James Cameron began developing the stories of his Avatar movies sometime in the early to mid-1990s. The idea was always to use computer effects to realize his vision but at the time when he developed the story of the first Avatar, computer effects were not at the level he felt would suffice. He would hone the technology and shoot documentaries in the meantime.
When Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out, the mocap technology used to realize Gollum inspired Cameron. It was time for him to finally make Avatar. Avatar has since broken box office records and even though it didn’t stick around in the public’s conscience like James Cameron’s other hits, he did go on to make a pretty good sequel in 2022.
With the sequel out and future sequels delayed, we take a look back at the one that started it all. Does it hold up and how is the 4K image quality? Find out in this Avatar (2009) review!
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment, TSG Entertainment II
Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Director: James Cameron
Release Date: December 18, 2009
By now, everyone knows the story of Avatar and it isn’t because it’s talked about. It is because it’s a story that has been done to death. Most people will point at films like Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, Quigly Down Undergold Fern Gully and say how Avatar is a rip-off of those but with smurfs.
The story of a white savior to a clan of savages is older than most people realize. The pulpy origins of Avatar can be found in the likes of the John Carter novels. Plot points surrounding Avatar‘s protagonist remote controlling a blue alien body were lifted from call me joe and the mech suits are evocative of the works of Robert Heinlein.
Most of Avatar‘s concepts seemingly existed in the public consciousness already. Even the visual style of the Pandora landscape and colorful flora and fauna are cribbed from Roger Dean’s surreal and lurid illustrations. yew Avatar failed to make a long-term impression on pop culture, it’s because it leaned on the works of others too heavily for inspiration, which makes it come off as generic.
At its core, Avatar is a straightforward love story between two tribes with some themes of nature versus industry, with some Gaia theory spiritualism. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully and he struggles to maintain an American accent throughout. Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri, a Na’vi archer who teaches Jake her tribe’s ways and how to connect with Eywa, which is Pandora’s sentient guiding will.
Jake’s commanding officer is Colonel Quartich, who is played by Stephen Lang. The Colonel is easily the most enjoyable character in Avatar, just like he was in the sequel. He is fearless, compassionate towards his men, and very pragmatic.
Regretfully, Avatar lacks the complexity of the sequel where the characters have more substance and are dealing with more personal issues. All characters are basic and broad archetypes and don’t get much development. It doesn’t help that the story is very predictable and every scene telegraphs itself so the audience can see what is going to happen a mile away.
At almost three hours long, viewers will feel the length of this film because of its predictable story. There are a lot of scenes that will feel tedious because of the obvious direction of the plot. When everything from the story to the characters is so basic, it becomes easy to disengage from the drama and not care about anything in the film.
Thankfully, the action and spectacle in Avatar are some of the best money could buy. If there was anything that would hold the viewer’s attention, it would be Cameron’s panache for sweeping heroics and intense jeopardy.
The tedious sentimentality and forced love story between Jake and Neytiri are worth it for some of the awesome battles with mechs and some heavy-duty firepower.
The way action scenes are shot is in top form. Camerawork flows smoothly and sweeps; often tracking a character through the dense jungles of Pandora. Flora comes in from the foreground in shots where Jake is dashing through the treetops; justifying the completely digital setting for cinematography that would be otherwise impossible.
The only thing that can distract from Cameron’s action stamp is his penchant for corny dialogue and clumsy exposition. There is some real groan-inducing dialogue where a character plainly explains the plot to the audience. He may as well look into the camera and ask the viewers, “Did you get that?”.
Other examples of questionable writing and direction are the moments when the Colonel makes a dated reference to the time when George W. Bush said “shock and awe campaign”. Avatar 2 doesn’t make any modern-day references and it is a better film for it.
By far the worst aspect of the story and writing is the utterly lazy deus ex machina ending. Avatar 2 does a lot of legwork to earn its big climax and the best the first movie can do is make vague references to Eywa making the wildlife act like an immune system.
The sequel doesn’t follow up on this because it was a stupid solution to save the heroes from the Colonel’s wrath.
When Avatar was originally made, it was shot in 2K digital which worked out very well for the first generation of HD video display. In 4K, Avatar shows that its effects have held up exceptionally. Details that were undetectable in 1080p are now razor-sharp. Small details like individual fine hairs or skin pores on Na’vi are apparent and seem tangible.
The colors are more vibrant and black levels are inkier, making the image quality pop. The extra clarity truly does enhance the experience since most of the film is set in a dense jungle with a lot of foliage. All that detail could have become noise but in 4K every minor detail makes it feel more realistic than ever.
Avatar 2’s effects and visuals had the benefit of time and improving technology, but it is hard to not be impressed by the technique in this first film. Sadly, James Horner passed away before he could score the sequel. His work on Avatar set a standard that is not easily met. Horner’s contributions truly elevated many scenes in the film due to his emotional melodies.
Sometimes there are moments in Avatar where there are hints of a subliminal narrative. Certain cues hint that maybe James Cameron does not fully believe the surface-level story of the film and there might be a hidden layer.
The fact that the story has anti-technology moralizing but also requires the protagonist to rely on technology to find his true love might raise an eyebrow. The hero of the story is also a race traitor and causes countless deaths on both sides, but no one says anything about it except for the Colonel. Maybe it’s genius or perhaps it’s sloppy writing.
Avatar is a watchable movie, but not one to get emotionally invested or stimulated. It runs too long for being a very simple and predictable story. It doesn’t help that the characters are basic. At the very least, it looks great and has impressive filmmaking technique.
Avatar was reviewed via video-on-demand purchase by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Avatar is now available via streaming on Vudu Fandango.