This is retrospective discussing the production, influence and overall quality of Avatar (2009). With Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) now released, it’s the right time to take a look back at how we got here, examining the highs and lows of the seminal classic.
Ever since he emerged onto the scene with The Terminator (1984), James Cameron has delivered one groundbreaking hit after another. This is particularly impressive when we remember that nearly every project was predicted to fail. With Aliens (1986), it was a considered fact that Cameron wouldn’t be able to deliver anything as good as Ridley Scott’s original. With Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), no one believed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable killing machine would work as a hero. Most famously, it was widely accepted that Titanic (1997) would be a disaster and bankrupt the studio. In every single case, Cameron came out on top, as Aliens became an instant classic, Terminator 2 became a fan favourite, and Titanic became the biggest and most successful film of all time. With that in mind, why did people have doubts about Avatar’s (2009) groundbreaking success?
There are many films which were supposedly decades in the making, but rarely is that ever true. Avatar may be the one case where that statement is accurate, as James Cameron’s original pitch document was presented to studios right after Titanic’s release. Initially, Avatar was intended for a 1999 release, but computer graphics technology wasn’t even close to the level Cameron needed. For the film to truly succeed, Cameron needed to immerse the viewer in a fully realised natural environment: one which sadly couldn’t be achieved through traditional set design, matte paintings or costumes. Instead of just sitting and waiting, Cameron took an active role in advancing CGI and motion capture to an acceptable level of photorealism.
Creating convincing computer graphics would’ve been one thing, but there was a lot more to the production than just finessing the visuals. Cameron and his team spent years working with linguists developing a believable native language, as well as employing experts in many scientific fields to flesh out the alien world (which would eventually be named Pandora in the final script). The flora, fauna, terrain, animal life and alien culture (called Na’vi) were developed so intensely that entire textbooks could be written on each individual aspect. Even if the staggering amount of lore didn’t make it onto the screen, the level of detail could be easily felt, thus assisting in the film’s effective immersion.
As was to be expected, all this effort was time consuming and costly, resulting in many industry professionals (once again) predicting that Cameron’s massive gamble wouldn’t pay off. For the film to break even, it needed to exceed $1 billion dollars at the global box office, which only a small handful of films had ever done at the time. Analysts pointed to multiple factors in their estimation of the film’s predicted failure. This included the mammoth runtime, as many claimed viewers wouldn’t want to be stuck in a computer generated extravaganza for nearly three hours (especially one with no established fanbase). Additionally, the film was being predominantly screened in 3D, which had a very bad reputation amongst the masses. As far as box office predictions went, it seemed pretty clear that Avatar would fail.
The only thing the analysts forgot to factor in, was that Cameron had repeatedly beaten the odds in similar circumstances. Like Titanic before it, Avatar was an absolute smash, breaking nearly every record under the sun, and eventually became the first film to gross over $2 billion at the worldwide box office. Once it hit, people couldn’t get enough of Avatar, as audiences returned to the cinema for many repeated viewings. The immersive nature of the film was so effective that many fairly impressionable viewers sadly went into a deep depression, wishing they could live in the beautifully realised world of Pandora. With that kind of cultural ubiquity, industry analysts tried to figure out why viewers connected so strongly with Avatar.
This was a baffling question, as many professional critics noted the film’s narrative to be fairly derivative, simple and unoriginal. From that perspective, it seemed strange that Avatar was hitting so hard on an emotional level. After all, the rote story of a coloniser falling in love with a native people was one we’d seen hundreds of times, from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to Dances With Wolves (1990), to The Last Samurai (2004). By comparison, Avatar seemed like the least complex version of this well worn format. The film didn’t even receive any praise for its very obvious thematic layers, as even a child could pick up on the anti-military, pro-conservation messages. The irony is that the simplicity is precisely why Avatar struck a nerve with everyone on the planet.
Cameron has always understood that the best way to entertain, educate and emotionally move audiences is to make the story, themes and characters easily understandable by all. As far back as the original Terminator and Aliens, viewers could easily tell who’s who and what’s what with a single glance. While some claim this robs the characters, ideas and themes of subtlety, it actually reveals Cameron’s storytelling genius. If he wanted Avatar to be more narratively complex, he would’ve made it more narratively complex. Therefore, the film’s thematic simplicity isn’t a flaw, but rather a feature that makes it what it is. The basic character motivations, simple thematic points, and cliched story meant that audiences didn’t need to think too hard about it, and just allow the visual world building to take them for a spectacular ride. Once the viewer is happily on that ride, it’s easy to make them care about the story, despite how cliched or simple it was.
Ultimately, it’s no wonder Avatar became the biggest film of all time. Like Titanic before it, many have turned on the film, but stating that it’s just Dances With Wolves in space doesn’t make for very compelling criticism anymore. Avatar isn’t trying to hide its influences, and it’s hardly fair to downplay the film’s importance just because the story has been done before. Maybe with the long awaited sequel’s release, we will finally be able to reflect fairly on Avatar’s one of a kind impact.