Before I begin, I’ll point out that I won’t blindly sing this movie’s praises. Ignoring that I'll have only seen the film three times, the most-recent in preparation for this article, I don’t think Avatar’s a masterpiece. I’ve never did, even as I left the theatre in 2009 with a migraine from the then-new 3D goggles not fitting on my face. The movie, while enjoyable, is riddled with weird writing and directorial choices, and I understand if it doesn’t resonate with you. My goal is simply to provide a defence for its existence, why it’s not as “cancerous” as many have made it out to be, and why a lot of its criticism is obnoxious and cliché. I won’t be tackling the “it’s overrated” argument, simply because the use of that word has become overrated itself, but I’ll deconstruct 7 of the most-aggravating complaints that pop-up whenever it’s mentioned.
*Breathes deeply* Well, here goes nothing!
1. “The story is lame and unoriginal!”
I probably should’ve re-watched-or watched, in the case of Dances with Wolves-these films in preparation for this as well, but I didn’t because I have neither the time or patience. Besides, my memories of Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest aren’t pleasant. One is a white-washing of history, the other an acid-trip with no depth beyond the initial high. And both are incredibly disjointed, with one of them glossing over the subtext of colonialism in favour of an uninteresting romance between a white guy and a Native American. I can’t comment on Dances with Wolves, but judging by its reactions I doubt it’s an improvement.
I think Avatar has the upper-hand here anyway. It has a romance going on, but it’s not the focus. The movie’s really about colonialism. It’s a movie where a guy sneaks into the home of an alien race to help humanity obtain a rare mineral. When the guy becomes overly-attached, humanity decides to use force and torch everything to the ground. Considering what European settlers often did historically, you can’t say it isn’t on-the-nose. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with certain parts of the narrative, but the whole more than compensates.
Then there’s the camp that compares the film to Princess Mononoke. Having seen Princess Mononoke 7 times, I can assure you that the two couldn’t be any more different. One’s about animal gods battling with civilization for dominance, the other’s a colonial fairytale where, in a surprise twist, the colonists lose. Like the aforementioned movies, there’s a whole shade of difference in execution.
It’s important to stress that “originality” in storytelling is overrated. No stories are “original”, there’s always gonna be overlap. This is especially true for film, where narratives have already been done so many times. Inside Out, for example, is every “inside your head” story that people can easily-wait, they already have called it unoriginal. Basically, originality isn’t what’s important, but rather execution, and Avatar’s pretty-decently executed.
As for the “it’s lame” argument, that’s more about being “hollow”, and it’s nowhere near as hollow as Mad Max: Fury Road. If you think that’s an unfair comparison, remember that both films have been praised for being experiences you need to see once. The only difference is that Avatar gets criticized for being vapid, when it’s about something, while Mad Max: Fury Road gets praised for being meaningful, when it’s incredibly empty. (And no, I’m not apologizing for calling Mad Max: Fury Road empty.)
Ultimately, it’s a hollow argument propagated by people who want to shield themselves from the film’s legit problems. Because Avatar doesn’t exist in a bubble, and it’s not perfect. It has its share of problems too. But when all that comes up is something that, to paraphrase Bob Chipman, sounds like it was ripped from South Park? Well, it’s enough to raise an eyebrow when analyzing critically.
2. “The message is overly-preachy and lacks subtlety!”
This one’s unavoidable given that Avatar’s an environmentalism film disguised as a Blockbuster drama. Movies that deal with the environment, much like movies that deal with war, in any meaningful way have to take a stance. And yes, it’s going to be preachy. Much like how Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind preached about humanity’s destructive treatment of the Earth, or how WALL-E preached about how humanity’s laziness is its biggest obstacle, or even how Princess Mononoke preached about how humans and nature need to co-exist, Avatar preaches about how human interference in nature hurts other living creatures when motivated by selfishness. To say the former three were “subtle” isn’t true, as they weren’t. But they were definitely more “nuanced”.
Like originality, subtlety is overrated. Good storytelling might have subtlety in it, but most of the strength of a narrative is complexity. A good war movie isn’t subtle about war, it’s nuanced about it. A good religious movie isn’t subtle about religion, it’s nuanced about it. Conversely, a good environmentalist movie isn’t subtle about environmentalism, it’s nuanced about it. Nuance, not subtlety, carries a good film.
But if I were to play Devil’s Advocate for a bit here, I have to question if the reasoning behind this argument is an aversion to the film’s subtext. Remember how I said this was a colonialist movie that also deals with the environment? Both are sore spots for many people. Colonialism was destructive, it’s not something you can glamourize. The Western world is still living with the consequences of that, and to varying degrees. Some have accepted it, others haven’t.
So here comes a film that actually shows colonialism for what it was, and what do people do? They call it preachy and unsubtle. I know it’s more complicated in actuality, but that sounds dishonest. The film’s not “realistic”, especially since the Natives actually win, but it’s a movie, so you suspend your disbelief for the sake of the experience.
It’s also important to remember that preserving the environment matters, especially considering recent, global developments. Avatar’s quite long, and we’ll cover that eventually, but the first hour or so sets up what’s at stake. It’s not like most pro-environment movies, where they touch on the tree hugging theme in a forced way, Avatar makes a concerted effort to feel natural. In some ways it’s even, dare I say, subtle.
The only time it gets too shallow is when it moves to the colonialists. Which, like I said, fits the movie’s theme, but often makes the humans come off as cartoons. Even Quaritch, who’s supposed to be 2-dimensional, feels a little too cartoony, especially with his dialogue (more on that later). I know I’m back-peddling a little bit, but I’d have liked more depth and nuance on the human side, as opposed to a throwaway line that explains what they’re doing on Pandora in the first place. But then we’d have missed the emotion of watching the Omaticaya’s home fall to the ground, and-gah, I’m in a no-win situation!
Essentially, Avatar does what it does well-enough. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But that doesn’t negate what it’s done, and I think that’s more important than subtlety.
3. “The characters aren’t interesting!”
“The characters aren’t interesting.”
I beg to differ. I quite liked them.
“Really? What’s the main character’s name?”
Jake Sully, aka Jaksulli. The latter is how he’s referred by the Omaticaya.
“What’s his back-story?”
He’s an ex-marine who was paralyzed in Venezuela. His twin brother was a PhD in astrophysics who was shot and killed by some no-name punk. Jake was chosen to take his place because his DNA was similar enough to make his avatar function. Oh, and he keeps a video diary, both to study the Omaticaya and give insight to the colonialists in their hunt for unobtanium.
“Name one side character.”
I’ll do better, I’ll name four: Trudy, Grace, Neytiri and Quaritch.
“Okay, what are their professions?”
Trudy is a pilot who works under Quaritch. Grace is a scientist/linguist. Neytiri is from the tribe that Jake infiltrates. And Quaritch is the general with slashes on his face.
“Can you remember anything that happens to any of them?”
Yes. Jake becomes one of the Omaticaya. Grace dies from a bullet wound. Neytiri becomes Jake’s lover. And Quaritch kicks the bucket in a fight with Neytiri and Jake. Trudy also dies a heroic death, although the motivations for her character are a bit hazy.
“Can you remember anything that happens in-film?”
This isn’t character-related, but yes: I remember the first encounter with Neytiri. I remember Jake stopping a bulldozer with rocks. I remember Jake’s first flight. I remember that giant tree falling down, and how sad that made me. I remember Grace getting shot. I remember the final battle. Do you want me to continue?
“Can you quote any of the lines?”
Sure: “Where’s my goddamn cigarette? What’s wrong with this picture?” “You are like a baby!” “‘How will I know if it chooses me?’ ‘It will try to kill you.’ ‘Outstanding!’” “Eywa has heard you, Jake!”
That’s off the top of my head.
“The dialogue sucks, you’ve proven that.”
Welcome to a James Cameron film.
“What does that mean?”
The dialogue was always lame in his films.
“That’s not true!”
Really? Explain how I’m supposed to take lines like “Fuck you, asshole!” and “Get away from her, you BITCH!” seriously.
And they make me laugh whenever I hear them. James Cameron dialogue was always silly, he’s simply gotten better at hiding that over time.
“You’re not a James Cameron fan, are you?”
Not really. I’ve seen all of his films except for Piranha II: The Spawning, The Abyss and True Lies. They’re all pretty hard to take seriously. Even Titanic, which is probably his best-acted pre-Avatar. Give me Steven Spielberg any day.
“You’re a heretic.”
And you’re running out of arguments.
You see? People claim that nothing about the movie is memorable, I prove them wrong. They keep prodding, I prove them wrong. They eventually call me a heretic, which is code for “I’m full of it, but don’t want to admit it.” And I’m supposed to sit back and take it, because I like Avatar.
Truthfully, there’s a lot of the movie’s world and characterization that intrigues me. Pandora looks beautiful, even almost 7 years later. The motion-capture from WETA holds up as well as the CGI in Jurassic Park. The designs of the creatures are inspired and look like something from an alien world. I love the concept of The Hallelujah Mountains, even if they don’t make sense scientifically. And, of course, the language of the Navi sounds like one that’d actually exist, being created by a real linguist.
But sure, there’s nothing in Avatar that’s “memorable”!
4. “The movie’s way too long!”
But is it “too long”? Not necessarily. For one, Pandora is a vast world. The movie came with three discs when I bought it, and the first disc (which contains half of the movie) is set-up. Necessary set-up, but still set-up. You need that first hour and a quarter to establish the characters and stakes. You need it to develop the relationship between Jake and the Omaticaya. It’s also one of the best-paced hours I’ve seen in a movie epic.
The second half is the pay-off, where all of the big moments take place. It’s where the huge war occurs, where the underlying message is made. Like that first 75 minutes, the remaining 87 minutes are necessary. Perhaps not as well-paced as the first 75, but necessary. And they’re not wasted either.
I think people were expecting something akin to to Cameron’s earlier work, and they got another Titanic instead. Which, to its credit, arguably works better here, seeing as Avatar isn’t based on a historical tragedy. Still, that dramatic build-up might’ve been too “seen it before” to really captivate. But I like it. In an age where so many action films, particularly long ones, drag themselves out with pointless fluff, to have an epic that dedicates time to characters is refreshing.
Besides, I’d much rather this than, say, another Michael Bay-made Transformers film. I’d much rather it than all three of The Hobbit films. So what if parts of it feel a little long? That’s symptomatic of most epics. So what if parts of the climax feel dragged out? Would you like me to gripe about how Boromir’s death in the first Lord of the Rings movie went on forever, or how the second film had a battle that dragged on forever, or how the third movie had multiple-actually, I liked the multiple endings. Basically, Avatar being long is a symptom of a bigger problem in Hollywood, not in of itself.
5. “The movie’s one of the worst films ever made!”
I think the weirdest part is that those who said Avatar sucked also said that everyone else liked it. I even remember a g1 linking a YouTube rant on how the movie was terrible and that people kept calling it the best ever. Sorry, “the breast ever”. Yeah, a piece of celluloid was being degradingly compared to a woman’s mammary glands. Ponder that.
On a more serious level, I don’t think this is the worst movie ever. For one, a lot of technical prowess and clever filmmaking went into it. The world of Pandora was designed with attention to minute details, right down to how the plants and animals would behave. The Omaticaya were designed to look like hybrids of aliens and Native, even down to their facial features and communal habits. The motion capture technology from WETA still looks impressive, almost 7 years later. Even Zoe Saldana, who played Neytiri, spent months reading Shakespeare to nail her character. And this is only scratching the surface.
So yeah, Avatar can’t be the worst movie ever because it’s too well-made. You can argue whether or not the script is any good. You can argue whether or not the characters are interesting. You can even argue whether or not the film’s too long. But saying that it’s “the worst film ever”? Are you sure?
Distinguishing between not liking something and it being “the worst ever” is important. Because if you want films that qualify as “the worst ever”, then you’d have to dig deep. You’d have to dig into the works of Ed Wood and Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich and Uwe Boll, to really see the dregs. And even then, you’d barely be scratching the surface! Sure, Avatar might not be amazing, but it’s too well-made to be the worst.
This argument is really hyperbolic rhetoric. However, like subtlety and originality, it’s overrated rhetoric because it lacks weight. It’s not poignant, it doesn’t hold much interest. And considering that this was propagated by the internet for some time, it speaks more volumes about that than this movie. But I digress.
6. “No one likes Avatar, no one ever did!”
Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m getting old, but there was a time, back when Avatar was still new, that everyone said the exact opposite. Back then, everyone claimed that everyone liked the movie, when they shouldn’t. I remember people being pissed that it was on the IMDb Top 250 List for a few years. I remember people flipping their lids that Rotten Tomatoes was praising it, even though an 83% isn’t exactly “high praise". I even remember getting into a debate with a g1 I was close friends with over it, with said g1 stating that too many people loved Avatar and that “damage control” had to be done.
I think the big kicker was that Avatar got a Best Picture nomination at the 2010 Oscars. That’s right, Avatar received a Best Picture nomination. It lost to The Hurt Locker, a movie that’s also pretty divisive, but it still received one. This was all I kept hearing for months after, that it “received an unjustified nomination” and that “The Academy was full of themselves”. This was almost 7 years ago.
But I guess time leads to revisionist history, so I can’t say I’m surprised by the shift. Still, it raises authenticity questions when people can’t even keep their opinions straight: is Avatar loved by everyone, or is it hated by everyone? Because the answer to that question is “no” on both fronts, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was originally going to clump points 5 and 6 into a mega-response, but I opted against because they represented points that were worth analyzing separately. In the case of the former, it’s a complete fallacy, easy to rebut because of its place in the anti-Avatar camp. In the case of the latter, however, it’s slightly more nuanced. The argument, as well as its progenitor, is a straw-man claim unique on its own: the blanket statement. It indirectly thinks that it speaks for everyone, when it doesn’t. Even ignoring that it’s commonly-accepted practice to state how mediocre Avatar is while defending it, which also drives me crazy, the facts argue contrary.
To start, Avatar currently holds an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, a culmination of 244 positive reviews of 293. That means that of the 293 reviewers, roughly 8 out of 10 of them gave the movie a positive review. Not necessarily a glowing review, but a positive one. Additionally, the median score there is a 7.5/10. That’s a C+ on any paper, if I’m not mistaken. But since the discrepancy is a little confusing on its own, here’s the consensus:
“It might be more impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling, but Avatar reaffirms James Cameron's singular gift for imaginative, absorbing filmmaking.”Read that carefully. Now, re-read it. And then read it again. The majority of the praise is in the technicals. Since film is largely visuals, that’s a big deal. But it reflects the experience of watching the film too: Avatar isn’t the most-captivating narratively, but it more than succeeds viscerally.
Next, Metacritic. Well look at that, an 83 too! Of course, Metacritic uses a more calculated system and has fewer reviews, but an 83 is pretty good. And given that this is based on 35 reviews, of which 4 are mixed, that’s quite interesting considering that “no one likes this movie”.
If we move to user reviews, it’s a similar story. Rotten Tomatoes’s user community pegs the film at an 82% from 1379423 people, with a 4.1/5 median score. Metacritic’s user community pegs it at a 7.5/10 with 2936 reviews. And IMDb, which is entirely user based, places it at a 7.9/10 from 891196 votes. Who, exactly, doesn’t like this movie again?
I get it, people love using hyperbole. But you have to face the facts, and these ones don’t lie: lots of people like Avatar. Not necessarily love, but like. And yes, many dislike it too, I’m reminded of that every time it gets brought up, but it’s still largely enjoyed.
Look, the pointless internet threads are one factor, the numbers are another. But when you try to throw out claims of “objectivity”, well…be prepared to be challenged with facts. There’s no “no one likes Avatar”-ing with facts that argue contrary. All this means is that you need to change your claim to something quantifiable, like how you didn’t care for it. I know it takes more effort, but it’ll also make you sound more credible.
7. “James Cameron only focusing on sequels to this movie shows that he’s become a sell-out!”
-Disney buy out Marvel and Star Wars.
-The emergence of the MCU, which’ll have its 14th entry come November.
-The reemergence of Star Wars as a franchise property.
-A failed reboot series of Spider-Man, which lasted two entries before being canned due to mixed reception and lukewarm box office.
-The beginnings of a DC film franchise.
-Two more Michael Bay Transformers sequels.
-A sequel to Independence Day.
-Pixar’s sequel phase.
-Disney announcing sequels to two of their theatrical films, Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, as well as a Big Hero 6 TV series.
-Four more X-Men movies, one of them being a spin-off based on Wolverine.
-The beginning of a franchise centred around Deadpool.
-The revival of the “monster versus” genre.
-A fourth Mad Max movie.
-Three more Ice Age movies.
-Two Despicable Me films.
-And, of course, countless Avatar sequels.
That’s only scratching the surface. If anything, Avatar having 4 sequels is a natural progression and a symptom of Hollywood’s current system of endless sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. And yet, it’s become the poster boy for everything wrong with Hollywood, despite having plenty of room for world building. And yes, I did say that the movie warrants sequels.
This argument is more a direct result of two problems: one, that James Cameron is willing to die on this hill. And two, that he’s not making that Battle Angel Alita movie he’s been promising for years. I…can’t comment on the latter, as I don’t know anything about it, but considering Hollywood’s awful track-record with anime adaptations, perhaps not getting that movie is a blessing in disguise.
As for the former, why’s it such a big deal? For one, bad movies get sequels constantly. And two, I’d rather this than another Transformers film, especially considering they’re nearly 3 hour explosion-fests with cardboard cut-outs. Say what you will about Avatar, it at least tried saying something worthwhile. The results are debatable, but it tried.
I’m also curious as to why this movie gets maligned for sequels and not some of James Cameron’s other franchises. Remember, Aliens came out 7 years after Alien. Terminator 2: Judgement Day also came out 7 years after The Terminator. Both are considered classics on-par with their prequels, perhaps even better. And yet, because it’s Avatar, a movie that a few people were mixed on, a sequel or 3 is “too much”.
Besides, didn’t the aforementioned franchises go straight into the gutter once Cameron left? Why’s that not a viable argument to maintain control of this one? Okay fine, creative stagnation, I get it. But if the MCU can stay fresh after nearly 14 movies, then at least 2 sequels to Avatar can work in the worst-case scenario. And if the sequels suck? Well, I’ll judge that when the time comes. For now, however, I’m keeping an open mind.
Which is really what separates me from the detractors: my open mind. I don’t think Avatar’s perfect, I recognize its flaws. But I don’t shut it out because I don't consider it the greatest movie ever. And I’m sorry if James Cameron has become something long-time fans don’t want now that he’s super-famous, but I’d rather him be that than nothing. Besides, the man’s proven himself multiple times before. He’s left behind a legacy for people to enjoy, so it’s easy for me to forgive his change in course since Titanic.
I mean, if I can do it, why can’t you?