Sir Alfred Hitchcock… Stanley Kubrick… Orson Welles… and James Cameron.
Although Cameron’s oeuvre is “lower” art than these other three directors’ filmographies, he is still not justly recognized as an auteur.
His masterpiece, Titanic (1997), while not free of imperfection, was the first film to gross more than a billion dollars worldwide, and is tied for first for the most Academy Awards nominations and wins for a single release, a fiscal style which continues to influence the industry at large.
His Avatar (2009), the follow-up to Titanic, pales in the shadow of its older sister.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Avatar is available to stream on Hulu. The epic science fiction film was up for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron also wrote the movie, which would go on to surpass Titanic at the box office.
Set in the year 2154, humans have depleted almost all of Earth’s natural resources, leading the Resources Development Administration to mine for unobtanium on the habitable moon of Pandora, which a native species known as the Na’vi calls home.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound former United States Marine, is recruited to replace his deceased twin brother on a mission to explore Pandora with his genetically matched human-Na’vi hybrid, also known as an “avatar.”
Jake meets and falls for a Na’vi princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and finds himself torn between following the orders of the colonialist RDA and following his heart.
Avatar took home the Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects, and, with its pioneering motion-capture as well as 3D technology, it reserves the right to rest on those photographic laurels. It still very much dictates the cinematic conversation today.
There was a time before Avatar, and, now, we live in the Year of Avatar 2020.
Dramatically, the film has its moments, too, if not with the same impact as Titanic. Even at its distended runtime, it is still a digestible romantic hero’s journey. In addition, it is a thematically well-intentioned parable against imperialism.
But the path to Hell is paved in good intentions. Like Kevin Costner’s Danes with Wolves (1990), the white-coded hero saves the day after appropriating this “exotic” culture for himself.
Plus, this reviewer watched Avatar and Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s Pocahontas (1995) back to back one time and it was four and a half hours of the same story.
The originality of Avatar has been criticized ad nauseam, but it still bears repeating. All dramatic narratives (or, at least, the well-written ones) follow a template of rules, and they do so for a reason – because the rules work.
But there is a difference between honoring the rules by writing your own which are equal to them if not better, and letting somebody else’s rules do all the work for you – the unimaginative screenplay is secondary to the exactingly detailed world-building.
Additionally, according to feminist theory, Avatar could stand some improvement. Neytiri qualifies as one of Cameron’s pseudo-feminist “strong, independent women,” who are written with such masculinity, they might as well be men.
Back to Titanic, Kate Winslet’s character is the best-written of this author’s signature trope, because her arc develops her from a damsel in distress to a rescuer to a self-preservationist without sounding like she was written by a man, and the same cannot be said for Neytiri.
Cameron’s trademark technique is to get record budgets greenlit for original properties (and then profiting off their record returns), and, for that reason, Avatar is a worthwhile lesson in cinematic history.
It to this day shapes everything to come after it, and, though not Cameron’s masterwork, it still epitomizes his boy-like wonder over unexplored universes.
Cinema, at its most “cinematic,” is dreamlike, childlike, and transporting, and, so, Avatar has colored the cinematic arts in cosmic shades of blue since its premiere more than a decade ago.