2009 In Review: ‘Avatar’ Blazed New Trails In Visual Effects, But Struggles With a Conventional Story

James Cameron remains one of the most important blockbuster directors in American cinematic history. Unsurprisingly, when Cameron broke the record for “most expensive movie ever made,” it was often for a troubled production. What separates Cameron from other directors who held that title, is that he broke his own record. Four times. Terminator 2, True Lies, and Titanic broke the infamous record, yet each finished in the Top 3 of the box office in the year of their release. When it was announced that Cameron was coming back to narrative filmmaking, rumors of a story named Avatar promised he would break that record again. While the official budget for Avatar was $237 million, other estimates have put the number closer to $300 million. While this could have been a setback for Cameron, his first narrative feature in twelve years received a Best Picture nomination. It became the highest grossing film of all time and launched a phenomenon in the process.

Pandora, the world where Avatar takes place, became the theme park land that was promised. Announced in 2011, it took six years for the land to open. Rumors about Avatar 2, 3, 4, and apparently had swirled for years. The potential names may be ridiculous, but Avatar 2 is on the way. A 2020 holiday season release will make it one of the most anticipated features of the year. Despite the appearence that Avatar is one of the most popular properties in the world, other than one of the greatest SNL sketches of the past decade, it left a tiny cultural footprint. However, it is impossible to talk about 2009 at the movies without discussing the biggest film of all time.

The Moment I Fell in Love With Avatar

Love may be a strong word, but Avatar certainly has its moments of excellent world building. The moment that sells the world and danger of Pandora comes early, after Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) joins the team in the jungle. When he’s attacked by one of the many dangerous creatures to roam Pandora, the chase features brilliant world design.

The digital world of Pandora is spellbinding. The imagination on display from Cameron and his visual effects team is breathtaking. Creatures from your worst nightmares wander the woods, while others bear a striking resemblance to deer and elk of our world. Combined with the lush jungles and floating mountains, Pandora was unlike anything we had seen on film since Star Wars.

Most Rewatchable Scene

When Jake gets lost in the woods, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) comes to the rescue. As they travel through the night, Cameron further explores the world, letting the night unleash another visual spectacle. The sea of Woodsprites and fauna were so popular, they became a staple of the theme park land years later. The sequence is still a visual showcase and reminds you why Avatar became such a phenomenon.

You can also chalk up a series of scenes starring Stephen Lang as some of the most exciting sequences of the film. He spits venom with each line, and the colonialist attitude of Quaritch shines through. Of the actors in Avatar, he not only knows what kind of movie he’s in, but he plays for the back rows. It’s the perfect kind of villain we needed to root against.

The Best Scene

Another moment that has both been mocked, but also explores the literal heights of Pandora comes when Jake makes his connection with the Banshee. After sequences early in the film, the power and danger of the banshees continues to linger in the audience’s mind, creating tangible stakes for Jake.  The sequence was jaw-dropping, even as the “make the connection” makes for a laughable sequence. However, after the bond is created, Jake and his new friend take flight among the mountains. It’s odd to say, but the cinematography during the sequence adds to the wonder and grace.

The score from James Horner is a lasting tribute to the composer, who tragically passed in 2015. Avatar was his tenth and final nomination. Even though Jake finds a bigger creature later in the film, that sequence does not hold the power of the first flight. It was such a popular sequence, Disney crafted their signature attraction around the experience.

Why You Should Watch It Again

The sequels and theme park land mean this property is here to stay. The Fox/Disney merger only further reinforces that truth. Whether we want them or not, an original sci-fi franchise is a welcome sight. Cameron is also one of the great American filmmakers. It’s impossible to ignore what he’s meant to American filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. His filmography means he deserves our respect. AliensThe AbyssTitanicTerminator, T2: Judgement Dayand True Lies. You can legitimately argue he doesn’t have a miss since his original film, Piranha II: The Spawninghis very first film.

If Cameron believes in these movies, we should believe in him. Even Alita: Battle Angelfor all of its flaws, was still ambitious. If there’s one thing you can never take away from Cameron, its that he wants to explore interesting stories. While there are issues with the conventional nature of Avatar, that has also made his projects universal. While I wish that he had gone in a different direction post-Avatar, there’s one thing I can’t deny. By the end of this saga, we will have seen more new narrative movies from Cameron than the past twenty years combined. I’ll be happy to just see his visions on the big screen again.

What do you think of Avatar? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Check out our 2009 In Review Series, running for the next three weeks at We Bought a Blog. Check back for a new film every day!

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