Avatar ★★★★½

Returning to Avatar as a more enlightened grown up was a very different experience than it was seeing this for the first time (slash first three times) in theaters as a wide-eyed 8th grader. Taking part in the sci-fi sensation that swept the nation and toppled James Cameron’s own previous box office record remains one of my favorite cinematic experiences to date. In the intervening years, my love for this film was too strong, so I shrugged off notions of white savior narratives. I know now that this was due to a privileged upbringing and lack of knowledge, which, if you’ve been reading my reviews here, I am in the process of unlearning and replacing. Seeing Avatar now, its white savior narrative is, indeed, off-putting. Though there were plenty other contemporary complaints (I seem to recall a lot of comparisons to Fern Gully lol), the connections to that old gross trope tarnish what is otherwise still a sweeping, grand, sci-fi action epic.

James Cameron is one of the most iconic blockbuster filmmakers we’ve ever had, his gruff, obnoxious, perfectionist persona complicatedly mixed in with his stature in moviemaking. Like the man behind the camera, degrees of complications are present here, as I’ve already noted. The Na’Vi people are obviously modeled off Indigenous American tribes, with Honorary Oscar winner Wes Studi portraying the tribal leader, and several ethnically diverse actors bringing the other Na’Vi to life. And, to Cameron‘s credit, the Earthian soldiers and capitalists that are seeking to profit off of Na’Vi land are roundly portrayed as warmongering jarheads, arrogant bastards, and complicit pushovers, save Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and her troop of scientists. I simultaneously gave Cameron credit for not trying to infuse shades of gray into the villains of the story, because they deserve to be portrayed as evilly as they are, while also being frustrated at Sam Worthington‘s Jake Sully marching right into this tribal people and emerging as The Chosen One, who ended up being the only one who could save them from the warmongering profiteers. Cameron’s environmentalist concerns and seeming compassion for indigenous peoples are here, yet, in his film, only a white man can save them.

If you are willing to engage with movies as more than sheer entertainment or background noise, you have to wrestle with these notions, because Avatar is still a ridiculously enjoyable Hollywood epic that will captivate you if you let it. I loved my return to Pandora. Though the CGI is already showing its age, it’s still absolutely astonishing to return to this world and see how gorgeous it all looks by 2009 standards. The Sam Worthington experience leaves a little to be desired, but his breakout role is maybe still one of his best. Zoe Saldaña, now a box office juggernaut due to her attachment to the Guardians of the Galaxy, is a much better presence. The rest of the supporting cast, whether motion capture, live action, or both, is aces, from the anonymous Marines throwing out cheesy oorahs and Hell yeahs, to Stephen Lang’s snarling Col. Quaritch, to Michelle Rodriguez’s conflicted pilot Trudy.

Plus, everyone else behind the camera is in top form. The late James Horner produced a magnificent score, with all the right flourishes an epic of this scale requires. Mauro Fiore’s Oscar-winning cinematography is an astonishing achievement, given that most of it was capturing green screens and actors in goofy MoCap costumes. And, the creatures inhabiting the planet Pandora are a wonderful addition, natural extensions of real life animals that really give the planet the right feeling of similarity to Earth mingled with creativity and wonder. Add in some great action sequences, like Jake taming his Ikran or the final battle, and you really have all the elements for a grand action epic.

All of these elements come, of course, with the cost of a morally complicated narrative.

I truly have no idea how this review will sit with other Letterboxd users. I’m not really aware of Avatar’s standing among the community. Though I know it has its detractors, as I have already noted and, in a way, sided with, I truly still love it for its entertainment value, a glorious blend of old-fashioned entertainment with new-fashioned design. And, if there’s anything I can do as a good critic, it’s take a stand for a movie I love while leaving myself open to feedback and other opinions. To me, this is still one of the best films of 2009.

Scott liked this review