‘Avatar’ (At Least In 3-D) Is Not the Forgettable Disaster You Blocked Out
I know you don’t like Avatar.
James Cameron’s epic space movie, released in 2009, hasn’t aged well in the minds of cineastes and fanpeoples, the ones who want to talk about the influence of the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings franchises at every opportunity. Despite remaining the highest grossing film of all time even as The Avengers, Black Panther and The Force Awakens have come and gone, Avatar gets short shrift in fan appreciation and is curiously absent on cable and streaming services. It never pops up on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Video as a streaming-included option. You’re more likely to find the live-action The Last Airbender if you go looking.
That’s not by accident: James Cameron himself hasn’t directed a film in so long (since Avatar) that he’s become the aging white guy outshined by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. He’s more apt to make headlines over his poorly-timed take on Wonder Woman than on his filmmaking innovations.
And there are plenty of things not to like about Avatar itself that have diminished its reputation since it wowed most top critics upon release. The “White space marine guy saves the natives” narrative would be behind the times even if it were a videogame. The dialogue is goofy and way too on-the-nose (“I see you”; “You are not in Kansas anymore”). And lead actor Sam Worthington couldn’t be more wooden if he were carved from a waterlogged plank recovered from the Titanic.
But guess what? Everybody’s been watching it wrong. And that’s a big part of why, on the news that principal photography on two Avatar sequels just wrapped, no one seems too excited.
The reason people don’t give Avatar more respect for what in 2009 was considered a groundbreaking technical and visual achievement is that few people have been able to see it as it was meant to be seen: in 3-D.
Since 2009, while 3-D has thrived in theaters (but for how long?), the home theater 3-D market shrank in favor of 4K technology after failing to catch on. The promise of channels that would broadcast live 3-D has largely died and the market of 3-D Blu Ray discs that would allow you to watch movies at home as you did in 3-D in the theaters is shrinking fast.
Fewer and fewer new 4K televisions even include 3-D as a feature (LG’s top-of-the-line OLED televisions dropped the option after 2016). Game consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can handle 3-D discs, but it’s unlikely future game systems will bother.
I’m holding on to my 2015 LG set specifically for that reason. My kids and I still enjoy watching 3-D movies on it and I’ve got a drawer full of cheap glasses that we can use whenever we want or when we have guests over. Recently, when I spotted a 3-D Blu-ray of Avatar at my local public library, I checked it out purely out of curiosity. Maybe, I figured, I’d watch five or 10 minutes just to see how it looked on my television.
To my surprise, it looked stunning, probably the best 3-D presentation I’d ever seen at home. Within a few minutes, I was sucked back into Pandora’s story in a way I never thought I’d want to be again.
When my kids got in front of the set, they were drawn in by the 3-D as well and insisted on watching the entire movie, one that they had never even heard of before. Every kid their age (eight and 11) knows Star Wars, The Avengers, even The Lord of the Rings, but Avatar has been completely forgotten for their generation.
The movie not only holds up nine years later when seen on a great screen in 3-D, but it actually shines. The first meeting between Jake and Neytiri is still a dazzling display of one of the best virtual worlds ever created for cinema. The airborne battle sequences (holy shit, pterodactyl fights!) captivate more than you remember. Even the badly-written scenes inside Stupid Human HQ pop with curved 3-D screens and smart use of the format. In a word, it’s beautiful. What’s supposed to play as dreamlike and brain-trippy has the right effect when it’s not flattened into a 2-D presentation. For Avatar, the 3-D is the point.
The action sequences, with their giant space beasts, battle copters and Na’vi bow-and-arrow warriors, work on a level that remind you that big fight sequences are Cameron’s biggest strengths. You never lose sight of where you are or what’s happening. If we’ve forgotten that his technical skills rival those of Spielberg’s, that’s a shame. At least in terms of spectacle, he more than brings the goods.
I’m not saying all this makes Avatar a better movie than, say, Infinity War. But its use of 3-D, to my eye, remains unrivaled almost a decade later, a huge achievement. It looks absolutely convincing in a way that most of the modern crop of superhero films don’t. Completely CGI characters don’t fall into the Uncanny Valley or move like cartoons. The animated environments never feel half-assed. The technical team Cameron assembled, which included Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital, remains the gold standard for how to do 3-D in cinema. And it’s tough to judge whether this is the film that made Zoë Saldana a star, but her emotional, full-throated performance remains the best in the movie. Avatar sparks to life whenever her character is on screen.
When I saw Avatar in an IMAX theater in early 2010, my second daughter was just born and I was exhausted. But I also felt scared that if I waited too long, I’d miss this landmark movie on the big screen. How could I know that nearly a decade later, I’d be showing it to my kids and they’d be so curious why this movie never crossed their radar before?
It was worth seeing then. And even as time has chipped at its reputation, I urge you to get to the best 3-D TV you have access to and give it another try. Or at least get ready for the inevitable theatrical re-release before Avatar 2 arrives in 2020.