‘Avatar’ is back in theaters, and it’s still awesome

Zoe Saldana in Avatar.
Photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

For all his technical expertise and storytelling prowess, James Cameron might just be the master of mood-changing cinema. I still remember the week in 1997 when Titanic went from being seen as an impending disaster, which would take two major studios with it, to being seen as a blockbuster that would remind everyone why we kept Hollywood. The tide also turned Avatar in 2009. For months, many of us expected an overly belated and overindulgent monstrosity from a filmmaker who was clearly living in his own head and had no one to tell him no. I remember the Dana Goodyear epic New Yorker profile that depicted Cameron digging into seemingly imperceptible VFX details. (“That fucking rocks! … Look at the gill-like membrane on the side of the mouth, its light transmission, all the secondary color saturation on the tongue and that jawbone. I love what you’ve done with the translucency on the teeth, and the way the square bone pushes the teeth forward.”)

And then we saw the damn thing. After the film’s jaw-dropping all-media premiere at the Lincoln Square IMAX in New York City, suddenly everyone wanted to talk about Avatar. The rest is history – as was the case with Titanicas was the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The word is out, and the word stays: never underestimate James Cameron.

We can sense a similar drastic change coming for Cameron’s much-delayed sequel, Avatar: The Way of the Water, which after years of false starts and date changes is set to arrive in December. For years, Avatar — both the existing original and this ever-so-slow follow-up — have been the butt of jokes and narrow shots, the most widespread being that the film left no pop-cultural imprints. This silly take, of course, contains its own rebuttal. Whether Avatar is so forgotten, how come a new person needs to remind us every week that he is so forgotten?

Perhaps more importantly, playing the game of pop culture imprinting is playing into the hands of the corporate intellectual property lords who have stuffed us with second- and third-rate information. star wars and Marvel and DC deals over the past decade. No, there weren’t dozens of Avatar sequels and spinoffs and reboots and streaming TV shows and series; Hulu is not currently working on an origin story for the origin tree, and as far as I know, no Disney+ animated series follows the adventures of a family of thanators. This is a good thing. Let Avatar be Avatarand let its sequel succeed or fail on its merits, not on whether it fits into an exhausting, inane Expanded Universe, or whether it sells enough lunch boxes.

But as I said, a change is coming, and the past few months have seen a huge surge of interest in Avatar: The Way of the Water, perhaps because people suddenly started caring again about movies and the theater experience. Now, to prepare for what’s next, Avatar itself is back in theaters, which is still the perfect setting to see it – especially in 3D, as it’s one of the few productions to make good use of the technology. Indeed, after the unprecedented success of Avatar, Hollywood spent so much time trying to modernize big 3D releases that they pretty much killed the technology. It may be another measure of Avatarthe pop-cultural impact of: all the movie graveyards filled with budding blockbusters who couldn’t live up to the promise of Avatar. The failure of others can also be a measure of your success.

One of the side benefits of not having dozens of other Avatar properties there is that, looking at Avatar again after all these years, we realize how special it is. Turns out all that fussing over the jawbones and gill membranes pays off. Cameron and his artists have so lovingly imagined the moon of Pandora that every shot of the film contains new wonders. You can get lost in this world, and if I remember correctly, at the time, a lot of people did. No joke: there have been reports of people suffering from depression after leaving the film because Pandora was too real, too attractive, too beautiful. A term for it started to stick: Post-Avatar Depressive syndrome.

Cameron’s special power has always been his ability to blend tech-heavy macho swagger with a kind of seriousness that would be cheesy in lesser hands; I once called him a flower child who is fluent in badass. He peoples his movies with believable tough guys who talk like they know what they’re doing and wield their guns like they’re supposed to. There’s no pretension or condescension with such characters, even when they’re cartoonish villains, as they are in Avatar. Or even when they’re comical: think back to Bill Paxton’s fierce Hudson in Aliens, whose mix of brawny bravado and creepy cat-like moans is one of the film’s most memorable bits; in some ways, he’s the film’s most relevant character. You can tell Cameron loves these guys on a fundamental level. He did, after all, co-write Rambo: First Blood Part II.

But his heart is with the romantics and the dreamers. Machismo tempers and authenticates sentiment, and vice versa. the abyss is a cool maritime action movie that ends up being about a divorced couple who reconcile. Titanic is a painfully heartfelt teenage romance that plays out against a disaster ruthlessly recreated with the precision of an engineer. And Avatar is a film about a gruff, capable growler who learns to commune with nature and falls in love with a Na’vi princess. (It’s also, let’s not forget, a pretty blunt allegory of the US invasion of Iraq, with throwbacks to Bush-era rhetoric like “shock and awe” and the wicked statement that “Our only security is in a pre-emptive attack. We will fight terror with terror. But that was actually normal for big action movies in those days. See also: George Lucas’s star wars prequels, which were even more politically pointed.)

The general premise of the image isn’t new, as everyone and their mom reminded us. The director himself referenced Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars novels while doing it, and the conceit of the soldier who “goes native” is now its own subgenre, found in everything from Lawrence of Arabia at dance with wolves. And well, let’s not forget that the film seems to borrow from Terrence Malick The new Worldalso, without forgetting FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Avatar can be derived, but it is not sincere. Cameron clearly feels every beat of the story with his viewer. It introduces us to Pandora through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), first as a spooky and terrifying place, then as a land of unimaginable wonder and pleasure.

There’s nothing pro forma about Jake falling in love with Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri. Cameron is a bit in love with her himself. As our heroes ride their banshees at breakneck speed over a cliff, we can feel Cameron viscerally living through his creation. It’s every nerd’s dream: to find a handsome companion, preferably with fangs, with whom you can race your magical flying dragons in a distant wonderland. It’s so clear that Cameron wants the world of bioluminescent veins and mystical Na’vi spirits to be true. He wants this to be true so badly that he’s created a whole science for it. His aforementioned almost parodic attention to detail isn’t just the obsessive rantings of a billion-dollar Hollywood kingpin, it’s that of someone who’s flipped the arty exchange typical of cinema, in which artists create worlds for audiences to get lost in. In Cameron’s case, one suspects that the more real it is for us, the more real it will be for him.

So Jake Sully’s protagonist – the soldier torn between duty and the seductive wonders of a mystical world – also feels very personal to Cameron. Not just in the tension between the badass who becomes a hippie crusader, but also in the idea of ​​the dreamer who must learn to let go of what he once believed to be the real world. While most movies would see their heroes eventually come to terms with reality, Avatar again goes in the opposite direction. He urges us to leave it all behind us. It becomes an allegory for Cameron’s own inability to let go. And it’s clear he still hasn’t. He would work on four sequels. Long may he dream.

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