December 18, 2019 Avatar 10 Years Later
Some projects earn a sort of fame from staying in development purgatory. For example, the Science Fiction blockbuster Avatar spent approximately 15 years in the works from an 80-page treatment by Writer/Director/Producer James Cameron in 1994 to its eventual 2009 release.
Once the film finally did come out, it received widespread praise, with Roger Ebert comparing it to the original 1977 release of Star Wars. Additionally, Avatar won 3 awards from 9 nominations at the following year’s Academy Awards. From there it became the best-selling film on the globe, earning $2.78 billion, making Cameron ‘king of the world’ for the second time after his 1997 mega film Titanic. Holding the record through 2019, when Avengers: Endgame slowly wrenched the crown from its head. So, clearly, the wait for Avatar was well-worth it as it celebrates a decade since a long overdue release.
Arriving back on December 18th in 2009 to high praise and earnings, Avatar does have its own unique plot elements. In 2154, humans have gone into space to find new worlds to replete their natural resources. The planet Pandora looks particularly promising, as its sources of ‘unobtanium’ make an effective superconductor. The problem is that it is inhabited by blue, cat-like aliens called the Na’vi who do not want anyone interfering with that.
So human scientists have developed Na’vi-human hybrid bodies called ‘avatars’ for genetically-matching humans to operate with their minds. The idea being that, if they infiltrate the native Na’vi, they could convince them to go against their own interests. So far, so quirky, like a classic pulp Sci-Fi story mixed with a little Tribal history. However, once one gets into the meat of the film’s plot, it does ring of Dances with Ferngully.
Paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) learns to sympathize with the Na’vi through the love of a female Na’vi called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). It just needs an evil Marine in Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), an assault on the Na’vi’s ‘Hometree’ that shakes Neytiri’s faith in Sully, a fulfilled prophecy that makes Sully the Chosen One, and then a happy ending to complete the picture.
This might be a sign of the script’s aging. Cameron had tweaked it over the years- changing ‘Josh Sully’ to Jake, ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ to Hometree, etc. But its central conceit involves the ‘white man as savior’ trope- a concept that was seemingly easier to pass over in the Nineties than in the 2000’s. Some have said it is less problematic here, given the Na’vi are fictional beings. While others point out it still suffers the implications of the trope- that the enchanting, exotic, foreign tribe cannot defend themselves unless a white man, seemingly enlightened, joins their side.
Still, being talked about is better than not being talked about. The hype surrounding Avatar faded off sometime after release. It did not engender a strong-enough fanbase post-release the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the new Star Wars trilogy did. Those films have sparked similar debates over its politics, be they intriguing (whether the Iron Man films really resolve their issues) or knee-jerk reactions (“A FEMALE Jedi?!”). While Avatar rarely gets talked about in 2019, except for the occasional person being surprised by how quickly it entered obscurity.
So, should Avatar have been shelved next to Cameron’s Spider-Man and Bright Angel Falling scripts? Is there nothing worth going back to? Well, for what it is worth, Avatar does have its own place in film history. Mostly in its use of ground-breaking visual effects. For example, the film was one of the first to utilize a virtual camera system – where the director could work with the digital actors and their surroundings in real time like a live action scene.
It also showcased simulcam – a way of helping actors interact with CG objects then and there instead of adding them objects in later. These techniques did not come out of thin air, having been worked on since 2005, and involving efforts from Weta Digital and ILM, alongside systems developed previously by Pixar like RenderMan and Alfred.
It also paid off. because much of the film’s hype came from its visual effects and CG world-building than its plot. The film might have looked okay in 2D, but it reached a whole new level in the revived 3D craze, let alone IMAX. It is what led to Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss to declare it “the most vivid and convincing creation of a fantasy world ever seen in the history of moving pictures.”
So, while Avatar may be problematic plot-wise, the film became a landmark showcase for VFX. It can be seen in the look of 2011’s Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, or The Hobbit trilogy, or even The Force Awakens and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All this said, Avatar 2 is currently in post-production and set for release supposedly on December 17th, 2021. This would mean a 12-year space between the original and its follow-up. However, James Cameron has managed to produce superior sequels to prior projects before, so perhaps Avatar 2 will be what 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was to the Terminator series. Only time will tell, but even after 10 years Avatar is worthy of discussion.