Over the course of my 18 years of professionally writing about film, I have been wrong countless times. But I have seldom been more wrong than when I saw James Cameron’s Avatar and told my companions, “Holy shit! That is easily going to be the biggest flop of all time! What kind of audience could there possibly be for a lumbering, heavy-handed anti-war allegory about the spiritual superiority of giant blue outer-space Native Americans over war-mongering jarhead Neanderthals, starring Sam Worthington? That’s a disaster in the making.”
I wasn’t necessarily wrong in my aesthetic judgment, but I was wrong in the sense that not only did Avatar do okay in theaters, it became the top-grossing movie of all time. It’s hard to overstate what a huge pop-culture phenomenon it was. According to Box Office Mojo, it made more than 2.7 billion dollars in theaters worldwide. Audiences loved it so much, media reports claimed, some viewers became deeply depressed or even suicidal because the film’s fantastical alien world of Pandora wasn’t real. A CNN article called out a Avatar fan-site thread titled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” which eventually received more than 3,500 posts. A quick scan suggests that the majority of those posts weren’t even mocking, ironic, or variations on, “C’mon, it’s only a movie, and not a very good one at that.”
“Avatar-fueled suicidal ideation” won’t be entering the DSM-5 any time soon, but articles and forums like this speak to the deep connection audiences formed with the film. It was a rousing critical success as well, earning an 83 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, plus a four-star review from Roger Ebert. It also won three Oscars and was nominated for six more, including nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.
Avatar has been a popular reader suggestion for Forgotbusters, but I was reluctant to write it up because of all this success, acclaim, and obsession, and because multiple sequels directed and co-written by Cameron are already in progress. But recent articles suggest it’s fair game for the column: In late December, Scott Mendelson wrote the Forbes reconsideration “Five years ago, ‘Avatar’ Grossed 2.7 Billion But Left No Pop Culture Footprint.” A week after that posted, our pal, former Dissolve News Editor Matt Singer, wrote the ScreenCrush article “Back To Pandora: Why Has ‘Avatar’ Been Forgotten Just Five Years After Its Release?” Sounds like fair game for this column.
When I was first brutally disappointed by Avatar, I thought of it as a science-fiction spin on Dances With Wolves. But re-watching it, I realized a more apt comparison is previous Forgotbusters entry Billy Jack. Like Billy Jack, Avatar centers on a disillusioned super-soldier who turns his back on the militarism, colonialism, and mindless bloodshed of the white warrior ethos, and embraces his destiny as the protector of a misunderstood, oppressed indigenous people marked for slaughter by evil honkies.
Both films offer a romanticized, incongruously hippie-ish conception of indigenous tribes as exemplars of spirituality and harmonious living. Both films come from macho filmmakers associated with stereotypically masculine endeavors. In Billy Jack’s case, that’s ass-kicking star/co-writer/director Tom Laughlin; in Avatar’s case, its Cameron, who first became a huge cultural force thanks to his decidedly non-hippie-ish work on action classics like The Terminator and Aliens.
The protagonists of both films are mixed-race badasses who decide to purposefully renounce the Caucasian part of their heritage to more fully embrace their righteous identification with the natives. Billy Jack is mixed-race by blood: half-Navajo, half-white, and no fan of white men and their endless malevolence. Avatar hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is mixed-race through technology: Born a human on boring old Planet Earth, he becomes a faux-Na’vi (the humanoid, decidedly Native American-like inhabitants of a moon called Pandora) when he interacts with the Pandorans through an Avatar, a genetically altered Na’vi body designed to look as much like its human operator as possible, and commanded through an extremely advanced form of remote control.
Billy Jack and Avatar are both ostensible action movies that clumsily broadcast their anti-war politics. Billy Jack is not-so-covertly a howl of protest against Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War (its sequels are even more blatant), just as Avatar takes metaphorical aim at George W. Bush and the Iraq War, both through its Marines-by-way-of-Halliburton bad guys and the sniveling, W-styled, beady-eyed heavy Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who derides the noble Na’vi as “flea-bitten savages.” Selfridge wants to eradicate the proud residents of Pandora both because their morally superior way of life makes him and his cronies look like the real savages, and because they have the misfortune of living in an area with a highly valuable commodity called “Unobtainium,” just as Iraqis live in a land filled with a highly valuable commodity called “oil.”
The Billy Jack resemblances go on and on: Both films even feature noble, central female characters (Sigourney Weaver in Avatar, Delores Taylor in Billy Jack) who, as evidence of their saintliness, attempt to run a school for indigenous people in defiance of evil white people intent on shutting them down. Both films also obviously touched a nerve in the general public, speaking incoherently but powerfully to a yearning for a more spiritually evolved existence, and an escape from the greed and brutality of Western capitalism and colonialism. But where it took Billy Jack four decades to go from pop-culture phenomenon and top-grossing independent film of all time to half-forgotten kitsch 1970s reference, Avatar has seemingly been half-forgotten in the space of a half-decade.
The massively expensive film was rightly hailed as a huge technical breakthrough for 3-D. Largely a discarded gimmick widely associated with campy 1950s genre films until the mid-’00s, 3-D was experiencing a revival at the point where Avatar kicked it into high gear. So before I damn Avatar, I want to praise it. Five years after its release, it still represents a high-water mark for 3-D. It’s the rare 3-D movie that needed the medium, both because Cameron uses it in innovative, essential ways, and because without it, the film’s abundant flaws would be even more glaring. (That said, a lot of those visuals translate well to 2-D. It looked more three-dimensional on the regular old television screen in The Dissolve’s screening room than 95 percent of the movies I’ve paid inflated 3-D ticket prices to see in theaters.) Therein lies Avatar’s central irony: It features perhaps the most vivid and imaginative use of 3-D ever, married to some of the most one-dimensional characters and dialogue this side of Thrilling Marine Adventures magazine.
Avatar casts the wooden Worthington—who has somehow managed not to become a movie star, let alone a huge box-office attraction, despite starring in Avatar and installments of the somewhat popular Terminator and Clash Of The Titans franchises—as Jake Sully, a brawny, disabled former marine dispatched into deep space to take the place of his brainy identical twin brother Tom in an operation designed to dislodge the Na’vi people from their ancestral homeland. The program is meant to let greedy capitalists, supported by ex-marine mercenaries, swoop in and scoop up all that precious Unobtainium. To engineer this white-man trickery, Sully is charged with operating an Avatar that combines his human features (in a creepy, uncanny-valley sort of way) with the physical characteristics of of the Na’vi, a race of giant blue space people who look like the results of the fevered coupling between Smurfs and werewolves.
Sully is a blundering dope, but the Na’vi adopt him anyway. At first, his goal is to spy on them for twitching mass of muscles Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who promises to get the wheelchair-bound Sully a pair of actual working legs, if Sully helps convince the Na’vi to leave their homeland. Still, Quaritch is happy to slaughter them en masse if the peaceful method doesn’t yield quick results. But Sully is conflicted once he falls in love with beautiful, proud Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and comes to understand firsthand the beauty and wisdom of the Na’vi people and the supremacy of their way of life. A wised-up Sully throws in his lot with the Na’vi and a small group of scientists and sympathizers led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) who want to learn from the Na’vi and their magical sentient forests full of living trees.
Early in the film, Sully inhabits his Avatar for the first time. Exhilarated by an opportunity to escape his broken body and live inside someone else’s, he runs through the Pandoran jungle in a state of delirious joy. The sequence is a brilliant, decidedly James Cameron fusion of advanced technology, storytelling, and character, but otherwise, Cameron’s gifts as a pop storyteller elude him here. A decidedly lopsided affair, Avatar boasts Matrix-level style and technical sophistication, but with a Matrix Reloaded-level botch on the narrative front.
Pandora is almost invariably gorgeous. There’s a richness and obsessive level of detail to its backgrounds that makes it doubly unfortunate that there’s seldom anything interesting in the foreground. In that respect, it reminded me of another technological breakthrough that made a fuckton of money, but now has apologists rather than fans: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Like The Phantom Menace, Avatar is as accomplished in its world-building as it is dialogue-deficient and narratively crippled. Cameron and his collaborators create a lush, gorgeous universe filled with floating mountains, dinosaur-like creatures, and floating neon jellyfish, then populate that world with cardboard characters, amateurish dialogue, naïve politics (which I agree with, yet still found irritating), and clunky social commentary that already felt dated when the film was released (Bush was already out of office), and looks positively prehistoric today.
I was initially disappointed by Avatar because I’m a Cameron fan who figured he couldn’t possibly have spent the 12 years between Titanic (a previous champion for top-grossing film of all time) and Avatar working on anything short of a masterpiece. His few films (not counting Piranha 2: The Spawning) range from great (The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens) to flawed-but-filled-with greatness (Titanic, The Abyss, True Lies). I went in with expectations that were way too high the first time around, just as I liked Avatar better the second time around because my expectations couldn’t have been lower.
I don’t expect Billy Wilder’s wit from Cameron, but the dialogue here runs the gamut from workmanlike to terrible, with a heavy emphasis on terrible. As with The Phantom Menace, the backgrounds are so hypnotic, it’s a shame the screenplay didn’t seem to be written by an adult or a professional, let alone a master storyteller. “Shut your pie-hole” is a typical bit of Avatar banter. The line aspires to pulpy panache, but instead calls attention to its lumbering clumsiness in the worst possible way.
What’s the point in creating such gorgeous cyber-scenery, then ruining it with the garish, embarrassingly ugly character design of the Na’vi people? To once again return to my Phantom Menace analogy, that’s a little like creating 37 distinct, amazingly detailed races of aliens to populate a scene’s background, as Lucas appeared to have done, then having Jar Jar Binks blundering through his own personal minstrel show in the foreground.
Even Weaver has trouble wrapping her mouth around Cameron’s dialogue, and she’s a seasoned Cameron vet, an old pro at this kind of material. It would take a gifted actor with formidable presence to not get lost in the technological wizardry and dazzling surfaces, and Worthington isn’t that: He’s a complete stiff, a beefy blank who leaves so little impression that I had completely forgotten his name and face between my two viewings of Avatar. (I consistently mistake him for Sam Huntington, and probably wouldn’t recognize either if I ran into them on the street.)
Part of what makes Avatar so frustrating is that it bears so many of the hallmarks of Cameron’s great films, while remaining so unengaging. Like Cameron’s Aliens, The Abyss, and T2, Avatar loves tough, smart women who are just as badass, if not more so, than their swaggering, knuckle-dragging peers. (In addition to Saldana and Weaver, the film wastes Michelle Rodriguez as a tough pilot sympathetic to the Na’vi cause.) The film attempts to single-handedly drag special effects into the future, with an ambitious use of CGI and 3-D. Like Cameron’s great films, Avatar is unabashed pulp, but with few of pulp’s strengths and all of its groaning weaknesses.
It’s tough to completely write off a film so stylistically and technologically revolutionary, but the man who made Avatar represents a strange, unpalatable cross between the gifted filmmaker who proved himself unparalleled in joining crackerjack storytelling with the most sophisticated and advanced technology, and the out-of-touch, often tone-deaf older Cameron who is so dazzled by all the shiny, screensaver-ready neon and pastel surfaces at his disposal that he appears wholly disinterested in telling a compelling story or creating memorable characters.
Hopefully Cameron, who has a Steven Spielberg-like connection to the wants and needs of the general public, will learn from the way Avatar has been half-forgotten due to its weaknesses and instant datedness, rather than being deceived by the rapturous reception the film initially received. I doubted my judgment a little when Avatar ever so slightly exceeded my gloomy predictions for it in 2009, but I am a little reassured to know a lot of people have come around to my way of thinking about it in the interim. I hope the Cameron of old returns in the Avatar sequels, the first of which will be released in 2016, but I am not overly optimistic. Then again, I have been wrong once or twice before.