So, bear with me and picture the scene. In 2009, Avatar storms cinemas worldwide. It’s James Cameron’s baby in the making – a passion project brewing for over a decade, an epic ode to classic science fiction. And he’s raving and raving about how innovative the methods used are – photorealistic CGI characters, remarkably accurate motion-capture technology, you name it. Wow! But there’s more – the movie is coming to cinemas in 3D!
Indeed, James Cameron developed Avatar as a 3D film from the ground up. And indeed, critics and audiences alike loved this immersive enhancement. However, years later, the 3D fad would die out. And it would leave you wondering: without its heavily-advertised gimmicks, was Avatar actually any good? And, without these gimmicks – not to mention the large sequel gap – will Avatar 2 be any good upon its final release later in 2022?
Stripping It Down to the Bare Essence
So, let’s get the obvious problem out of the way first. Avatar 2 is coming 12 years after the original film hit theaters around the world. Nothing newsworthy has been done with the IP since the 2009 flick – it’s been trapped in a cryogenic state not dissimilar to protagonist Jake Sully before he arrives at Pandora. In the modern climate, releasing a sequel to a 12-year-old movie nowadays is a risky venture (and even riskier when you consider James Cameron has filmed Avatars 3 & 4 to boot!).
But why is reviving the franchise risky, you ask? Well, the Box Office has changed since Avatar 1‘s release. When it first opened, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was barely on its feet. By that point, only The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 1 had come out, and superhero movies weren’t the crown-jewel of cinema as they are now. However, Avatar 2 is being released in a 2022 climate where this is, in fact, very much the case. As many filmmakers have complained, it’s hard for non-superhero properties to make it good at the Box Office nowadays. Avatar 2 is potentially no exception. The fact that many moviegoers are past caring regarding Avatar doesn’t help things.
The Shallowness of the Story
As has already been mentioned, Avatar is a visually impressive picture. Its infamous aliens, the Na’vi are intricately designed. Indeed, those designs are precisely what James Cameron saw when he was shooting the film. The actors – including Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver – engaged in advanced motion-capture techniques, which allowed Cameron to watch them act in their Na’vi forms via a monitor. What makes this interesting is that usually, in high-budget VFX-led movies, the CGI is added later. All in all, it’s pretty revolutionary.
And that’s all well and good, as is Pandora’s diverse range of flora and fauna – not to mention the elaborately-constructed Na’vi language. Whatever we feel about Avatar‘s quality overall, there’s no doubt Cameron was passionate about realizing his vision on-screen. The visual finish of the film makes one truly believe he had this idea on slow-cook since 1994. However, many agree that Avatar’s weaknesses shine once you get past the impressive VFX.
A simple tale of nature vs. technology lies beneath the photorealistic CGI and unique jargon. Alongside this, it’s also a tale of advanced military conquerors versus tribal natives. Now, on the surface, re-employing these basic narratives for new movies isn’t a crime. However, the problem with Avatar is that it plays the narrative’s clichés predictably straight, not even daring to subvert audience expectations in any way. In fact, just by watching the movie’s trailer, you get a sense of what the whole film is about.
Dances with Wolves in Blue
The big issue with Avatar‘s story is that the clichés are played painfully straight. In fact, if I told you that the film mixes Dances with Wolves with Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, I’d pretty much be spoiling the entire film for you. This is because I joke not, that’s exactly what Avatar is – albeit with Blue Aliens and the occasional spaceship.
Sam Worthington’s hero Jake Sully is basically Kevin Costner’s Lt. Dunbar, a white imperialist who defects to the other more sympathetic, native side and saves the day. Meanwhile, Avatar’s message of how technology spoils nature is dropped on our heads with a Fern Gully-size anvil. What this creates is a boring, black-and-white set of binary opposites (the nature-loving natives are sensitive and all-good! The advanced industrialists are all-bad and just want money!). And it means the movie lacks narrative complexity.
This sadly also means that the movie’s characters feel so shallow and lacking in depth. Stephen Lang’s villain Quaritch is a painful example when it comes to the villains. He is a muscular, silver-haired military man who exudes Hollywood levels of masculinity. The movie identifies him very early on as the villain by giving him a ridiculous war-scar on his face alongside an intimidating aura. Similar levels of care are given to side-villain Selfridge, a typical mustache-twirling capitalist who is after the planet’s Unobtainium (that’s honestly the ore’s name), albeit without a mustache. He sees the Na’vi people as mere savages. He is obsessed with claiming Unobtainium (As he says, “Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s one thing the shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement.”).
Opening Pandora’s Box
All in all, Avatar feels more like a cinematic experiment than an actual film, given its story and concept falls flat underneath its soaring visuals. However, if the sequels have any chance of succeeding, they need to do a lot more with the universe their predecessor established. There is no 3D gimmick to help market the film now, so they’ll need to market everything else.
The truth remains that, despite Avatar‘s visually-beautiful world, the film’s conclusion doesn’t offer a compelling enough hook to pull us in for more. Could Avatar 2 be the franchise’s Empire Strikes Back version 2022, becoming the killer release it truly needs? Only time will tell, but if the first film is any indication, James Cameron’s passion franchise needs it.
That said, that’s just our take. Do you think we have it wrong about Avatar? Are you excited about the release of Avatar 2 later in 2022? What do you want to see happen in the sequel and beyond?