Anghus Houvouras on James Cameron’s Avatar…
Avatar. The highest grossing movie of all time for a decade. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. It was a cinematic experience adored by critics and audiences showered in praise for its mind-blowing, bar-raising special effects that once again raised the bar for what is possible on the big screen. The world of Avatar is starting to enter the pop-culture collective consciousness again thanks to a new theme park attraction and the sequels finally coming to fruition. It seems like James Cameron isn’t done with the world of Pandora.
But does anyone really want a return trip?
Wasn’t Avatar kind of terrible? A derivative, painfully thin story bereft of originality with some painful, cringe-inducing dialogue? It makes sense that the world of Pandora would become a theme park attraction. That’s what Avatar was: a two-hour ride through Pandora. A beautifully staged world that was a marvel to look at. While it was a feast for your eyes it was a barb-wire wrapped q-tip to your ears. I could spend time talking about how much of Avatar felt cribbed from Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, FernGully, the writings of Poul Anderson, and the paintings of Roger Dean. But the unoriginal nature of the movie was even admitted to by James Cameron, so why bother beating a dead banshee?
I understood the zeitgeist around Avatar when it came out. Cameron did what he always does by finding a way to exponentially raise the bar in ways audiences haven’t experienced before. Whether it was redefining the action movie with Aliens, revolutionizing special effects with The Abyss and T2: Judgement Day. Unlike Cameron’s other game-changing efforts, the characters and story within this brave new world he created did little to make the overall experience better. In fact, I think you could argue the characters made it worse.
The entire cast of Avatar barely justify their existence with characters so poorly developed that it relies on tropes and cliché to fill in the gaps. The characters don’t so much make any kind of journey but merely hang around waiting for their arcs to be completed. And there’s not a single character or actor who manages to strongly engage the audience. They are as much props as the giant mechanical battle suits or flying monsters that populate Pandora.
Maybe there’s an alternate Earth where in 2017 Avatar is still something people care about, but not this one. I mean, ask yourself: what was Avatar’s contribution to pop culture? Do you see people dressing up like characters from Avatar as Comic Con? Is there an Avatar Extended Universe that constantly churns out books, comics, and video games for rabid Avatar fans? Are there people lining up for another three, four, six or whatever number of proposed sequels James Cameron keeps talking about?
When you’ve made the biggest box office hit of all time, sequels are to be expected. Every single Transformers movie has been a miserable experience, but they keep making a billion dollars. Cameron’s notoriously prolonged producing process may delay or inhibit the number of Avatar sequels audiences get, but I keep wondering if there’s anyone out there still excited about returning to Pandora.
I’m not, simply because the first one was such a joyless experience. A cotton candy like confection of gorgeous visuals with a labored, meandering, heavy-handed story. Now, seven years later, can we finally admit that in spite of the record-breaking box office, in spite of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, well outside the mania that surrounded the film during its release, that Avatar was kind of terrible?
A version of this article was originally posted in June 2017.