Avatar (2009) is still a technical masterpiece, even by today’s standards

It’s been 13 years since Avatar burst onto the scene, quickly becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Despite its age, you could tell me this movie came out in 2022 and I’d believe you – that’s how well it holds up. Just in case you need a refresher – it follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who journeys to the planet of Pandora on a mission to relocate the local Na’vi. While in the body of a Na’vi/human hybrid, he becomes torn on whether to fulfil his task or protect the planet he’s grown fond of.

Written and directed by James Cameron, the first thing to catch anyone’s eye would be the enormous scope and scale of the project. The ambition is through the roof, with Cameron putting his all into every corner of the film to ensure it’s the best it could possibly be. With all this ambition came the risk of failure, but thankfully Avatar delivered on everything it promised and pulled off something truly spectacular. Firstly, the visuals. The world of Pandora is one of the most realistic yet out-of-this-world environments ever put to screen, and Cameron captures it via a dose of flawless cinematography from Mauro Fiore. There’s lush forests and breathtaking landscapes aplenty, with every shot as beautiful as the last. I just find it incredible that a film from 2009 can have visual effects that are cleaner, crisper and more realistic than most movies made today.

The big draw of the film when it hit cinemas back in 2009 was its extensive and incredible use of 3D technology. Upon release, it was (and still is) the best use of 3D that I’d ever seen, and for the first time ever 3D felt like more than just a cheap gimmick. Seeing it in IMAX 3D way-back-when enhanced every visual aspect, amplifying the overall immersion and making the film a boat-load of extra money. Upon this rewatch, I wanted to see whether streaming it at home off Disney+, without the benefits of an IMAX screen and 3D tech, would diminish the quality. I can safely say it holds up and looks just as fantastic as I remember it. Obviously IMAX 3D is the superior way to see it, but it’s good to see that the film isn’t 100% dependent on it.

Considering how long the film is, it all really flies by. It nears on three hours, but I reckon it could have easily gotten there without sacrificing the pacing. I’d have loved few more scenes and sequencing developing the Na’vi community, because the moments that are already included are very interesting. It sounds blasphemous to want to add more runtime to this film, but it’s such an engaging narrative that anything they could add would only enhance what’s already there. I also understand that there is a slightly extended collector’s edition out there, proving there’s always room for more.

As for the story, it’s the biggest (and only) criticism I see people have of the film – identifying a lack of originality as their main complaint. I honestly think the narrative really works – it’s thrilling nearly the entire way through and doesn’t waste time meandering though meaningless subplots. Is it the most original and game-changing arc out there? No, but not every film needs to be. The world itself is so vast, with such a deep and interesting backstory, that I find myself hooked in the lore of Pandora through every viewing. The story hits certain beats you know are coming, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest because it’s entertaining. From huge battle sequences to the more subtle character-focused moments, this is definitely a more layered story than people give it credit for. It’s definitely on the simple side, for sure, but the setting alone adds this richness that I really admire.

For me, the performances are potentially the least ground-breaking element of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, everyone in here is great – with Zoe Saldana giving an especially emotion-charged performance – but I’ve never ended the film thinking “wow, that person blew me away”. Sam Worthington is a very strong lead – he’s not the most charismatic personality, but he’s easy to root for and carries some key scenes very well. Even the likes of Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez are really damn good. I find everyone plays their respective roles well, I just wouldn’t be nominating anyone in here, which is okay.

The late James Horner‘s score is another technical achievement that will be sorely missed in the upcoming sequel. The spectacular visuals are one thing, but the accompaniment of Horner’s score as the camera sweeps over a vast landscape will give you genuine chills. It definitely evokes notes of his Oscar-winning Titanic score, capturing the heart and intensity of the film in its key moments.

In the end, James Cameron’s Avatar is a phenomenon that holds its own to this day. It’s absolutely breathtaking across all of its technical areas, but none more than the visual effects. For a 13-year-old movie, the visuals are beyond amazing. They’re so good that this could easily pass as a 2022 release, something that can’t be said about many movies. The story holds up well, and best of all – this is still a massively entertaining watch whether it’s in IMAX 3D or not. Get ready for Avatar: The Way of Water the right way – with another rewatch of this modern classic.

9.5/10

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