With James Cameron’s sequel Avatar: The Way of Water fast approaching release after a 13 year wait, it is time for a remaster and re-release Avatar for new audiences who weren’t even conceived at the time of its initial run, for many who have never seen the film before, and for those who have seen it before, to hopefully wow the rest of us of again. But does Avatar still hold up after all these years?
James Cameron’s Avatar is the blockbuster sci-fi action adventure about paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who finds himself dragged into an ambitious peace mission on the distant planet of Pandora.
Under the tutelage of Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the plan is to study the land and inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi, in order to negotiate a peaceful resolution for the mining of Unobtainium, an incredibly valuable resource.
During his voyage, Jake becomes close to a Na’vi tribe, particularly the chief’s daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who he quickly falls in love with. However, the greedy mining corporation led by Parker Selfridge (Giovani Ribisi) cannot wait for peace. Spurred on by the vengeful militaristic leader Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), they decide to take the valuable resource through violence. As an outsider, Jake must prove himself to command the Na’vi and lead them to fight back to retake their planet.
What can be said of Avatar which has not already been said? Upon its release in 2009, it was Cameron‘s long awaited follow up to his 1997 blockbuster Titanic and although there were doubts that he could match his previous film’s unparalleled success, he managed to blow it out of the water. With it winning 3 Academy Awards and remaining, until recently, the highest grossing film ever, nobody could say that the film failed in any way. Admittedly, there have been some talk of perhaps a lack of a true long term cultural impact with most people’s memories of the film coming down to that of a basic storyline with beautiful visuals and that it was a huge financial success.
The story of Avatar is an extremely predictable tale which is elevated by incredible special effects and technical prowess. The allegory of ‘military force after space oil’ was extremely obvious in 2009 and still is today, also using the placeholder name of ‘Unobtainium’ and certain vital aspects of world building being absent from a nearly 3-hour movie doesn’t help. I’m still fine with the story being simple and predictable, but this may be why it has had little lasting impact outside of the high box office and the technical achievements it pioneered. But it cannot be overstated enough what technical achievements they were.
When I first saw Avatar, I nonchalantly said that “it looked as good as a 200 plus million-dollar movie should look”, although the wake of many similarly budgeted and instantly forgettable films since has given me perspective. While the world of Pandora may seem fake with the entire ecosystem being more about spectacle than believability, everything STILL looks physical and real. Lighting reflects off characters in natural ways, skin looks like skin, the facial motion capture work remains some of the best I’ve ever seen, and in general this 13-year-old movie puts many recent films to shame.
The 4K restoration I was at first sceptical of especially with the supposed higher frame rate it incorporated. With memories of The Hobbit and Gemini Man fresh in my mind, I fully expected it to look just as unnatural. But James Cameron pulled it off. After the unrivalled excellence of the 3D conversions for Terminator 2 and Titanic I should have had more faith that Cameron would not invest in such a concept unless he got the results he wanted. The proof is that while this is the same film that we have seen over decade ago, you’ve never seen it with this degree of graphical fidelity.
Of all the Academy Awards that Avatar has won, sound mixing, and sound editing weren’t among them. A true shame, as the film remains one of the best sounding action films ever made. With explosions, gunfire, all variety of alien creatures, and industrial machinery or vehicles which don’t really exist but sound like they’re right in the cinema with you all the way through this adventure.
Since James Cameron has spent over a decade working on his planned follow up films of this franchise, perhaps he can surprise us again. But one thing is for certain, Avatar is a movie that all blockbuster film lovers owe it to themselves to see in cinemas. While it is a pity that the story falls short next to its technical brilliance, very few CGI heavy films remain this impressive so long after release. A sign of the possibilities when an auteur like James Cameron sets out to wow his audience.