James Cameron’s Avatar: five years on

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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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