'Avatar' review: the film is still a marvel of special effects, but the tropes are lazy

As James Cameron's 2009 epic is re-released in cinemas, we give it another look for old times' sake

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In anticipation of Avatar: The Way of Water being released in December, the first Avatar film has returned to cinemas.

Revisiting James Cameron’s imaginative world of Pandora — which we were introduced to in December 2009 — while entertaining, also raises a lot of questions.

It would be unfair not to state the glaringly obvious first: Avatar is brilliantly made.

Entertaining, immersive and mind-blowingly visual, even by today’s standards, the film, which Cameron wrote, directed, produced and co-edited, remains the highest-grossing in the world.

This is an unbelievable feat for several reasons.

When Avatar was originally released, The Lord of the Rings trilogy had ended, more than half of the Harry Potter franchise had already caused hysteria in the mainstream and the first Spider-Man movie had already captured a huge audience.

Avatar’s epic success was a surprise, given it had no prior fan base.

At face value, the film’s technical prowess and innovative use of 3D was what impressed critics and sold out cinemas. Avatar took the use of facial motion capture, which audiences first experienced in Lord of the Rings, to another level, heralding in a new generation of special effects that would change movie making forever.

Unlike Cameron’s first epic, Titanic in 1997, Avatar’s use of technology still looks hyper-realistic and feels out of this world.

James Cameron's 'Avatar' is the highest-grossing film of all time. Photo: WETA

Watching Avatar is a cinematic experience. It is a visual feast of colours, light, fantastical creatures and geography. It's a testament to Cameron’s incredible imagination and vision, but also to what movies can do and how we can experience them.

But Avatar’s storyline is one that deserves a more nuanced investigation.

“When I was laying there in the VA hospital with a big hole blown into the middle of my life, I started having these dreams that I was flying. I was free," says Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine played by Sam Worthington, who sets the tone of the film as the story opens to a sweeping shot of a mysterious mist-covered landscape.

Freedom, from the outset, is the core of the story. Jake feels physically trapped in a wheelchair after an injury leaves him paralysed from the waist down. Perhaps more potent is his emotional imprisonment, after his brother is killed in a robbery.

Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, and Jake Sully, voiced by Sam Worthington, in 'Avatar'. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Jake decides to replace his brother in the government’s Avatar Programme on the planet Pandora and is fitted into the genetically engineered body of its indigenous humanoid species, the Na'vi. As he assimilates into the Na'vi’s culture and falls in love with Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, he discovers the sinister intentions of the military to oppress the Na'vi and destroy their sacred site in order to mine unobtanium, a precious compound.

The story is filled with environmental, antiwar, pro-feminist and anti-colonial themes. They aren’t underlying, they’re obvious, challenging us to link the parallels to our history and present.

Jake's journey and his relationship with Neytiri isn’t badly plotted or poorly written — it’s predictable. We’ve experienced it before in movies such as Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, where the trope of a “white saviour” leading indigenous peoples to their freedom is overused and inaccurate.

It seems likely that Cameron chose to use a recognisable narrative and lazy tropes to ease audiences into a new, highly complex world. Completely unnecessary, of course, if one notes how the literary works of sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Ursula Le Guin and Sheri S Tepper effortlessly meld fantastical, imaginary worlds with highly innovative storylines and distinct characters.

That said, I still believe Cameron deserves our trust. He's been willing to wait until technology catches up to his vision as a filmmaker, and so let's hope, is saving a more refined and vivid storyline for the sequels.

Dubai landmarks in Pandora from 'Avatar' — in pictures

Updated: September 30, 2022, 6:02 PM