I rewatched James Cameron’s Avatar so you don’t have to

I rewatched Avatar (2009) so you don't have to. But maybe you should, because it holds up surprisingly well....

It’s well known that despite having record-breaking box office takings, Avatar (2009) doesn’t really have a fanbase to speak of, nor, apparently, a single person that remembers the plot of the film.

I think ‘Be careful, Sully!’ or ‘Here, attach your pony tail to the back of this flying horse thing and it will look really cool’ were memorable lines of dialogue, but who can say?

We know it’s about the big blue aliens, who are clumsy metaphors for Indigenous peoples. There’s some climate change parables too, I think, and a secret ore called Unobtanium (I did look this one up in case I was wildly off-course, but nope: that was exactly what they called it). Oh and it had Sigourney Weaver! I love her.

Sigourney! Image: Twentieth Century Fox

When I look back on this cultural touchstone, the thing that stands out most for me is the swift and thorough way in which the 3D effects gave me a migraine.

So, naturally, when the sequel The Way of Water was announced (soon to be followed by two other sequels), I started panicking. Would I be confused if I went straight into number two, without really remembering any key points of number one? And what if I wasn’t the only one?

Thus, as a kind of noble sacrifice, I booked myself in to see a retrospective showing of Avatar (2009), in 3D, at Hoyts. Now I can tell everyone what it was really about!

Without further ado, here’s my recap of Avatar before seeing the sequel Avatar: The Way of Water on 16 December.

Re-introducing: Avatar

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As I made my way into the cinema, I began to feel a little nervous. The bright blue lighting in the foyer had already given me a headache, and I’d just been told our phones were to be ‘cloaked’ for security purposes (i.e. put in a little insulated bag with an electronic clip that doesn’t come off until the end). This is done so that people won’t pirate the movie, which seems like overkill for a film that came out over ten years ago and has been watched by billions already …

Nevertheless, I did as I was told and proceeded in to find a seat – the one nearest the exit.

There was a quick teaser trailer for The Way of Water, and then the main feature began. I silently thanked Hoyts for having the shortest reel of ads ever, considering Avatar is 2 hours and 44 minutes long. Small mercies.

And then, something wonderful happened. Having forgotten 90% of the movie and walking in with expectations at ground level, I somehow … enjoyed it?

What? How? Why? I will attempt to explain.

I’m somehow enjoying myself and I’m mad about it. Image: Twentieth Century Fox

Like being under some kind of CGI spell, I was completely captivated by the story of Jake Sully, the Avatar project, Neytiri the Na’vi and the war for Unobtanium (I still think that’s a silly name). It also completely blindsided me that this filmed looked better than most blockbusters I had seen over the last decade – and it felt like the 3D was really earned. Avengers: Infinity War, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, and Jurassic World all pale in comparison.

Not only was it beautiful to look at, but its runtime never became a nuisance due to the tight script and superbly-paced editing. Ugh. I feel like such a nerd.

The characters are fun and likeable, but do veer into stereotypes – we have Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the former Marine , who is thick-headed with a heart of gold (and disabled, too, for extra pathos), Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a no-nonsense female scientist, Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) the sassy Latinx woman who only talks in quips, and Colonel Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang), a trigger-happy redneck from the South who only cares about himself.

Then of course there’s the Na’vi, the species native to Pandora (the world where the space mission takes place).

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a young and curious Na’vi woman who learned English in Dr Augustine’s school, finds Jake in the forest after he is separated from his crew. Then their Dances With Wolves/Pocahontas/Fern Gully/Atlantis: The Lost Empire story begins. You’ve heard all the comparisons before, and in parts this criticism still holds up. Jake Sully quickly becomes a white saviour to the ‘noble savages’ of Pandora, after Mary Sue-ing his way through coming-of-age ceremonies and being accepted as one of the Na’vi. It’s uncomfortable.

There are also incredibly weird moments involving the Na’vi’s plaited hair, which acts as a kind of limb/extension of the central nervous system. But also maybe a penis?? Seriously: Sigourney Weaver’s character tells Sully to ‘stop playing with it or you’ll go blind’. What does that mean, James Cameron?? Why do they also stick it into the antennae of their quadrupedal creatures in order to mount and ride them???

I’m quite uncomfortable with the implications here. Image: Twentieth Century Fox

And yet despite it all – the inevitable smurf comparisons, the Papyrus subtitle font, the obvious metaphors, the archetypal characters painted with broad strokes, and the headache it gave me once again – I loved it. It’s a super fun ride, and definitely worth a trip to the cinema. I was even sad when it was over. Maybe not Avatar-Induced Depression levels of sad, but definitely a little bit bummed.

What am I supposed to do with that information now?

(L-R): Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) and Jake Sully (voiced by Sam Worthington) in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo courtesy of WETA. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

The rundown

Here’s a snappy guide to details you don’t remember from the ending of Avatar (SPOILERS ahead if you somehow haven’t seen it yet. Hello! How is life outside of the cave?).

  • Neytiri and Jake Sully are lovers who have mated for life.
  • Jake has given up his human form and chosen to be a Na’vi forever. He did this via the The Tree of Souls, which allows communication and exchange with the life-giving goddess Eywa.
  • Dr Augustine was badly injured and died, despite an attempt to connect her mind/soul with her Na’vi form. However, Sigourney Weaver is slated to be in the sequel. Say what?
  • The soldiers who were destroying Pandora to dig up Unobtanium lost the battle, and were sent back home.
  • It’s strongly implied that the version of earth that they came from is completely desolate thanks to climate change.
  • There are other tribes of Na’vi on Pandora who do not always get along, but were able to work together against a common enemy this one time.

And that’s pretty much it! The story of Way of Water follows Jake Sully, Neytiri and their children on Pandora, so it is a direct sequel to the first film. That’s all you need to know.

Avatar (2009) will be back in cinemas for a limited time from 23 September. Its sequel, The Way of Water, is out on 16 December 2022.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports