So, Avatar, finally. I SEE you.

I first saw this 13 years and three days ago. Rated it ⭐⭐⭐ on Letterboxd, didn’t even ❤️ it, and never went back. I caught a few minutes on a Chinese hotel room TV set in 2013 and thought it looked far, far worse on the small screen than at the cinema, and that was it for me.

And do you know what? Nobody talks about it. It raked in huge amounts of cash, but it hardly made the zeitgeist. Nobody wanted four sequels. It was just James Cameron wasting his career on a disappointing pet project instead of giving us more classics like Aliens and Terminator.

James Cameron on set
James Cameron on the set of the human base, blatantly not in the middle of making Terminator or Aliens

First time around the 3D was fine – not the amazing advance we’d been promised, or a benchmark in filmmaking that would reverberate through the ages as we’d been told. Avatar, along with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, marked the end of my (in hindsight, short) love affair with 3D. The film was way too long, and even in the cinema I got restless. The end battle wasn’t as epic as it thought it was. It was a drag, and in parts quite boring. And I had no real interest in Sam Worthington – he was not a star, no matter how hard Hollywood tried to profer him up as one in 2009.

Fast forward to now and I’m rewatching Avatar. (It’s in preparation for watching the sequel tomorrow night. I’m slightly apprehensive that this might not be a good idea, as it feels like a distinct possibility that I’ll be Avatar‘d out before I get anywhere near the IMAX.)

Here’s the setup: 2D, streamed in HD on Disney+. Not the best sound quality (even with headphones in, the sound is fairly flat and too quiet). Some of the CGI at the front-end – the shots of the ship in space, the human spaceport/base, the breaking-in of Sully’s avatar – doesn’t look great. It’s all very computer game-y.

Avatar CGI at the human base
Sam Worthington surveys the obvious CGI, and (possibly) begins to wonder about his life choices.


This film is a blast.

And the CGI looks amazing – literally awesome – for 90% of the running time. For a 13-year old film, once we get into the jungles of Pandora, the age of this thing doesn’t show at all. It was way more impressive in bright LED flatscreen than I remember the dark 3D cinema screening being.

And Avatar, it turns out, is a deeply immersive experience.

omaticaya ritual
Pandora: immersive

It unfolds at just the right pace to make for a solidly satisfying watch. There isn’t an ounce of fat on it, allowing relationships and tensions to develop in a way that feels earned, and even lived. The world-building is excellent throughout, and is a huge part of why the film works so well. This time around I actually cared about the blue aliens and their culture. And their environment was beautiful, fascinating, and ‘realistic’.

beautiful Pandora
Pandora: beautiful

The build-up to, and execution of, the ‘boring’ final battle isn’t perfect – but nevertheless it does have all the hallmarks of a great, classic movie climax – a building sense of dread, uneven odds, a deadline, excitement, spectacle, scale, and cathartic victories.

Even the love story worked in a relatable way, despite the unconventional window-dressing.

And what window-dressing. This is what motion pictures are all about – transporting us to other worlds. Pure, beautiful, escapism.

Neytiri teaches Jake
Pure cinema. This is what motion pictures are all about.

Of course, we all know that it was The Hurt Locker that walked away with the Best Film Oscar. Even at the time (despite my lower opinion of it, and its superficially fantastical setting) I felt that Avatar was driven by more important concerns, even if it was overly heavy-handed in the way it did it.

After a second viewing, I now think I gave it less credit than it deserves. There is a social commentary on the human condition inherently woven into everything about this film, and it’s nuanced and powerful. It’s much deeper than a thumb up to environmentalism and another thumb down to the military-assisted march of capitalism. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, is largely a portrait of a damaged and unlikeable human. It is also clearly not the better film.

So, Avatar, finally. I SEE you.

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