James Cameron's Avatar: five years on

Feature Ryan Lambie 30 Apr 2014 - 06:27

Five years after James Cameron's Avatar appeared in cinemas, we look back at its hype, its critical backlash, and how it holds up today...

Before 1960, director Michael Powell was one of the UK’s most respected directors, with a string of acclaimed films to his name, among them A Matter Of Life Or Death, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Then Powell made Peeping Tom, and the critical backlash ruined him.

An intimate character study of a serial killer made at a time when such things were entirely out of the ordinary in British cinema, Peeping Tom was savaged by UK film critics, and it took a full decade for Powell’s film to be reappraised; the likes of Martin Scorsese and Robert Ebert championed Peeping Tom, but their admiration arrived entirely too late to save Powell’s filmmaking career, which was never the same after 1960.

Cinema history is littered with films like Peeping Tom: pieces of work initially dismissed or treated with outright disdain, but later admired by a growing coterie of movie lovers. But can’t the reverse also happen? Can’t a film come out to a warm critical reception and record-breaking box office numbers, but then suffer something of a backlash afterwards? To a certain degree, this is exactly what happened to James Cameron’s Avatar.

For many years, the only thing most film geeks knew about Avatar was that it was a science fiction film, and that it would cost a lot of money to make. James Cameron was already talking about Avatar in interviews back in 1996, before the release of Titanic. But dark clouds were forming around Cameron’s epic drama set aboard the infamously doomed ocean liner. There was talk of a spiralling budget and an imminent box office disaster.

As it turned out, the soothsayers of Hollywood were wrong: Titanic was stratospherically successful, so much so that it managed to make its eye-watering $200m budget ten times over, and win an entire cabinet full of Oscars in the process. Cameron, already a respected figure in Hollywood, was now a force to be reckoned with.

The director’s success on Titanic gave him the creative latitude to bide his time on Avatar as few filmmakers had been allowed before. Where directors would have been hectored by their studios to get a film finished and in cinemas, Cameron spent years, off and on, working with CGI experts at effects studio Digital Domain on a proof-of-concept video. Avatar was originally pencilled in for a release in the late 90s; the proof-of-concept video didn’t emerge until 2005, and its creation cost 20th Century Fox a reported $10m. 

Fox was clearly impressed by what it saw, however, because Avatar went into production the following year - despite some misgivings of a repeat of Titanic’s cost overruns. For the next few years, Cameron worked in secrecy. There was talk of state-of-the-art camera systems and groundbreaking motion-capture and CGI, but precious little else.

It’s understandable, then, that a considerable amount of interest surrounded the release of the first trailer in 2009. Science fiction fans wanted to see what the director of The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and T2 could do with 21st century technology, and Cameron himself fanned the flames of speculation.

In the midst of all this anticipation, there were mixed opinions over Avatar’s chances at the box office. Like Titanic over a decade earlier, Avatar’s huge budget led some to suspect that it would be a costly flop. Others predicted that it could do huge business, with the lure of its 3D visuals - still a novelty five years ago - luring in mass audiences.

As it turned out, it was the latter argument that proved to be correct. Like Titanic, Avatar emerged as a costly gamble that more than paid off; against an estimated $237m budget, it made more than $2.7bn at the box office, making it the highest grossing film of all time. Notices were strong, too, with the UK’s Empire giving it five stars, Roger Ebert giving it four stars out of four, and even its less positive reviews praising its technical achievements if not the originality of its storytelling. 

Avatar went on to receive nine Oscar nominations and three wins - an unusual feat for a science fiction film - and continued to break records on its home release. But in the wake of Avatar’s phenomenal buzz, the film began to experience something of a backlash. As early as December 2009, the Daily Beast was reporting on an Ain’t It Cool screening where James Cameron fans were emerging with talk of “Dances With Wolves in space” and “cliches”.

“Anyone who’s seen a James Cameron movie knows what to expect," said Devin Faracci, then writing for Chud.com, “[the] sort of broad, extremely obvious, paper-thin characters who speak in ridiculous dialogue, terrific action, stunning visuals, and not a whole hell of a lot else. There was nothing for me to grab onto emotionally in the whole picture.”

Other writers and internet commenters chimed in with similar sentiments. Comparisons to the animated eco-fable Ferngully were not uncommon. Forbes magazine described the film's alien race, the Na'vi, as "perhaps the most sanctimonious and boring humanoids ever portrayed on film." Red Letter Media made a two-part YouTube film exploring Avatar’s weaknesses. The split between the early, glowing critical reviews and this vociferous response on the web was sudden and pronounced.

The problem, perhaps, was that Avatar fell victim to its own pre-release hype. Marketed and described as the “must-see” film of winter 2009, it had earned an almost mythical status before anyone had even laid eyes on it. Much was made of Avatar's CGI and 3D, yet beneath all the cutting-edge graphics lay an old-fashioned, perhaps even quaint pulp fantasy straight out of the pages of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. 

The swooning romance between earthling hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and alien princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) is akin to Burroughs' A Princess Of Mars, while Sully's loin-cloth jungle adventures can be traced back to the same author's best-selling Tarzan books. But while Avatar's love scenes and thinly-veiled allusions to real-world wars and environmental issues feel syrupy and often naive - despite his success with Titanic, we'd argue that romantic drama isn't exactly Cameron's strongest suit - the film succeeds spectacularly in terms of action and sheer spectacle.

For it's in the action scenes, where the mechanised forces led by the fearsome Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, who deserved some sort of award for the angriest performance of 2009) clashed with the Na'vi, that Avatar really comes to life. It's here that the director of Aliens and the Terminator movies displays his flair for pacing and technique. The interminable scenes of doe-eyed love, iffy ethnicity and hunting and riding and flying are replaced by an extended battle sequence in the final act, and Cameron gives it a satisfying sense of weight and energy.

Five years on, and the media hoopla surrounding Avatar has long since died down. With the greater gap of time, it's easier to appreciate Cameron's fantasy juggernaut for what it is: neither a masterpiece nor the overblown failure its most vocal detractors suggested, but a flawed yet technically ambitious pulp adventure. 

That Avatar suffered a brief yet surprisingly intense internet backlash in 2009 and early 2010 was merely a side-effect of its huge popularity, of course. Had Avatar been a low-budget sci-fi film exploring the same themes, it almost certainly wouldn't have generated the dozens of opinion pieces which praised its environmental themes and castigated it for its cultural imperialism. That Avatar generated so much debate is proof, perhaps, that there really was something worth arguing about beneath its glossy exterior.

The lingering question, though, is whether James Cameron's three Avatar sequels, which are being filmed back-to-back, will have the same impact as the first. Avatar arrived at a time when the technologies it brought to the screen were still new. Five years on, and 3D is no longer a novelty. When Avatar 2 finally emerges in 2016, it'll surely have to do what the original film did back in 2009: provoke the kind of pre-release interest that will leave audiences queuing around the block to see it.

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No actual significance... just randomly picked a year.

"It's a basic story telling technique, not something that dictates a story."

Nope, it's a plot device, it helps the plot move forward.

"But Ellen Page is not replaceable for Neo."

Sure she is, she is the young novice (Neo) that must ask questions of the old pro (Morphius) so that the audience understands the rules of the story so that it can move forward (plot device). I agree this plot point is shared by many films, hence why I'm not bothered by it.

"The Matrix is a far less personal story than Inception is."

Agreed, but as I've pointed out they share similar plot points.

"Having to retrieve something heavily guarded is the ground zero plot for a heist movie"

Exactly, another plot that the film copies. At a certain point I'd think you see the parallels between what I'm doing and what you've done with Avatar.

"Avatar is almost a direct cut and paste story from other films."

I don't agree, but since you've provided no evidence of such I can only assume. I don't remember any mining issues in DWW or PH, or a disabled protagonist that reclaims their lost ability, or a science mission trying to learn from the indigenous people, or space ships, etc… It shares a superficial plot with about every adventure romance story ever told. I suppose it's also ripping off Robin Hood and Romeo and Juliet?

"So please substitute any previous mention of the Bourne series with Looper. The arguments are still valid."

So at any point we can just pull the film referenced and say oops, that didn't work, substitute this one instead (never mind that I just proved your point). Looper also shares a lot of plot points with Terminator, which, brings us full circle back to Cameron. Nicely done.

I've watched a Final Fantasy cut-scene before, so yes I'd seen something exactly like it.

That's funny cause popular and critical opinion disagree with you. However, I can see the merit in your opinion out weighing the combined knowledge, expertise, and experience of the Academy …..

Ok, here I was thinking I was having a good spirited debate about what actually defines originality in a film. It's clear I've actually just broken the first rule of the internet, which is not to argue with someone because no amount of attempts will ever change someone's point of view. I'm sorry I appear to have annoyed you with my attempt at clearly explaining my opinions. I'll be on my way now.

I liked it a lot (apart from all the military hardware and violence: how to have your cake and eat it). But it was about ten years past catching its perfect moment. Now, environmentalists are more likely to be cast as villain-terrorists out to destroy Reaganomics (yes, please), and nobody can badmouth the military, who must be portrayed as noble heroes, no matter what they destroy. Maybe when the zeitgeist swings back towards Dr Strangelove/Gorillas in the Mist sensibilities, it will get a less hostile reception.

Not annoyed and it wasn't my intention to disrespect. Didn't have much time to make my response and my rush may have come off as derogatory. I totally get where you are coming from and I don't have a problem with any of the derivative elements that I have brought up in this thread. My problem is when a perfectly entertaining, big budget film is downgraded for painting in broad strokes and then called poor because of it. My argument is that 99% of big budget films paint in broad strokes, even the ones like Inception that are designed to look like they don't.

I was just responding to the fact that you presented an example (Bourne), I refuted it, and you ultimately agreed that it was a bad example. Instead of agreeing that maybe there was some sense in my perspective you just switched examples and said everything applies to this now instead. So we can launch into a similar debate about Looper. Or find middle ground in that there are probably more complicated big budget, action movies than Avatar out there, but they are probably not completely original.

Based on that statement I'd assume you've never played a Final Fantasy game in your life..as Avatar is nothing...NOTHING...like 'em. None of them. You also get a slap with the fail stick for missing the point about films vs games...and how you can't really compare either of 'em...it's like comparing a film vs a book vs a tv show...they're completely different media with their own positives and negatives relative to each other...

Agreed...but it's not the ones that are saying it's ok that I'm taking aim at...it's those that can't put together a constructive criticism other than "dances with smurfs" to point out it's lack of original plot...ironic...when you think that they stole that punchline from South Park...

Looking at Cameron's own films, both The Terminator and Aliens are way more original stories than Avatar. Every major plot point in Avatar feels old, to me.

Think you're missing the guys point. Just because Bourne and Bond are both spies, doesn't mean they are the same.

And Inception is similar to The Matrix in terms of it being a big budget scfi-fi action movie but is the same in none of the ways we are talking about - namely character development and storytelling. Those are the elements of Avatar which are most often criticised for being unoriginal.

Eat this!!

Totally agree. Most important things in any film are the characters. The characters in Avatar are crap.

Makes no sense.

Yeah but it's a dry heat!

I understand Will's point, I just disagree with it. If you read the entire thread you will understand why. I also never said Bourne and Bond are the same. I argued that one is derivative of the other.

Inception is similar to The Matrix by the superficial standard that you've presented, but as I've laid out above there are many more similarities. DeCaprio's character looses a loved one, can't get over it, then through adversity finds the strength to over come it. I don't think that's original character development (look to Ben Stiller's development in Royal Tenebaums).

Also, I'm not arguing that Avatar is original, but rather that there are very few original, complexly plotted, big budget action films. So far there have been two examples presented that I think qualify, and are good examples. I think I have provided enough evidence to at least question their originality (IMO, refute their originality).

Fair points. I think we're agreed that for a writer to come up with completely original plot points and, particularly, character development arcs, is nigh on impossible nowadays.

I think where Avatar splits opinion on originality on this aspect is that a lot of people, when watching for the first time, felt the story was old and almost cliche, and a lot of people didn't. I definitely fall into the first category.
You rightly point out the similarities between Inception and The Matrix but when I watched both of those movies, at no point did I feel the story was unoriginal, whereas I did with Avatar. Clearly, you didn't feel the same.

Maybe it's because Avatar was, from a stylistic and superficial point of view, so groundbreaking and unlike anything we'd seen, that when other aspects lacked originality, they stood out more.

Plot feeling old could be a symptom of comparing films that emerged in the early days of the current Hollywood system to a film that emerged 30 years later. However, you might explore the Harlan Ellison connection to Terminator before calling it more original to anything. Aliens (while IMO the best movie ever made) is essentially Alien, plot point for plot point, only set in the action genre. I think both of those films are better than Avatar, but arguably less original.

Wilson!!!!!!!!!!!!

I want to watch you doing a poo...

1v1 in reel life ya sacred bich

Yes I do agree that originality creating totally original stories is hard. I think there is a lot of more original content being created, just not in the big budget, action movie arena.

I didn't really make the Avatar similarity connection until I heard people complaining about it. Inception however, I made the connection about half way through the first viewing. Not that it hindered my enjoyment of the film though.

Avatar bored the crap out of me. No mean feat. I enjoyed the Roger Dean homage/plagiarism quite a bit. The CG never gelled for me. The hero actually says "...your children and your children's children..." with a straight face. I have yet to struggle through a repeat viewing without eventually getting up and dusting the furniture or something. It's not specifically a bad film but it always struck me as more of a ride than a story. Not enough for a three hour, 3D commitment for me. I enjoyed Weaver.

I would agree with your comment if you replaced the word "Avatar" with "The Hobbit Trilogy."

We're past The Lord of the ring mentality where death and destruction and smashing down everything weaker than you was popular in the early 2000s.

True originality just can't be achieved as every idea under the sun has been done, and i'm sure every film, book, painting etc has taken inspiration from other films, books, paintings etc. I think the story in Avatar is good and it fits the film perfectly. It may not be a masterpiece but i think it has what a lot of big blockbusters are missing now a days: spectacle, wonder and a genuine want to entertain. I can't wait to see what's in store for the next three.

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