James Cameron’s CGI blockbuster Avatar opened in theaters 10 years ago, on Dec. 18, 2009. A decade later, we still don’t have a sequel—Avatar 2 is scheduled to be released in 2021, followed by three more Avatar films. But thanks to the influx of streaming services and mobile devices, it’s easy to revisit the original movie—as a few of us at the Daily Dot did over the weekend.
We discovered a lot while watching Avatar in 2019—like the fact that most of us couldn’t remember Sam Worthington’s character’s name (It’s Jake Sully) but how we still remember the discourse about the “hair sex” scene (more on that below). Mostly, we thought that Avatar felt like a generic blockbuster you’d see on Netflix. The dialogue is basic, the characters aren’t very memorable, and the message about global warming resonated better in the ’90s animated film FernGully: The Last Rainforest. At its core, Avatar is a movie that makes a white man the hero in a story about humans killing the natives and destroying the natural habitat of a habitable moon called Pandora in order to mine a mineral named, of all things, Unobtainium. We learn about the Na’vi, the 10-feet-tall humanoids who reside on Pandora, through Sully, who inhabits a genetically engineered “avatar” body. Would this movie be a hit today? Yeah, probably not. Here’s our full discussion on Avatar.
What is Avatar actually about?
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, staff writer: It’s about the AMERICAN DREAM. you could write such a great children’s book report on this movie. James Cameron is so keen to Tell A Story about climate change and pollution and the military-industrial complex, but he keeps tripping up over the central fact that it’s a white savior fantasy.
Michelle Jaworski, staff writer: A man whose personality is so devoid of anything that he literally is an avatar.
Anna Maria Ward, social media editor: Avatar is the modern colonial fantasy—since colonizing land is Bad, white people are only allowed to want to colonize bodies and cultures now. Lowkey? Jordan Peele’s Get Out was kind of an Avatar subtweet.
First impressions? (Whether you watched it for the first time or revisited it.)
Audra Schroeder, senior staff writer: OK, so this is the first time I ever watched Avatar, but it felt like Cameron was trying to show us what virtual reality would be…and it is not accurate. I thought it was still a visually interesting movie, but having watched it right before the Watchmen finale, you really see how weak the storytelling is.
Gavia: My first impression upon rewatching was, “This is WAY hornier than I remember.”
Michelle: I just noticed how poorly some of the CGI—which felt next-level at the time, especially if you watched it in IMAX/3D—aged. Both in time and the type of screen. (I watched it on Disney+.) The spaceship also reminded me of the spaceship you see in every single sci-fi TV show where a doomed crew is living in space or traveling to a distant planet. It feels wholly uninspired.
Anna Maria: First impression: “Oh, I’m not gonna be able to enjoy this at ALL, will I?” Second impression: “Ah yes, ableism.” Speaking of the CGI, this movie was really heralded for how pretty Pandora is, and it’s definitely gorgeous, but like….it didn’t feel real to me at all? It was too perfect? I wasn’t immersed in the world.
It’s hard to pick….but what were the worst parts about this movie?
Gavia: The romance is Not Good, which is an issue because the whole story hangs on the idea of Sully being this uniquely amazing guy living out the colonial Pocahontas fantasy.
Audra: Sully’s voiceover felt unnecessary. Also, the dialogue is pretty bad.
Anna Maria: Obviously, the insulting Indigenous stereotypes present in the depiction of the Na’vi, the hypersexualization of every female character, etc., but also the overarching ableist narrative of how Sully is physically inferior to his brother because he’s disabled and he can only be free by occupying an abled minority’s body. The fact that they have spaceships but they put him in a 1990s wheelchair to really underline how “trapped” he was……Jesus.
Gavia: As a sci-fi fan, I’m very frustrated by the inherent coolness of the Avatar technology, and how the movie doesn’t explore this at all. there’s no implication of dysphoria or discussions of how it might be used on Earth, it’s just like… we’ve invented this magical device that turns you into a blue alien?
Anna Maria: There’s also something especially appalling about how they genetically engineered Indigenous bodies and that was just…fine?
Michelle: Avatar wanted to be this Big and Important Film, but it doesn’t have any more substance than a subpar superhero movie. We have no view into what the Earth of Avatar’s futuristic setting actually feels about anything. Someone says at one point that it’d cause this huge scandal if the military just killed all of the Na’vi, but would it? They’re apparently OK with veterans having shitty benefits that they can’t afford major surgeries. I almost feel like they wouldn’t care.
Also, the mineral that they’re digging for is literally called Unobtanium. COME ON. I could come up with a more original name.
Gavia: MY FAVORITE PART OF THE FILM. It’s so wild that just stayed in the script. It’s a filler word! It’s like calling your McGuffin “the McGuffin”.
Anna Maria: I CRINGED INTO ANOTHER DIMENSION AT ‘UNOBTANIUM’.
And we can’t discuss Avatar without talking about that ‘hair sex’ scene.
Gavia: It’s a TERRIBLE sex scene, much like every sexual or implicitly sexual thing in the movie, but in terms of worldbuilding, kinda love the wackiness of having a psychic ponytail that allows you to plug into your orgasm buddy AND into your pet pterodactyl.
The psychic sex ponytail situation is very specifically like a poorly-fleshed-out alien culture from an early season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where [William] Riker bangs a forest lady.
Anna Maria: James Cameron had like, a much longer and more graphic scene in mind.
So Avatar turns 10 years old this week! And until Avengers: Endgame, it was the top-grossing film of all time. Would this movie be as successful if it came out today?
Gavia: I can IMMEDIATELY say no to this one. Avatar arrived at the perfect moment right before the Marvel boom hit. 2009 was also a slow period for big sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters—between the Star Wars prequels and sequel trilogy, and also after LOTR wrapped up. If Avatar came out now, everyone would dismiss it as another John Carter Of Mars, and wonder why James Cameron wasted his time on it, because everyone still does really love his other work.
Michelle: If it was a theatrical release, we would be making memes and mocking it like we are with Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog. If it was Netflix, we’d forget about it within a week.
Audra: Yeah, I thought it was interesting that for how game-changing the film was it hasn’t stayed in the discourse. Like, The Matrix, another movie about spirituality and identity, has endured online and has a lot of fan theories. We even still talk about Titanic. Are there Avatar memes?
Gavia: The only Avatar memes are about how no one remembers Avatar. Also, there’s the fact that it has no fandom whatsoever. Several times, I’ve seen people share the AO3 stats on the fact that no one really writes Avatar fanfic, and the cultural impact was negligible.
There was this period of six months where everyone was totally obsessed—I personally knew a guy who LEARNED NA’VI—and then it totally vanished and the Marvel Age took over Hollywood.
Audra: The SNL Avatar font sketch is the most recent pop-culture reference I remember.
Is there a hidden ‘good’ movie in here, or at least a better one? If Cameron just focused on the Na’vi…would it be more interesting?
Michelle: If you focused it on just the Na’vi people and their inter-personal lives/issues, maybe. But without recognizable faces (i.e. white actors playing humans), you’d probably never get it funded by Hollywood. It still probably wouldn’t have gotten funded if you took out the sci-fi elements and told the story of an indigenous community without those colonial themes/elements and racist tropes.
Anna Maria: Even if you moved around elements to take out all the racism, sexism, ableism, etc., it’s a really basic story. I would theoretically LOVE a sci-fi tale focused on a fully made-up species because, like, sure! But I don’t think it’s possible for someone like James Cameron to do that, and the Na’vi themselves are already such a tired collection of racist tropes that I don’t think there’s any way to scrounge up a story there. Anytime I try to think of ways to rework Avatar, all I can come up with is “start from scratch with a completely different creative team.”
Gavia: This is something I thought about a lot when I rewatched it, because it’s probably clear I have a lot of interest and respect for James Cameron’s other work, but…… no. There’s not a good movie hidden in there. It’s a very generic blockbuster storyline and every worldbuilding element is simply too problematic. And as someone who enjoys reading/writing fanfic, I’m willing to do a lot of work to get invested in poorly-written or problematic canons, i.e. Stargate.
Also there aren’t any CHARACTERS to care about! I don’t care about anyone beyond the superficial entertainment value of watching Michelle Rodriguez drive a space robot thing!
Avatar 2 comes out in two years. What do you want to see in it?
Anna Maria: Honestly? I want it to be a complete shitshow.
Michelle: I would like to see any of these characters develop a personality.
Gavia: I’m incredibly curious about the Avatar sequels because I’ve been tracking them for years and years, and they have been FILMING THEM for years and years, virtually in secret, with an investment of a billion dollars… and there’s no particular suggestion they’re even aware of the cultural conversation around the original Avatar? i.e. “people are no longer invested in this franchise, and also it’s widely regarded to be racist.”
Michelle: It’s hard to believe that the U.S. would just let that untapped Unobtanium be left despite being bested by the Na’vi. I don’t want to see another colonial attempt/invasion, but like, it feels weird just for them to go back home with their tails between their legs.
Anna Maria: I would love to see Sully being relegated to being an ordinary citizen with no special privileges. And then he realizes being a Na’vi isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when the humans start attacking again.
Gavia: Well, he was one before! He was just some soldier guy; the everyman. but it would be great if he’s now like, the village basket-weaver.
Audra: I would love for it to be a comedy about a stay-at-home dad.
Gavia: Why isn’t Sully more fucked up about living in an ENTIRELY NEW BODY, is a question that should be answered in the next film.
Anna Maria: By the time the movie ended, I was genuinely depressed. Avatar is such a testament to the inevitability of white guilt leading to the appropriation of oppression. I think Avatar‘s box office success sent a stronger message than the actual film did—white audiences always have and always will love movies that let themselves see a world in which they’re absolved of guilt and unconditionally accepted by the marginalized.
Michelle: Not to make this about Star Wars, but I rewatched a Star War over the weekend, and it just struck me how much more substance there is in those characters over Avatar.
Audra: I kind of just felt nothing after the credits rolled. Like, any message it had in 2009 has been watered down, and I hope the next movie is Avatar 2: Watered Down.
Gavia: At the time, there was talk about it “raising awareness” of climate change and indigenous populations having their lands invaded by mining companies etc, but… I don’t think that made much impact on like, The Culture. The main impact was the fact that it required hundreds of movie theaters to install 3D projectors, which in turn led to more 3D movies being released and fewer traditional-film/mid-budget dramas getting airtime.