Avatar at 10 | Bland, Boring and Empty
When I was ten years old, my friends and I travelled to the cinema to catch our most anticipated movie of all time; Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. For months we had built up excitement for a film that would bring our favourite book to life. There was one major issue that faced us though when we went to order tickets on that fateful December evening. The movie wasn’t out for another two months.
Our chance to see the greatest film of all time had died before our very eyes. At that point, we could have given up and headed home in shame. However, the cinema gods had different plans for three ten year old’s (and one of their dads who had to be there to get us in). A new film called Avatar had just come out. Not only that, but it was 3-D. Imagine having to wear glasses to make the movie come to life. Surely, this was a myth. We bought our tickets and trusty goggles, embarking on a viewing experience that would change our lives forever. Over the course of two and a half hours, we were thrown into the world of Pandora. A world where blue creatures rode dragon-like creatures over the mountains. Every single one of us proudly declared that it was the greatest film our young minds had ever seen.
That said, I sat down to watch Avatar in full for the first time in ten years this week. Two things became apparent in the first ten minutes. Ten-year-old Liam was an idiot and I should have watched Percy Jackson.
For those of you have forgotten, Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who following the death of his brother takes his place in a corporate mission on the mysterious planet Pandora. Jake and the rest of the scientists/military members are tasked with obtaining unobtanium (*sighs*) a rare mineral that is potentially worth billions. To get the mineral Jake and co. transfer their minds into avatar bodies of the Na’vi species, Pandora’s inhabitants. This is as a means of giving them free rein to explore the mystery planet. When Jake befriends the Na’vi he becomes torn between serving his country and protecting his new home. If that plot sounds like a load of nonsense, it’s because it absolutely is.
For a near three-hour movie not much happens. In fact, the entire story can be summarised in five short sentences. Jake arrives in Pandora. The Na’vi don’t like him. They fight the military. The Na’vi now like him. The end. That is literally the entire film. The majority is spent watching secondary characters (looking at you Joel David Moore) explain everything as thoroughly as possible in case the audience is too stupid to follow. If you are, don’t worry. Jake is sure to re-explain the plot through his mundane narration.
Jake’s journey of finding himself is a drag. For starters, Sam Worthington isn’t a good actor. As we’ve seen in the decade that’s followed Avatar, the Aussie has the same expressionless face in every film he’s in. When you’re the star of a fantasy epic you need to have even the smallest hint of charisma. Who here remembers anything about Jake Sully? We don’t know what makes him tick or motivates him. There is no reason for the audience to care about the guy. Thank god, we’re getting four sequels to continue his meandering story. Maybe by the end of Avatar 5, he’ll have a personality.
It’s not just Jake who is forgettable. Not one of the other human characters gets to be anything other than a character archetype. Sigourney Weaver plays the angry doctor. Joel David Moore plays the nerdy scientist. Stephen Lang plays the evil army Colonel. Giovanni Ribisi plays the seedy businessman. Michelle Rodriguez plays the helicopter pilot who loves helicopters and nothing else. Every single human character in the film is given no character besides what their profession is. Imagine Indiana Jones but instead of wisecracking Harrison Ford only speaks about archaeology for two hours.
Every performance by the actors playing humans is also soulless. The only good turn in Avatar comes from Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the Na’vi who teaches Jake the ways of her people. Saldana has what none of her co-stars have, passion for her craft. Everyone involved is aware of how ludicrous the premise is. Yet, Saldana dives into the character headfirst. There’s a reason why in 2019 she has achieved more than any of her cast members following Avatar. Even ten years ago Zoe Saldana was a star.
To be fair, no one went into Avatar for the story. Watching the film in 2019 in 2-D is the equivalent of seeing Pele play football today. I’m sure he was good in his time, but to watch him now would be sad for everyone involved. As a ten-year-old, I was blown away by how Pandora looked in the cinema. Watching the same scenes now on DVD left me feeling nothing. Perhaps, this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen. Not because it’s amazing – it’s not – but because of how James Cameron made the movie.
Yes, the design of the Na’vi looks clunky today. Yet it’s easy to see why the rest of the film’s visuals were groundbreaking in 2009. Pandora is enchanting. The jungle landscapes are filled with vibrant colours and visuals, one’s which still stick out compared to the sameness of today’s blockbusters. Mauro Fiore rightfully won an Oscar for his cinematography in 2010. There’s a reason why Avatar was used to sell televisions for ten years since its release. If Avatar 2’s cinematographer Russell Carpenter (who worked on Cameron’s other films True Lies and Titanic) can somehow build on Fiore’s already impressive visuals than maybe these sequels aren’t such a bad thing.
It’s impossible to figure out why James Cameron is so obsessed with Avatar. The director hasn’t made a movie since its release. That’s ten years without a film from the man who made Terminator 1 and 2 and Titanic. Avatar is the weakest film he’s ever made, yet he’s the only person in the world who wants more of it. The guy passed on directing his passion project Alita: Battle Angel (which he co-wrote) in favour of turning Avatar into a franchise. The world has missed out on potential gold because of sequels that have been pushed back year after year. Avatar 2 was initially supposed to arrive in 2014. I’m beginning to think that there is no Avatar 2 and that Cameron is just toying with us.
Ten years have passed since Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time. No movie except Avengers: Endgame has ever made more money. A strange statistic considering nobody has ever thought about Avatar following their first and presumably only time watching it. It becomes apparent viewing it in 2019 that cinema has changed. Films can’t get away with gimmicks and decent effects anymore. We crave compelling stories and characters that will hook us from minute one. Avatar is more concerned with looking nice than being a decent film. If these Avatar sequels ever arrive there is no way that they will be an improvement on the 2009 film, they’ll look sharper and that will be that. There is more of a chance of me finally getting a decent Percy Jackson film. A man can dream.