Flashback Friday: Avatar – A 13-Year Retrospective

 For anyone who loves films, Avatar has been one of the strangest phenomena in cinema. Upon its 2009 release, the film made rounds as one of the greatest films ever made, with news of it breaking yet another record becoming a daily occurrence. The movie quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time. It maintained that position for a decade, until Avengers: Endgame dethroned it for a mere 3 years; after the 2022 re-release Avatar, became the highest-grossing film for the second time.

But only a few years after its release, Avatar virtually vanished from the collective consciousness of pop culture. Why is it that films like Titanic have become classics, and films like The Avengers and Star Wars have generated countless memes and favourite characters, but Avatar has simply disappeared? What was the last time that you heard someone say that the movie was on their list of Top 5 favourite movies? How many people you know can name the film’s main character even if they had seen the film?

That, however, is only half the story. The true anomaly of Avatar cannot be understood until you consider that this film took 10 years to make. At first, this may seem like an exaggeration, a rumour or a myth, propagated to make the film seem bigger and grander. But no, this simple sci-fi story about a classic hero’s arc of a white man defending an indigenous culture from his people did spend 10 years in production. 

Director James Cameron had planned and written the film back in 1996, a full 13 years before release. However, what stalled production was the fact that Cameron felt that technology had not yet caught up to his vision for the film. The Titanic director spent the next decade working with special effects engineers to reverse engineer major technological advancements that he believed were necessary to convey the story he wanted to tell. These advancements have been extremely impactful on the film industry as a whole, and are still in use today.

Watching the film in theatres for the second time now, the stunning special effects and revolutionary CGI still hold up perfectly. The gorgeous vistas created by cinematographer Mauro Fiore are breathtaking and I could feel goosebumps during several scenes. If there is one thing that Avatar excels at, it’s transporting you to Pandora. Updated to even newer effects and with improved sound design, the film can be a truly stunning sight.

But that was not the only thing the film underwent in the 10 years of production. Cameron spent just as long working with professional linguists and sociologists to forge an entire race and an entire culture. What may seem like many insignificant details used for world-building is, in fact, all part of one vast, complex cultural system that exists only inside Cameron’s mind. The Na’vi have their elaborate history, physiology, music and customs, and even an entire language that was scientifically developed.

Which brings us back to our question: why is so little of this ever shown to the audience? Why is what we see on screen such a simple story, with the elaborate ecosystem of Pandora that took a decade to formulate acting as a simple accessory? For a movie that took so much care to craft, the story that we see has little love put into it. Perhaps that is why a movie with so much potential fell short so drastically and was forgotten so quickly: while James Cameron had a lot he wanted to show, through stunning visuals and a complex planet that he envisioned, there was very little he had to say about it.

The few added scenes in the film did little to help the situation, as they simply showed us characters that the audience is unfamiliar with, leaving little that we can relate to.

Regardless, upon the December release of the sequel, the audienc can at least be sure to expect a visually stunning movie, enhanced even further with modern technology. We can only hope that the film can utilise its vast wealth of world-building elements more effectively and pull the audience into the story of Pandora itself, not just the stand-in human characters. 

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