Why must a critic ride to the rescue of one of the most popular movies ever made? With worldwide revenues in excess of $2.8 billion, James Cameron’s Avatar is the highest-grossing movie in history, and it’s the second-best-selling Blu-ray of all time, just behind Disney’s Frozen. Most modern box-office champs plummet when ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, but Avatar stays in the top five, behind all-time champ Gone With the Wind and jockeying for position with Cameron’s Titanic and the original Star Wars.
But almost from the moment it hit theaters, Avatar has been a beleaguered champion, dogged by accusations that it was gimmicky and simplistic, that its eye-catching 3-D was wrapped around a heart of pure corn. It was attacked from both the political right and left, as tree-hugging socialist propaganda and as “the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy.” Search the phrase “In defense of Avatar,” and the earliest results hail from January of 2010, less than a month after its initial release.
More recently, critics have argued that for all the records it’s set, Avatar has left precious little mark on the culture at large. “It did not become a cultural touchstone in any real sense,” Forbes’ Scott Mendelson wrote on Avatar’s fifth anniversary in 2014. “Kids don’t play Avatar on the playground nor with action figures in their homes. There is little-if-any Avatar-themed merchandise in any given store. Most general moviegoers couldn’t tell you the name of a single character from the film, nor could they name any of the actors who appeared in it.” “Try to quote Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time,” comedian Dana Schwartz wrote on Twitter. “Quote ANY line. Or name 2 characters. No cheating.” Her tweet was favorited more than 7,000 times.
The question of whether there’s any gas left in Avatar’s tank is newly relevant, given last week’s news that Cameron is expanding his previously planned three sequels to four, with planned release dates stretching from 2018 all the way to 2023. Given that no one remembers Avatar, does anyone want even one more movie, let alone four of them?
It’s remarkable how quickly popular culture flushes anything that’s not constantly re-injected into the system. Can anyone name a character or quote a line of dialogue from Jurassic World, which came out last June? What about The Hurt Locker, which beat Avatar for Best Picture in 2009? But there’s some truth to these arguments: I re-watched Avatar last night, and without looking it up right now I still couldn’t tell you the name of Zoë Saldana’s character. (It’s Neytiri.) Cameron’s dialogue is mainly functional, and some of the few memorable lines are memorable for the wrong reason, like when Sam Worthington’s Marine—Jake Sully, remember?—recounts his brother’s death by explaining a mugger “ended his journey for the paper in his wallet.” Raymond Chandler wept.
But focusing on character and dialogue neglects what made Avatar a hit in the first place: the power of its images and of its ideas. If Avatar’s stock has dropped in the years since its release, that’s partly because the home viewing environment doesn’t do its three-dimensional splendor justice; if you’re watching it in two dimensions, you’re missing half the movie. At first, Cameron goes out of his way to show off his custom-built toys: a blurry water drop floating in midair looks like a projection flaw until the focus sharpens, and a spaceship stretches so far out of the screen it threatens to poke you in the eye. But as Jake makes his way into the wilds of the Pandora, the displacement grows less jarring; the glass-and-metal world of the military contractors who’ve come to raid this unspoiled world of its natural riches sticks out at you, but the jungle pulls you in, much as it pulls Jake towards the holistic ethos of the Na’vi and away from the slash-and-burn methods of his own race. More than six years after its runaway success pushed the movie industry to embrace 3-D, only a handful of films have used the process with such intelligence, as a tool of storytelling and not just spectacle. No one has used it better.
Avatar’s ideas are more of a mixed bag. It’s fair to see Cameron’s story, in which an American soldier takes on an alien’s body and leads a rebellion against his own people, as an elaborate workaround for the white savior narrative (even if Jake’s skin ends up being blue). And to call the movie’s environmentalist message heavy-handed would be underselling it substantially. But as the movie shifts its perspective to the world of the Na’vi, something extraordinary happens: We start to identify with them and to root against the people who most resemble us. Technically speaking, the movie’s bad guys are independent contractors and not American soldiers: “Back home, these guys were Army dogs, Marines, fighting for freedom,” Jake muses in voice-over. “But out here they’re just hired guns, taking the money, working for the company.” But their references to past campaigns in former colonies like Venezuela and Nigeria, the use of terminology and imagery familiar from U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, render the distinction between soldiers and ex-soldiers meaningless. When Stephen Lang’s fanatic colonel orders his troops to destroy Hometree, the Na’vi’s physical and spiritual home, we feel what it’s like to see American death raining down from the sky and to want revenge on those responsible for it. By the end of the movie, we’re so thoroughly in the Na’vi’s shoes that when Jake refers to human beings as “aliens,” it only seems right.
Four Avatar sequels seems pretty far-fetched. But Cameron’s career is full of far-fetched projects that turned out to be box-office gold. Once upon a time, a $200 million romance set aboard a doomed ocean liner didn’t seem like such a hot idea, either. There’s even good news for those who think the quality of Cameron’s scripts has fallen of late: He’s working with a dream team of screenwriters that includes Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Given that Cameron, who entered the business as a writer, has rarely shared screenplay credit in the past, that’s reason enough to suspect he’s trying something radically different here. (That he apparently plans to bring back several characters who were killed in Avatar is … well, it’s certainly something.)
Avatar didn’t seem to leave much story untold, but the world Cameron created—a planet in which every living organism is part of a quasi-neural network and a dying individual’s memories can be effectively backed up to the cloud—presents ample opportunities for further exploration. It wouldn’t be the first, or even the second, time in his career that Cameron has found an ingenious way out of an apparent dead end. With Aliens, Cameron transformed the way Hollywood approached the sequel. His Avatars might well do the same for the world-building franchise. The worst-case scenario is that the Avatar sequels will be an astonishing failure, which is exciting in its own way, but Cameron’s track record suggests that when he goes out on a limb, he comes back with something remarkable.