Photo: ‘Avatar’/20th Century Fox
There are very few directors whose contributions to Cinema changed the very fabric of Hollywood’s DNA, and there are very few directors who managed to do so as many times as James Cameron. From ‘The Terminator’ being an influence to sci-fi action films several decades after its release, to ‘Titanic’ leaving its own permanent signature on pop culture that’ll probably outlive time itself, Cameron’s mark on, not only Hollywood, but the world, is undeniable and transcendent. In 2009, Cameron took his contributions a little further with ‘Avatar’, not only changing how movies are made but changing the way that they’re viewed.
‘Avatar’ was by no means an ordinary film, as it required the use of state of the art, innovative and powerful technology to do Cameron’s vision justice on the big screen since common film techniques wouldn’t have been enough to capture the ‘Aliens’ director’s imagination in all of its operatic glory. As big of a splash as it made when it first debuted, ‘Avatar’ has spent the better part of a decade retreating back into the water, quietly making moves while being spotted every now and then like a creature of myth people eagerly wait to resurface again. With ‘Avatar 2’ a year and some change away, which feels like it’s right around the corner relative to how long this sequel has taken to be released, it’s important to take another long gander at the movie that defied expectations and shook the planet to its core. Because ‘Avatar’ is a film that’s so gorgeous both inside and out that we still can’t help but admire and study its beauty twelve years later.
‘Avatar’ Stands On Its Own
If you look at the list for the world’s top ten highest-grossing films, the vast majority of movies knighted with that honor are either sequels or remakes. When you study the rare films that have managed to cross the coveted and precious $2 billion mark, three of those movies are based on franchises that have spent a decade or more grooming and cultivating a passionate fan-base that almost rival a religion’s fanaticism. But there are two films in that $2 billion club that didn’t have decades’ worth of hype and adulation to propel its relentless momentum, and incidentally, both of those enigmas are the brainchildren of James Cameron. ‘Titanic’ is one of them, and of course ‘Avatar’ sits on its throne as the highest-grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation.
What made this accomplishment even more impressive was the cloud of doubt hovering over the movie since it leaped out of Cameron’s private realm of ideas only to collide with other people’s realities. There was a serious concern that the film wasn’t going to meet its own expectations, and was bound to be a monumental disappointment on an unprecedented scale. Articles like Avatar: Might Be The Longest, Biggest Flop Ever or Is Avatar Destined To Flop? Fueled skepticism regarding Avatar’s prospects. As ‘Avatar’s release date grew closer and closer, the voices of skeptics were becoming as loud as the cheers and applause for the film’s prophetic debut. In hindsight, it’s kind of easy to see why a good chunk of the world expected ‘Avatar’ to flop despite Cameron’s brand recognition.
One of the film’s biggest selling points, its technology, was something that had to have been experienced firsthand. Simply hearing about Avatar’s innovative 3-D effects from all the critics and news outlets telling you what to watch might not have been enough of a hook to reel audiences’ attention in. Also, a movie that revolved around 12-foot talking blue cat people defending their homeworld from the American colonizers of the future was a wild concept whose marketability had remained unproven up until its release. When you combine all of the uncertainty surrounding the film with its reportedly gargantuan $300 million budget, it seemed like a film that had more scenarios of it failing than prevailing.
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It’s a success story that’s the exact opposite of ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Star Wars’, both franchises that at one point threatened Avatar’s reign over the box office. Both franchises had built up goodwill with audiences, featuring characters that audiences had grown up with that practically raised a new generation of fans. Their legacies were built out of decades’ of material, from movies and comic books, to TV shows and video games, which all kept them near and dear to our hearts. ‘Avatar’ had nothing but Cameron’s passion sustaining its existence, and still managed to come out on top. It’s an impressive feat that truly showcases the film’s power, and might even be foreshadowing for the future success of its sequels.
Technology Ahead Of Its Time
Similar to ‘Titanic’, part of the film’s success relied on it being such a visual spectacle. As many know, Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ used 3-D in a way that it hadn’t been used before, pushing the application to its limits to truly immerse the moviegoer in Pandora’s world until they felt like they were a part of it. This was because Cameron’s commitment and faith in the film were so unwavering that he used technology specifically designed for the making of ‘Avatar’ to ensure the movie would be brought to life in its purest form.
These included the Stereoscopic 3D Fusion Camera System, which acted as a sort of link or merger between Avatar’s live-action scenes and their computer-generated counterparts. Simulcam, also created for ‘Avatar’, allowed motion capture results to be used in real-time through the fusion of a real and virtual camera. Simulcam has since been used by films such as ‘Real Steele’, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’, and ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ to help enhance motion capture results. By pushing the boundaries of technology, Cameron also enhanced our five senses, making even the smallest detail of Pandora and the Na’vi come to life with breathtaking and startling realism.
Simple Yet Effective Storytelling
At its core, ‘Avatar’ is an alien invasion movie with human beings as the alien invaders. Taking place in the year 2154, planet Earth as we know it is dangerously close to being uninhabitable in the distant future. Humans have used up most of the Earth’s natural resources, prompting Earth’s Resources Development Administration to mine valuable resources from a moon called Pandora that can help stave off Earth’s demise. Problem is, Pandora is already occupied by a species called the Na’vi that’s very protective of their environment. Not only that, but Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to human beings. To bypass Pandora’s incompatible atmosphere, members of the RDA operate ‘Avatars’. These ‘Avatars’ are biologically engineered Na’vi bodies that are paired with compatible human hosts down to the conscious level, allowing RDA members to explore Pandora without its devastating effects.
The conflict of the story comes when one of the ‘Avatar’ pilots, Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, finds himself falling in love with Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana, who’s part of a clan of native Na’vi that Sully is tasked to infiltrate and investigate. Already, the story is bursting with creativity that draws inspiration from a myriad of sci-fi films and concepts that have all helped mold Pandora’s thriving world. But despite the amount of thought and creativity put into ‘Avatar’, there’s still a lot of criticism aimed at the overall simplicity of the movie’s main story. Many have called it ‘Dances With Wolves’ in space, and have highlighted the similarities between ‘Avatar’ and Disney’s ‘Pocahontas’. The comparisons are inevitable and have some merit to them. After all, both movies feature two characters from different tribes, or species in Avatar’s case, coming together and forming a bond that’s condemned by each side’s opposing factions. Avatar’s premise may seem familiar, but that’s the case with most works of fiction.
Even movies that have the most original ideas have similar plot threads and story beats to prior films and novels if you trace back long enough. But I would go so far as to say that it’s because Avatar’s story is so familiar that it became such an astronomical hit for its time. The focus on the romance between Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri feels Shakespearean in nature and gives ‘Avatar’ its heart. It’s also a reliable trope that’s worked well in his prior films in ‘Titanic’ and ‘True Lies’, and helps sell the Na’vi as more than just computer-generated eye candy. It sells them as real people that somehow further enhances our perception of them when in conjunction with the technology that brought them to life.
Meanwhile, the overarching plot of a corporation trying to harvest resources on a land that belongs to another race of individuals echoes the history of many superpower nations, America included, and it’s a story that resonates because it’s a history that won’t stop repeating itself. Cameron has even said himself in an interview with The Wrap that ‘Avatar’ was, indeed, a political film. “This movie reflects that we are living through war,” Cameron said at the time of the film’s release. “There are boots on the ground, troops who I personally believe were sent there under false pretenses, so I hope this will be part of opening our eyes.” This realization gives ‘Avatar’ a lot of layers that it doesn’t give credit for.
‘Avatar’ is a film that’s appreciated for its technological inventions, but I can’t help but feel that it is a bit under-appreciated for its story. After all, if all the film had going for it was its visual and nothing else, it’s unlikely it would’ve made as much money it did at the box office, and be as praised by critics as it was at the time of its release. But the true test of ‘Avatar’s strength will be realized next year when its sequel hits theaters and kicks off its long-awaited franchise. The ‘Avatar’ sequels promise to stretch the limits of technology even further, and with over a decade of planning, there’s no doubt in my mind that it will reign supreme once again.
Directed By: James Cameron | Written By: James Cameron
Produced By: Brooke Breton, James Cameron
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Tony Stallings is an avid follower of the entertainment industry who uses his passion for writing to relay meaningful, positive messages and narratives from the world of Hollywood. Tony doesn’t just focus on covering entertainment, but delving into it. He prides himself on focusing on the bigger picture, concerned with how entertainment culture affects and shapes the world at large with utmost honesty. Tony’s dedication to journalistic integrity, reliability and passion is a common bond that he shares with Hollywood Insider, and he’s eager to help people recognize the value of entertainment through their platform.