This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Will Walker’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I think I've grown to appreciate Avatar far more in hindsight than on initial release, now that we can (mostly) all come to the agreement that this isn't a Best Picture quality movie, let alone the greatest film ever made. However, just because Avatar doesn't quite live up to its hyperbolic initial reception does not make this a bad film in the slightest. Going back to it years later, there is still much to enjoy here from a worldbuilding, characterization and thematic perspective.
The best way to view Avatar is as James Cameron's Reverse Aliens. Aliens is very much a product of 80s politics; a world of "kill-or-be-killed" where the West represented the ultimate arbiter of moral and societal superiority, the non-Western world representative of something hostile and parasitic that threatened future generations. Avatar, on the other hand, represents a humanization of the non-Western world, a sincere attempt to understand and empathize with it and recognize its right at respect and existence. While this does unfortunately lend itself to the misguided, offensive "noble savage" characterization of the Na'vi at moments, this attempt by Cameron to embrace and empathize with what his films had previously shown aversion to is (For the most part) well handled and well intentioned. The film is distinctly "pro-Veteran" without being "pro-War", a far cry from the militaristic, America First, "hoo-rah" approach of Aliens and its many contemporaries. As much as people like to take shots at Cameron's Avatar as a vanity project, it shows a surprising amount of self awareness from Cameron to the problematic and outdated politics of his previous works.
Much has been made of Avatar's reliance on narrative cliches and formulaic plot elements. We've all heard the comparisons people have made to the likes of Ferngully, The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, e.t.c. However, I've long believed that following narrative cliches is forgiveable if you can add something fresh, new and deep to the material. While Avatar shares much in common with these films in terms of story, I would argue that it really does something special in its characters. Jake Scully's naive and childlike former army gruny makes for a rather sympathetic and likable lead, I appreciated how his character served the RDA out of a genuine ignorance for what they were fighting for and what they were planning rather than out of indifference or convenience; as far as he was concerned, the RDA were a well intentioned research organization, providing Jake the chance to walk again out of the goodness of their hearts. Mass scale atrocities are as much the result of ignorance as they are malevolence and Jake's arc from complicit instrument in the RDA's ruthless pillaging of Pandora to wise and self aware warrior ready to take control of his life is handled with genuine thoughtfulness. Despite the adulthood of its protagonist, Avatar almost feels like a "coming of age" story, with Jake growing into the man he was meant to be, only from a mental or emotional standpoint rather than a physical one.
Sam Worthington's performance as Jake is criminally underrated, he's an incredibly likable lead with some great comedic timing that I could easily see myself in as an audience member. His wide eyed awe of Pandora and its natural wonders and his hushed, humble voice wonderfully convey a character desperate to do the right thing, but with no idea how. It really is a shame to see Worthington slumming it in Direct-To-DvD work these days.
I never hear Wesley Studey get credit for his role in the film, which is a massive shame as he easily steals the show for me. Studi carries such a commanding, powerful presence and iconic vocal delivery as the clan leader Etyukan that it can even be felt through the somewhat aged motion capture. His performance is reminiscent of the very best turns from Frank Oz's Yoda; strong and wise beyond measure, strict in nature, but with a deep level of empathy and compassion for those under his tutelage.
The worldbuilding in Avatar is absolutely phenomenal, I don't believe it would be a stretch to call it Star Wars-like in its detail, size and scope. Pandora's symbiotic ecosystem makes for a beautiful and touching allegory for not just our own natural environment on Earth, but for the human race as a whole. With even the seemingly small death of a single tree, the potential ripple effects for a natural or social habitat can be catastrophic. I also found myself deeply appreciative of Cameron's display of the patient, progressive behavior of the natural world. Every meaningful relationship in Avatar puts an emphasis on methodical growth, understanding and patience; this is felt in the film's romance, in the relations between the humans and the Na'vi, in the relations between the Na'vi and their banshees. Nature, and emotion by association, cannot be moved by mere force of will alone. Whatever critics may say, the pro-environmentalism aspects of Avatar possess far more imagination and inventiveness than what meets the eye.
Avatar is not a "perfect" film or a masterpiece, persay. However, it certainly comes very, very close to being great. The film has far deeper themes than its given credit for that are explored in more interesting ways than the surface readings that many audiences have interpreted. Much like Jake's understanding of Pandora, its people and its wildlife, perhaps we would benefit from looking past that surface in analyzing what this interesting film has to offer. Bring on the trilogy, Cameron!