Avatar is about to be dethroned. At some point, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will probably unseat James Cameron’s extraterrestrial epic as the movie with the highest (unadjusted) box office of all time. So this is a good time to remind you that Avatar is actually quite a decent movie.
It’s kind of bizarre that anybody even needs to be reminded that Avatar is a good movie. It’s still one of the most successful movies ever, and it’s had a huge influence on film-making in the past five years. It had largely positive reviews, including a lot of raves. People all over the world were dressing up as the Na’vi, those blue catlike aliens, and this film’s story of resistance against corporate oppressors became a massive symbol.
But it feels as though there’s been something of an Avatar backlash in the last five years. Certainly, among the readers of io9 and science fiction fans generally, this film’s reputation has sunk. Even as so many people were insisting in early 2010 that this was the greatest movie ever and a revolution in film-making, there’s now a corresponding overreaction in the other direction.
My guess is that when we start seeing trailers and cool art for the three sequels that Cameron is currently working on, a lot of people will remember that they liked Avatar all along. But for now, there’s a bit of an Avatar hate-fest on the internet, and among regular movie-goers, it seems to have dropped off the radar.
And there are definitely a few problems with Avatar. We were probably the first to point out that it’s very much a “white savior” fantasy. And it’s certainly no secret that Avatar (much like the original Star Wars) steals liberally from lots of other sources. (James Cameron admitted his movie was Dances With Wolves in space before it even came out.) As my original review points out, the film gets less convincing the more we explore the native culture.
But none of those things are enough to stop Avatar from being a decent action movie, and a cracking good story of encountering an alien culture.
I’ve seen Avatar a few times, on the big screen and on DVD, and what really stands out about it is how well-constructed it is as a film. For all the lack of originality in the film’s story about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) infiltrating the indigenous Na’vi tribe only to change sides, Cameron handles every step of this journey perfectly, giving Jake a clear character arc and making sure we sympathize with his transformation.
And the major action beats of the story, from arriving at another planet to learning to live inside another body to traveling into the jungle, are all thrilling as well. This is a movie that’s jam-packed with military hardware, alien dragons, cool fight scenes, and monsters. And it all culminates in a pretty insane all-out battle between dragons and futuristic airplanes, with Jake Sully flying on the huge red mega-dragon that he somehow tamed all on his own.
I basically can’t find it in my heart to dislike a movie that has lots of dragons wrecking shit. I’m sorry. I feel like Avatar gets a huge stack of points just for giving us the dragon-on-aircraft smackdowns that we wanted from D-War and Reign of Fire.
Plus as cheesy and unconvincing as some of the stuff with the Na’vi is, Cameron’s obsessive world-building really pays off in Avatar. He’s so clearly thought through every minor detail of everything from the exact workings of all the human hardware to every speck and sprout of the alien ecosystem, and this leads to a universe that feels like a rich backdrop.
Edited to add: And little details of Jake’s journey, like the way his pristine vat-grown alien body has to get calluses on the soles of his feet so that he can run and climb the way a Na’vi warrior should, are painstakingly detailed.
And one of the great joys of rewatching Avatar is seeing Sigourney Weaver as a heroic scientist whose explanations of the world are suffused with a curiosity and wonder that feel genuine.
(And yes, the strong world-building is more than enough to make you overlook the film’s jokey name for its McGuffin, the substance known as Unobtanium.)
Also, as heavy-handed as this film is in its discussion of environmental issues, it deserves some credit for using its huge platform to make people think about unsustainable systems. Just the fact that James Cameron was able to get people to invest emotionally in a movie that’s basically about destroying the rainforest is kind of a win—and the central metaphor, in which the planet’s living creatures are connected via some kind of hidden network, is a neat way of thinking about the interconnectedness of every living thing on our own world.
In a lot of ways, Avatar represents the highest achievement of a style of film-making that has mostly failed since it came out. It’s the film that reintroduced audiences to 3D glasses, and remains one of a tiny handful of movies to use 3D effectively in the past several years. It’s jam-packed with greenscreen and motion-capture, and manages not to feel as disposable and fluffy as most greenscreen epics. In some ways, I think the slow downgrade of Avatar’s reputation is in large part due to people rewatching it on DVD, where it doesn’t have nearly as much power as it did on the big screen in 3D. When you actually see it in its original format, Avatar packs an incredible visual whallop, and it’s so colorful and intense that it still looks unique, after all this time.
And like I wrote in my original review, the film is built around a fascinating paradox: Jake Sully can’t connect to nature until he becomes a totally artificial life form. The film itself is a parable about rejecting technology, made with technology so advanced, Cameron had to help invent it. That’s a pretty fascinating set of contradictions, and at its most interesting moments, the film tries to wrestle with them. It’s a message movie that has a certain amount of ambiguity baked into it, which actually makes it a lot more interesting to rewatch.
I’m never going to claim that Avatar is a masterpiece, or that it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. But it is a really good movie, that sells a character arc really well and wraps it in some crazy-fun action. WITH DRAGONS.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.