Escape Velocity

A curated Collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Media

Reviewed by:

In this visual spectacle that launched the era of 3D in cinema’s, Jake Sully, a disabled marine, travels to the distant moon of Pandora to join a team of scientist attached to a corporate mining operation. He will replace his twin brother in the avatar-programme, whose members transfer their consciousness to human-alien hybrid clones to communicate with the local population. When he finds out that the humans care only for their bottom line and nothing for Pandora’s wildlife or native inhabitants, Jake is faced with a choice.

Full disclosure: I watched this movie once when it came out, and then maybe an hour last week.

I struggle to find the right way to write this review. Everything that could be said about Avatar has been said a thousand times over, so let me start by telling you this: Avatar is a fun film you’ll enjoy watching. Don’t expect it to blow your mind and you’ll be fine. Aside from the black-and-white plot, most of the problems this movie suffers from have to do with its age.

Avatar is basically a reskinned Pocahontas. In space. As a concept, I think that’s definitely fine – if a little contrived. It shows us a futuristic society in which humanity has learned absolutely nothing from its past and happily chooses to colonise other planets to harvest their resources. It feels a little bit unnuanced but let’s be honest: that’s exactly what humanity would do and you know it. You won’t be walking away from this movie with any kind of new perspective, but you’ll have enjoyed yourself. The characters aren’t particularly interesting but the acting is fine.

The CGI aged quite well, even though most of the movie looks like a video game, which is honestly pretty cool (just think how much more realistic video game graphics have become – kinda rad). As long as you remember how old the movie is and how impressive the CGI was for the time, you will likely be able to look past this. Even 13 years later, most of the graphics are beautiful and I’m sure would have looked lovely in IMAX 3D.

Why should you watch Avatar? Because it’s famous. No really, that’s it. If you were to ask me the most important reason to watch this film it’s just so you can be part of the cultural narrative. Or maybe because you want to be prepared for James Cameron’s 4 sequels to hit theatres.

I remember watching Avatar in the cinema back in 2009, and being blown away by the visual effects, and the 3D, and the visual design of the world and the human technology. Unfortunately, Avatar kicked off the era of unnecessary 3D in cinemas (since Avatar, I’ve found that it takes about two minutes for my mind to adjust, afterwards, I don’t even notice), and equally unfortunately, though it is still entertaining, the 2020s home screen experience is not the same as the 2009 cinema experience.

Avatar’s visual design is still stunning. The human mech suits, aircraft and base are a perfect mix of sci-fi and modern military, with great attention lavished onto little details like warning stickers or printed instructions. The real eye catcher, however, is the world, Pandora, and Pandora’s wildlife. Ranging from floating mountains and trees taller than skyscrapers to six-legged panthers and pterosaurs with butterfly wings, the art department poured their hearts out on the design of the world. Even though the CGI has started to age (especially in a couple of campfire-lit scenes), most of it still looks amazing – though it does look like watching a video game or animated feature more than a live action blockbuster at times. It doesn’t quite live up to the 2009 cinema magic, but it still works.

Unfortunately, because it works a bit less well than it did in 2009 in cinema, the viewer is less distracted by the visuals and pays just a little more attention to the story – or rather, the lack thereof. The story is basic – predictable – but functional. Avatar does nothing that you won’t expect it to do. It doesn’t miss any beats you’re expecting to see. At times though, the story is so functional that you can almost see the gears moving underneath the script as you’re watching.

Clearly, the story is not why you’re watching so Avatar deserves some leeway here. But even to someone like me, who can usually stomach a lot of action, the focus on the fighting and lengthy combat scenes can be a bit much. We watched Avatar because we were planning on seeing Avatar II: The Way of Water in cinema, and at some point just before the climax (or so we thought) we paused for a sanitary break and additional snacks – only to find out that there were still 45 more minutes of non-stop violence ahead (which ended up boring Robin to sleep – hence the absence of her review here).

Still, it’s not just the visual team that makes Avatar. The script itself may be basic, but some of the worldbuilding – the concepts – are actually pretty cool. The avatars themselves, creatures cloned from mixed human and alien DNA for humans to ‘drive’, are perhaps the most innovative, and the concept is used well in the plot. Another is the bioelectric communication between different creatures on Pandora, and the implications of the trees forming a neural network. On the other hand, some of the choices in worldbuilding are questionable – the anti-colonialist message of the story is well received, but the reliance on the ‘noble savage’ and ‘white saviour’ tropes are painful, as is the Earth-indigenous-coding of the Na’vi. This reliance on familiar plotlines and visual markers is, in my opinion, lazy. And why would you choose to design female aliens with breasts, only to then constantly contrive to cover them back up? Here, I think Avatar shows its true colours: there was probably a team with creative ideas, that was reeled in for mass market appeal.

So, know what you‘re in for: Avatar focusses on visuals and non-stop action. There is some neat worldbuilding, but the creative is submerged in a pool of the familiar. Story, characters, motivations – all as barebones as possible without breaking the immersion. It is testament to how incredibly good the visual design of this movie is that I’m still giving it three stars with that kind of summary.

Share this post: