Clay VS Classic: Avatar (2009)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

In 2009, James Cameron’s ambitious sci-fi epic finally saw its release after many years of preparation and fine-tuning and now, with even more time passing, that movie gets its long-awaited sequel.

Avatar was rewarded for its technical brilliance not only with Oscars, but with an honour that it obnoxiously refuses to be budged from, by retaining its title of being the highest grossing movie of all time. I contributed to that when I got to see it in the theatre back in ’09, but my relationship with it since has been no more than a fleeting memory and the occasional reminder of some of its better sequences which play out like a highlight reel in my mind. But before the wide release of its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, I felt a trip back to the world of Pandora was truly needed.

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In Cameron’s well praised Terminator sequel (Terminator 2: Judgement Day) we saw man versus machine. This time they’re one and the same, and with depleting resources on Earth, a team of scientists and marines travel to the planet Pandora in hope to mine the valuable material they call unobtanium (oh boy) which will look to end the resourcing issues back home.

Our story follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). A paraplegic marine who earns his spot on the expedition in the wake of his brother’s death. Due to their shared DNA, Jake acts as a perfect host for his brother’s Avatar. Upon exploring the mythical and alluring world of Pandora, Jake gets swept up in its charm and even befriends a Pandoran native (known as the Na’vi) Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

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As I’m left writing this review, I find myself understanding why it took me so long to revisit, and why only certain moments stuck out in my mind. Avatar, despite being visually eye-catching, is a fairly standard affair for the sci-fi genre. The story offers little more than your cliched and highly predictable plotting. Earth is in a state of despair, a colonial war breaks out between humans and the inhabitants of the invaded world, and allegiances and moral integrities are left to question for some. But even with this structure, I still failed to remember most of it.

This isn’t a problem I had solely with its story though, but something that also dooms its character development. The clash of marine and scientist, jarhead versus scientific jargon, is a concept that we’ve seen time and time again. Even Cameron’s Alien sequel (Aliens) also dealt with that conflict. Jake Sully however, is no Ellen Ripley.

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Despite being given some interesting and challenging characteristics, Jake is a rather dull and tepid lead protagonist. It’s only when he’s in the body of his avatar does he resemble any sort of likeness or genuine resources to carry the movie. Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez suffer much the same fate with the unsatisfactory script, with Stephen Lang’s fun turn as the hardened, grizzled war vet Colonel Miles Quaritch being a clear stand out.

I was hoping to get more out of this upon second viewing, and hoping that the time past between my first and second visit to Pandora will allow me to see it through fresh perspective. But my response was much the same as it was when I first saw it in 3D at the age of 16. The potential here is huge. Very few can achieve what Cameron has when it comes to what a big blockbuster can and should be, but Avatar just feels like wasted opportunity. It certainly has its fans, as still sits atop the mountain of cinema grossing galore, but I’m not one of them.

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I’m hoping its sequel, The Way of Water, utilises its world building, stunning visual effects and provide us with a more unique story, and create characters that have been given more time and care. If Cameron can do that, then we could see a new record breaker.

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