Avatar: Timeless 3D Classic, Or Short-Lived Cinematic Fad?7 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Written by Tan Mei Qi
My only memory of Avatar is a comment I came upon while trawling YouTube – “a basic sum of this movie is that a guy betrays his entire planet just so he can clap some alien cheeks.” Thinking that this couldn’t be my only memory of the (now-second) highest-grossing film of all time, I took myself to see the highly-limited two-week re-release. I wanted to answer a question everyone probably has about a film that warrants another release more than a decade later: has Avatar withstood the test of time, and will it continue to do so?
As far as visuals go, this record-breaking blockbuster is probably near flawless – a fact acknowledged not only by the 2009 audiences but also by present-day cinemagoers who have seen the fruits of the leaps and advancements in the technology Cameron used. The 4K high dynamic range remaster does wonders for the stunning colours, making more stark the contrast between the depressing, industrial smokey brown-greys of the military base and the lush, vibrant green hues of the untouched Na’vi habitat. The CGI certainly doesn’t look 13 years old, though it does sometimes show its age when the camera gets too close for comfort and some of the forest creatures end up looking more plastic-like than preferred. The more majestic ones like the mountain banshees, however, retain their grace, mostly with the lengthy flight sequences and the accompanying wondrous score.
Personally, I appreciate and admire not only Cameron’s ability to utilise cinematic developments so effectively, but also his attempts to revive a format killed in its heyday. Looking at the North American box office numbers for the re-release, there is no doubt that he will succeed in the latter. However, as you may have realised if you’ve ever tried to watch Avatar sans fancy tech equipment, this is a film that cannot be separated from its technology. Cameron himself has said, regarding the upcoming sequel, that it is “designed for the biggest screen and the most immersive 3D available”.
While the remaster has kept Pandora looking like it came fresh out of the Big Bang, what happens when 3D ages out for good? It appears that the only way the film can ensure it withstands the test of time is to keep up with the most state-of-the-art technology it can offer audiences. If the technology that keeps it going becomes dated, the believability of the world which is the strength and reason for its popularity is likely to fade.
It may not help its case that since COVID hit, theatres have taken a nosedive. Although things are recovering, that nosedive has been enough to boost the supremacy of streaming. The sequel is returning at the right time, establishing the necessity of the theatrical experience when we are coming out from a pandemic and hungry for that very experience. However, though previously difficult to imagine, it is now not an impossibility that theatres could shut at the beck and call of a virus. When streaming fills that entertainment vacuum (as it already somewhat has), it is hard to say if Avatar can survive the wild outside of cinemas.
In any case though, the ageing of its visuals should be the least of anyone’s worries. A greater cause of concern is that, stripped of its edenistic landscapes, Avatar has no solid story to hold it up. Cameron got much praise for what looks like an explicit critique of America’s invasion of Iraq, but a closer look at the plot raises some questions. The explication of the Na’vi-human conflict hints at some idea of anti-colonialism – at least until the film’s uncomfortable climax where Jake, in his Na’vi suit (blueface?), takes the lead to liberate them from their oppressors. The scene, which reeks of a benevolent white saviour mentality, makes any attempted critique of colonialism fall flat. This was probably already clear from the film’s title though – the avatar is the star, and the Omaticayans were never meant to be the heroes of their own story.
Avatar‘s valiant attempts to denounce colonialist greed are also ironically sullied by the film’s visual beauty. Great care was taken to design the Na’vi as humanoid and conventionally attractive and to make Pandora blamelessly breathtaking. The Na’vi are also deliberately portrayed as peaceful, harmonious indigenous people. These choices reinforce the idea that only the beautiful and the harmless, be it people or nature, are undeserving of annihilation. Consequently, the strength of the film, its visuals, is turned into a mere shortcut through which it hopes to achieve the emotional payoffs it did not invest enough in to earn. As a result, despite its richness, the film can leave one feeling empty, like they’ve only looked at a meal rather than eaten it.
Much has been said about Avatar’s use of classic tropes. While some deem it as the reason why the film remains so timeless, others think it makes it trite. Though it is undeniable that the tropes can help the movie retain some sort of enduring relatability (as long as you don’t look too closely at the plot), it brings nothing new or unique to the table story-wise. There are films that look worse for wear than this one, but their timelessness is backed up by a unique vision that nevertheless speaks to a universal human condition. A good timeless film exists beyond trends, and it’s hard to say the same for Avatar, which arguably rides on setting trends, technological or otherwise. If there is nothing else compelling about the film beyond how it looks, it is at risk of being relegated to the blockbuster graveyard when something more visually impressive takes the stage.
Will Avatar: The Way of Water be similarly carried by mere hype and fancy spectacle? If the sneak peek proffered at the end credits of the re-release is anything to go by, the sequel sure doesn’t skimp on visuals. But if that is all it has to offer, this seems like a sad misuse of immensely expensive worldbuilding. There is nothing wrong with a self-indulgent escapist blockbuster, but surely Avatar deserves a story as breathtaking as it looks. It certainly owes it to all the indigenous people it took inspiration from.
However, whether this box office monster will die out with the passage of time still largely depends on the audiences, and as numbers will tell you, the film is far from life support. With the present preference for established franchises and stories, originality may not be the top dish in today’s cinemagoers’ menu. The familiarity of the established Avatar-verse combined with the novelty of a new watery environment will probably be enough to whet audiences’ appetites. The decade-long gap may also work more as a boon than a bane for the sequels, especially for fans who have affectionate nostalgia for the 2009 release (who can say that 2009 wasn’t a relatively better time than now, anyway?).
Few can refute that even as Avatar tries to shield a lacklustre story with visual excess, it still fulfils the primary responsibility of movies – to entertain. Perhaps no one will ask more of a blockbuster in these exceedingly trying times.
As for me, I sure hope this isn’t the last thing left on earth when actual aliens do come to pay us a visit.
Images credit: 20th Century Fox
This article is produced as part of the Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme, organised by *SCAPE and The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the writer:
When not deep-diving into the trove of queer Asian dramas and cinema, Mei Qi is busy wishing that Ghibli food was real.