on the biggest screen possible.
Thirteen years on, the 3D holds up particularly well, with Director of Photography Mauro Fiore’s (Training Day, Spider-Man: No Way Home) Academy Award-winning cinematography shining in the upgraded presentation. Paired with the CGI maestros of Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings) and Industrial Light & Magic (Mission: Impossible, Jurassic World), Cameron and Fiore’s shots are built around selling the illusion, using deliberate camera moves, foreground objects, and blocking to establish tangible depth and weight.
Unlike other 3D films that just hurl things at viewers to justify the added dimension, Cameron and his collaborators used their understanding of photography, technology, and visual effects to craft a world that audiences didn’t just watch, so much as they experienced it – from spaceship interiors and digital screens, to the lush forests and open skies of Pandora, Avatar delivers audience immersion on a scale that is (still) stunning to experience. Indeed, save for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Dreamworks’ first How To Train Your Dragon, few films have come anywhere close to matching what Avatar’s 3D accomplishes onscreen.
As much praise as Avatar’s visuals and overall presentation has received over the years, the same can’t be said for the story or those inhabiting it, with characters operating on the barest of motivations to get us to the next big sequence.
In the lead, Worthington’s Jake Sully is as generic as it gets, with his questionable American accent actually getting worse with each subsequent viewing. The film’s big bad is played by Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe) who gets to perform all the cartoony scenery chewing and mustache-twirling that an actor could wish for. This doesn’t just make him the most entertaining character in the flick, but it also means he handily outclasses Worthington’s monotone hero and runs absolute circles around Giovanni Ribisi’s (Saving Private Ryan, TV’s Friends) standard-issue corporate weasel.
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The women of Avatar make a far better impression, though that owes more to the established personas of the actors playing them than anything that may have been in the screenplay. Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest) lends gravitas to the proceedings as compassionate scientist Grace Augustine (sort of a cross between her Ripley and Jane Goodall roles), while Michelle Rodriguez (Fast and the Furious, Resident Evil) plays — what else — an unapologetic badass with a heart of gold.
The standout performer here is Saldana, whose inflections, facial expressions, and body language transcend the CGI to bring her character to life. Sure, she and her entire tribe go out of their way to enable some cringey white savior stuff, but every ounce of presence and dignity that character has exists almost entirely thanks to Saldana.
So what’s new?
Aside from a short video where James Cameron introduces the film and the rationale behind rereleasing it, the cut of the film in cinemas now isn’t the extended version that’s been on home video for a few years now, but the one that theaters ran back in 2009. There are no extended scenes or reinstated footage to be found here, as the intent was to present the film (upgraded audio and video notwithstanding) as it had always been, to give newcomers a chance to see what they missed out on while priming them for the adventures to come.
There is, however, a teaser for the first sequel, The Way of Water, that hits right before the credits. Unlike the recently released montage trailer, the footage is from a single scene that riffs on the story of St. Jerome pulling a thorn from a lion’s paw, albeit with a Pandoran whale standing in for the lion. Where this will go is anybody’s guess, but the new motion capture tech developed for performers moving underwater was put to breathtaking use in the few minutes that we saw.
The creator of Pandora
Admittedly, James Cameron isn’t known for the dramatic complexity of his screenplays, relying on well-worn archetypes and plot devices to get his points across. Where he does excel, though, is delivering iconic, award-worthy cinematic spectacles that frequently require the invention of new technologies to create.
While his ambition, perfectionist streak, and massive budgets have caused more than their share of studio headaches over the years, the results clearly speak for themselves: Aliens (which earned Sigourney Weaver her first Oscar nomination) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which combined state-of-the-art practical effects with CGI for the first time) are blockbusters that also happen to be two of the greatest sequels in history, while Avatar and Titanic are the highest- and third highest-grossing films ever made.
With that kind of a resume, when James Cameron speaks, studios tend to listen (Titanic literally got made because he needed an excuse and funding to go and shoot the actual wreck, which he ended up doing, using deep-sea cameras developed by himself and his brother). Not bad for a college-dropout-turned-truck-driver who was so inspired upon seeing the first Star Wars that he went into a library to learn how to be a filmmaker.
The potential of 3D
After breaking records in 2009, Hollywood derived the entirely wrong lesson from Avatar’s success, with studios and theaters alike cashed in by charging more for tickets to existing films retrofitted for 3D long after they’d been shot. Though some of these post-conversions were successful, with titles like Jurassic Park and The Nightmare Before Christmas being rereleased in the format, the majority of films available just weren’t designed to be seen that way, and it showed. Upcoming releases that had been shot in 2D were likewise subjected to the process, resulting in indignities such as the monsters in 2010’s Clash of the Titans remake resembling cardboard cutouts held up against a TV screen.
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By contrast, directors who actually took the time and effort to incorporate the format into their planning succeeded brilliantly, as seen with Alfonso Cuaron’s critically-acclaimed Gravity and Robert Zemeckis’ vertigo-inducing The Walk. But these success stories were few and far between, with the only other notable live-action example being the campy Journey to the Center of the Earth. By and large, the majority of successful 3D films were animated fare –such as Monster House, Coraline, and Into the Spider-Verse– where perspective and depth could be more easily manipulated.
That being said, the fad eventually died out, with even home-based 3D televisions and corresponding Blu-Ray systems disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared. These days, 3D is primarily relegated to museums, theme parks, and special IMAX screenings, aside from so-called “4D” cinemas that incorporate chairs with distracting, overpriced motion effects.
Thankfully, Avatar is back to show us how 3D is supposed to be done and, with any luck, the sequels will show us how much further it can still go.
The bottom line
The story’s still nothing to write home about, but Avatar has never looked or sounded sharper than it does with this remaster, and with the first of a reported four sequels set to hit cinemas in December, there’s never been a better time to see, hear, and experience what all the hype is about.
Avatar is back in cinemas nationwide for a limited screening starting September 21. Meanwhile, Avatar: The Way of Water will be released in December.