Proof that box-office earnings aren’t everything.
Until 2019, Avatar was the highest-grossing movie of all time. Not by a slither but by a huge margin. I had hoped back in 2015 that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be the one to finally dethrone James Cameron’s film. Yet even the box-office juggernaut that is Star Wars couldn’t claim Avatar’s crown. There are many films deserving of their box-office billions, Jurassic Park, Avengers: Endgame and Joker are three movies that wholly earned their praise and money. And then we have films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, that couldn’t be less deserving of their place among the elite.
Alas, life is not black and white. In the middle, we find shades of grey (not the films, they are trash) alongside James Cameron’s Avatar. A film that is by no means awful, but neither is it worth $2.78bn in box-office takings. For a movie that reigned as a money-making king for almost a decade, you may expect something original, insightful, entertaining and groundbreaking. Yet Avatar barely manages to tick two of those four boxes.
Firstly I will admit that, yes, the film is visually stunning. My eyes drink in every scene for their beauty and attention to detail. But looks aren’t everything. I feel that Avatar rivals Star Wars in the wonder and amazement inspired by the settings and design of everything, from characters to vehicles. They all feel distinctly grounded yet whimsical at the same time. The planet Pandora is something I would love to see more of in the future in any way, shape or form.
Furthermore, I do also admire the lore and backstory given to the native Na’vi. This world feels like it has been lived in, with genuine characters who have their own set of beliefs and language in a society unlike our own, one more in touch with nature and less inclined to dominate it. Again the comparisons to Star Wars are easy to make. I feel like I could spend hours reading books and researching the lore of Avatar, something I think all good fantasy and Sci-Fi worlds should inspire us to do.
Unfortunately, the praise ends there. Aside from the visuals and the effort put into making the Na’vi society intriguing for the audience, there is very little here to enjoy.
Fundamentally, the most glaring flaw with Avatar is that the message is just tired. We are ultimately being told a story we have heard countless times with the only exception being that we are in space. Mankind, in a desperate bid for resources and profit, is willing to culturally and ecologically obliterate Pandora for their own gain, with only a small band of morally conscious fighters to oppose them. Disney’s Pochahauntus, Dances With Wolves and even Fern Gully have all been put forward as examples of this story being told before.
Desperate to uproot the Na’vi from their native home in order to access the valuable fuel source that lay under their home, the humans send an emissary to try and persuade the Na’vi to move peacefully. When that fails, the humans turn to force and a battle ensues that sees the people of earth – in their traditional role as the greed-driven antagonists – fight against the harmless natives, just wanting to live in peace. This story is one that has been done before and, without a significant change in its execution, feels dead on arrival. That is certainly true here, but what is most infuriating is that simple changes could have been made to amend this issue. with just a small amount of focus on the humans and their plight, their own struggle to survive on a dying planet would give the conflict between them and Na’vi a much more intriguing dynamic.
While the acting performances are solid, it is the writing that let the actors down. Sigourney Weaver in particular puts in a strong showing as Dr Grace Augustine and Zoe Saldana is excellent as always as Neytiri. However, their characters are constrained by uninteresting cliches that feel below the movie. Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is perhaps the biggest victim of this, with his character never rising beyond his role of middleman between the humans and the Na’vi, while his romance with Zoe Saldana’s character is painfully predictable. Frustrating too is the fact that we as an audience never get to see Sully grapple with an internal emotional or ideological conflict that forces him to choose between his own kind or the Na’vi, his allegiances seem set in stone from the start and his character makes no surprising or satisfying progression throughout the film.
Fundamentally, Avatar is a film that encapsulates the notion of style over substance, with a strong cast, world-renowned director and some of the greatest visual effects seen to date, Avatar is held back by the story which feels tired and hollow. While the film looks and sounds spectacular, there is little feeling to accompany the effects. This film is a bonanza of colours and images that are beautiful to look at, but leave some – myself included- wanting more.