“Avatar is just Fern Gully in space.”
“Avatar is just Pocahontas in space.”
“Avatar is a white savior movie…in space.”
“Avatar has phenomenal CGI but a terrible story and stock characters.”
Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourselves.
You know, for a movie so many people keep insisting sucks and was evidently “forgotten” after premiering in December 2009, you’d think they were talking about something like Delgo. That weird, creepy-looking animation from 2008 that became one of the biggest box office bombs in history, making barely a million bucks against a $40,000,000 budget.
Delgo, like Avatar, is set in a mythical fantasy land where conflict arises between two warring alien clans, and features two lovers from opposing sides trying to find romance despite their differences in heritage.
But then the two films diverge quite massively, as Delgo legit blows, while Avatar is a bonafide masterpiece and a technical milestone that made nearly $2.7 billion in its initial theatrical run.
Avatar kicks ass, and I’m tired of people pretending that it doesn’t.
The same losers who shit on Avatar are the same ones who made Star Wars: The Force Awakens the number one highest grossing U.S. domestic release in box office history. And that JJ Abrams-directed fan fiction is nothing but a bigger budget remake of Episode IV, and has about as much creativity as an elephant fart. You know it and I know it.
Oooh, ooh, instead of a Death Star, we’re going to have a planet-sized Death Star this time! And instead of blowing up just one planet, it’s going to blow up several! And we’re going to make a FEMALE as our protagonist. A female lead? OMG that’s unprecedented! And we’re even going to have a black guy in it as a lead too (though in sequels we’re going to reduce his importance until he’s buffoonishly inconsequential so much the actor wants nothing more to do with the franchise). Never been done!
So which is it, idiots? Avatar’s just a ripoff of Fern Gully and Pocahontas using a familiar hero’s journey template, but Force Awakens is somehow the greatest thing ever put to film? You can’t have it both ways.
I’m not going into all the technical details about why Avatar’s CGI and motion capture technology was so ground breaking. It’s all been said before, I’m pressed for time, and I’m not that much of a dork to get into the nitty gritty tech stuff.
I will, however, compare Avatar to a jury of its peers — other massive science-fiction/action film franchises — which is how everyone should appraise James Cameron’s movie.
First, some blunt honesty.
Avatar is obviously not The Godfather. It’s not some deep A24 indy film about some guy’s existential middle-aged crisis or something. It’s a finely crafted popcorn flick with phenomenal special effects, with some superficial environmentalist themes. That’s about it. I love it because it’s a transportive amusement park ride, and executes its story just about perfectly. A rare feat few movies accomplish. Avatar is still the best and most immersive movie theater experience I’ve EVER had. It does everything a sci-fi/action film should do, and way more. Yet for some reason everyone judges Avatar harshly, while giving substantially lesser franchises an easy pass.
People only hate Avatar at this point becuse they think they’re supposed to. It’s cool and hip to be anti-Avatar because it’s so popular. And I get it. Sometimes popular stuff does indeed suck ass. God knows I’ll never understand the appeal of Twilight or Fifty Shades, but I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m better than people who like those franchises. Most times, things are popular for a good reason. They connect with people in a visceral and profound way.
Anyway, we’ve already peeked at the new Star Wars films, Avatar’s closest competitor that’s also within the massive Disney ecosystem. And what do we see? A disorganized mess with no vision, no scope, no outline, no coherency, and no theme. Seriously, what the fuck are the newest Star Wars products even about? Empire bad, robed people good? LOL, GTFO! They stand for nothing!
Whether you hate Avatar or not, it’s virtually impossible to walk away from seeing that film and not get the pro-environmental and anti-imperialist messages, however hamfisted those themes are handled. And whether you agree or disagree with those themes, the fact that a writer/director is able to inject his vision into a spectacle film about giant blue people in a coherent and frankly meanginful way is honestly pretty impressive.
Now let’s take a look at another competitor — the Marvel films. I will grant you that some of the Marvel installments like Infinity War, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and even the first Guardians of the Galaxy, are pretty good. The mocap technology used to bring Thanos to life is incredible. And I have no idea how producer and plot captain Kevin Feige manages to interweave so many characters and storylines together between so many directors and writers. But for the most part, your typical Marvel movie is servicable, without saying much or doing much to stick with you. Really, do you remember anything from Iron Man 2, or Captain Marvel, or The Incredible Hulk? I don’t. And nowadays, the Marvel mega-franchise has become increasingly watered-down and impossible to follow with all the Disney+ stuff and about ten films released every year. Marvel is proof there is sometimes too much of a good thing. I’ve given up on the superhero soap opera simply because there’s too much to keep track of. Marvel used to feel special with maybe two releases a year. Now it feels forgettable and paint-by-numbers.
Meanwhile, James Cameron took 13 years — 13 years! — to make Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to the 2009 film. Could you imagine any other franchise taking that level of care and patience when it came to producing a sequel? Could you even imagine any director delaying an Avengers film for almost a decade and a half until the tech was “right?” Of course you couldn’t. And that’s because Marvel films, for all their occassional creativity and spectacle, are mostly business products at the end of the day. They are there to enhance Disney’s bottom line.
But what is Avatar: The Way of Water? According to the creator himself, it’s the “worst business case in movie history.” TWOW apparently has to gross almost $2 billion just to break even. Or like one sixth the current market cap of Dogecoin. Its budget is a bloated potential time bomb to Disney’s already floundering stock price. A cathedral to one director’s massive ego to make the biggest film of all time thrice.
And you know what? That’s awesome. Not many artists are willing to go all in on their own work time after time again, costs be damned. Hell, most people aren’t even willing to invest 10% of their money without making sure it’s in a properly “diversified portfolio.” And most artists can’t sell themselves for shit, and have as much confidence as a teenage boy with a face full of acne standing in front of his high school crush. Not James “Big Balls” Cameron, who’s hit a grand slam twice in a row with Titanic and Avatar both taking up the number one wordwide box office crown, and declared himself the “King of the World.” Can he do it a third time? Time will tell.
So, what mega sci-fi franchise is next? Jurassic World? Ha ha. Yeah, right. Each installment has devolved so much it got to the point where the 2015 hit was basically a meta joke of itself, and is mostly known for its lead actress unrealistically running around in heels the whole time. Seriously, Bryce Dallas Howard, what’s your deal? Even Debbie Reynolds wore flats for some of the dance routines in Singin’ in the Rain. And her dance partner was Gene Kelly. Who was your co-star again? Oh, yeah, this goober:
Jurassic Park is a brilliant novel and film, without a doubt. But looking at the franchise collectively, and you can’t help but but feel exhausted by its purely business-driven cynicism. It’s like looking at a giant Excel spreadsheet with a T-Rex pasted in the corner. Pass.
Now what? Transformers? The cinematic equivalent of what a 13-year old kid would puke up after binging all night on Mountain Dew and Snickers bars? A franchise filled with robot on robot action scenes so messy and convoluted you need shock therapy to recover after seeing them? It’s kind of amazing that for a franchise that ran for 11 years, it only produced one decent film — Bumblebee. The last of the live action Transformers films since its release in 2018, and actually made the least amount of money. Which is a bad look for the once mighty audience of this franchise, as when they were finally presented a sequel of quality, they turned their noses up to it.
Oh, but I’m sure Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is totally going to rejuvenate the franchise when it comes out next year. Can’t wait for that one.
The Matrix? You talk as if there are sequels to the 1999 groundbreaking bullet-time hit. Maybe one day there will be. But for now, we’ll just have to keep waiting.
The Terminator franchise, aka the Old Arnie Show? Even as a big fan of the original two Cameron films, I can’t bring myself to acknowledge the sequels/reboots/remakes/reimaginings/whatever you want to call them, even as fun escapism. And as far as artistry or filmmaking craft go, they are obviously woefully short of the original and Judgment Day.
It’s not all negative, though. Avatar does have franchise peers in its genre.
The Alien Franchise, including the two Ridley Scott Prometheus/Alien: Covenant films, is probably the closest to Avatar in terms of special effects and directorial vision. Not to mention polarization among audiences, with many still split on the thematically muddled messes the last two Scott films have presented. But unlike Avatar, with its colorful, lush world, the Alien films are restrained to their bleak and nihilistic horror settings. Not exactly a fair comparison. And while the latest films to feature the creature with acid for blood haven’t been knock outs, they’re far better crafted than 99% of what you’ll find in your typical horror/sci-fi genre.
Another peer franchise to Avatar would have to be the new Planet of the Apes films, with the next sequel Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes scheduled to premier in May, 2024. But unlike Avatar’s blowout box office numbers, Apes has largely flown under the radar, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the franchise’s highest-grossing film to date) only grossing under one quarter of what Avatar did. It really goes to show how hard it is to find an audience these days, even when you have groundbreaking special effects, great writing, a classic IP, and a strong cast, which the Apes films have in spades.
Will Avatar: The Way of Water become another smash hit like the original when it comes out on December 15? There’s no way to know for sure. But I do know that it’s one of the few films I’ve actually been looking forward to seeing for a long time. And I’m damn sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Put against its rivals, Avatar stands head and shoulders above most of its competition in every categorical measure. Special effects, story, cast, box office draw, vision, and yes, even impact and legacy. Who exactly is still talking about Transformers? No one’s even discussing Jurassic World: Dominion, and that movie came out this year. But everyone will be talking about the new Avatar sequel. Not to mention seeing it again and again.
I love Avatar and haters can choke.