James Cameron has created some of the best action films ever put to screen and kickstarted one of the longest running franchises at the same time. After Titanic released to become the highest grossing film of all time, everyone wondered how he would top it. This brings us to his most epic film to date and the reigning champ for the highest all time grossing film, Avatar. And no, I do not mean The Last Airbender.
Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) is brought to an alien planet known as Pandora by scientists and a Marine Corps private army, led by Colonel Quatrich (played by Stephen Lang). The natives to Pandora are called the Na’vi and they are having a difficult time dealing with the colonization of human invaders, leading to human/Na’vi hybrids in order to safely travel the terrain and safely interact with the indigenous population. When Jake, in Avatar form, meets Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) his perspective begins to shift on who the true villains are. This begins an all-out war for the sanctity of the planet.
Okay before I go into all the positives this science fiction epic has to offer, let us address the elephant in the room…the story. The story has not particularly aged very well. Its story is derivative of the animated Disney film Pocahontas and Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves and it shows. Having a white protagonist become involved with native “savages” only to have him fall in love with the chief’s daughter and see that he and his fellow soldiers and scientists are in the wrong. Not only that, but it also involves having the native population stand a chance at fighting only AFTER the protagonist flips allegiances, effectively becoming a “white savior.”
Initially, James Cameron was supposed to start filming for Avatar back in the late 1990s, after Titanic wrapped up, but he put those plans on hold in order to create the necessary technology to help give us the world he meticulously envisioned. Over the next decade, he revolutionized motion capture technology that would make Andy Serkis swoon, and enabled for phenomenal visual effects that are not only cleaner than any other technology at the time, but also feel incredibly real. Seeing it now, we realized that the film is using CGI, but at the time the line between visual and practical became so blurred that I had no idea that they acted all of this out in a soundstage warehouse with no practical sets even being made. Avatar rightfully deserved its Oscar win for Best Visual Effects.
Of course, these groundbreaking visuals led to some extremely memorable and insanely epic action sequences. Each sequence is memorable in their own right, such as the heartbreaking Massacre of Hometree as the score and brutal visuals convey the vicious event. But sequences like the aforementioned were just stepping stones to the incredibly epic and climatic Battle for Pandora. We witness the Na’vi and the entire planet’s ecosystem come to defeat the human threat. This sequence plays out as a 3 act film on its own, making incredible use of its environment and James Cameron’s vivid imagination.
When it came time to cast the characters for Avatar, James Cameron opted for more unknown actors, with Sigourney Weaver being the only recognizable face among his extensive cast. While Weaver’s sassy, no nonsense Dr. Grace is a memorable and hilarious supporting player, Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington rule the screen as two people from different worlds. Worthington brings both humanity and naivety to our fish out of water, Jake Sully. Saldana brings a toughness and ferocity she would later bring to roles like Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and Cataleya in Columbiana. But arguably the best performance has to come from the grizzled and intimidating Quatrich played to perfection by Stephen Lang. Quatrich is not only the most complex character, his relentless persistence and ruthlessness make him one to fear, even when on another planet.
Even though the overall story of Avatar has not aged well, it is still a phenomenal work of science fiction. I mean the visuals alone make this worth watching, but the out-of-the-park performances by the entire cast really keep you on the edge of your seat. Which is one of the reasons why Avatar effectively became the highest grossing film of all time, easily surpassing Titanic. It was later dethroned by Avengers Endgame, but quickly re-established its box office dominance after a short re-release. That is how impactful Avatar has become, and hopefully its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, was worth the long wait.