Thirteen years ago, James Cameron's long-awaited odyssey to Pandora ignited a cinematic milestone with the release of Avatar. Cameron endured years of negative speculation and bewilderment from media pundits who seemed puzzled by the Titanic auteur's motion capture-driven epic.
Fortunately for Cameron, the results reached an unprecedented place amidst the zeitgeist. Avatar toppled all of the box office records that Titanic previously smashed, while the film's boundary-pushing technology and captivating spectacle became the rare big-budget feature to attract substantial award attention (people forget now, but Avatar was the runner-up for the 2009 Best Picture Oscar).
The passage of time has embedded some fascinating impacts on Avatar. Critics and audiences' praise quickly soured into an odd sense of apathy toward the project, with many fixating on the screenplay and its repurposing of age-old story dynamics. Years of insistent dunking then reverted back into warm appreciation for the film in the mainstream once audiences caught a glimpse of its sequel, The Way of Water. Funny how the internet works sometimes.
I always viewed Avatar as one of the Star Wars-esque event films of my childhood (2009 featured several of those films for me with Star Trek and District 9). I traveled to the theater four times during its initial theatrical run, and I was even one of the few who came back when it was needlessly re-released with extra footage in the summer of 2010.
Now returning to theaters with enhanced 4K visuals, Avatar still elicits much of the same wide-eyed wonderment I remember fondly basking in as a 12-year-old. It's incredible how the passage of time has not aged Cameron's CGI-created landscape inadequately. The world of Pandora and its wide array of expressive creatures, detailed environments, and eye-popping marvels still possess the same lively expressiveness onscreen.
Cameron's visual components are not just stylistic marvels. Many detractors of the film highlight the film's age-old premise of a colonizer slowly turning toward the side of the native tribe inhabiting the land. Other movies, like Dances with Wolves, have explored the dynamic, but Cameron realizes that concept's timeless appeal. Avatar effectively ruminates on the commodification of the natural world by callous enterprises that set their sights strictly on profits. In a modern climate where global warming and warring nations remain foreboding forces, Avatar has only retained more relevance as the years pass.
I also love the sincerity Cameron imbues in his project. His embrace of worldly splendors and the Na'vi's open-hearted spirituality allows audiences to get lost in the writer/director's ambitious worldview. Avatar's sturdy foundation should serve as an effective building block for Cameron to further descend into the Na'vi and their culture's meaningful practices.
Still, I wouldn't quite call Avatar a masterpiece. Cameron's old-school screenwriting tendencies occasionally lead to a few stiff moments, including narration that often sleepily delivers information to viewers. Some actors provide enough dramatic agency and emotionality to elevate the proceedings (Zoe Saladna gives one of the best motion capture performances of all time as Neytiri). Others, like earnest leading man Sam Worthington, struggle to enrich material that's lacking in terms of energy and authenticity. Nevertheless, I think Avatar's sequels will be better off now that they can define their own presence amidst the extensive world-building Cameron accomplishes here.
The moments of imperfection do not mask the masterful achievement Cameron achieved here. Avatar holds up remarkably well as an enchanting and expertly crafted blockbuster. I can't wait to return to Pandora with The Way of the Water.