Revisiting “Avatar” Thirteen Years Later: Still An All-Time Great

The rerelease of the 2009 epic confirms its place among the all-time greats.

Photo Courtesy / YouTube Avatar

There is something about James Cameron’s “Avatar” that prevents its relevance from fully dissipating. Perhaps it is the 2009 epic’s box office success — it remains first all-time on the global leaderboard, often being brought up whenever a new film lands on the list. Alternatively, it could be the seemingly endless saga that has been the development of its sequels. The film’s strong presence at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom certainly contributes to its staying power as well.

After seeing the film once again in IMAX 3D, I have concluded that it is just that emblematic and groundbreaking, even thirteen years later.

“Avatar” became a topic of debate for many people when “Avengers: Endgame” hit theaters, as the two projects jostled for positioning on the all-time grossing charts. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were quick to dismiss Cameron’s work, citing the emergence of IMAX and RealD 3D at that time as the sole reason for the film’s popularity.

While the emerging appeal of those technologies at the time certainly contributed to its box office success, it was not until my experience seeing the remastered film that I truly appreciated what Cameron achieved with “Avatar.”

From a technical standpoint, the 2009 film’s visual effects triumph over most projects today. This was no small feat for the crew to accomplish, as the entirety of the film takes place on a fictional planet named Pandora. Here the native people, called the Na’vi, are blue humanoids with cat-like features standing approximately 10 feet tall. Set in the year 2154, the fictional technology and equipment showcased throughout also required plenty of computer-generated imagery (CGI). 

That would be a daunting task for any studio to accomplish today, much less in 2009 when “Avatar” debuted. This accomplishment deserves far better than the film’s legacy being minimized to the spectacle of 3D and IMAX.

To do any justice whatsoever to the Earth, each one of us must make conscious sacrifices to reduce our individual consumption.”

— Mike Peterson, The Torch (2010)

While the beautiful, unparalleled visuals of “Avatar” can be enjoyed throughout, its plot and storyline are equally as impactful on the viewer. Though its comparisons to Disney’s “Pocahontas” are certainly warranted to some degree, “Avatar” stands out by refusing to sugarcoat man’s desire for profit above anything else — whether that be the native culture, the environment or sacred land. Cameron masterfully creates parallels that force audiences to reflect on both current and historic events, something that is unfortunately easy to do over a decade later.

Upon seeing the film, I looked to The Torch’s archive to see if students had anything to say about the film when it was initially released. Sure enough, a contributing writer in 2010 shared their thoughts on how Cameron masterfully intertwined religious and political metaphor into “Avatar,” making particular note of the Western perspective on the natural world. The writer concluded their piece with an inspiring call to action.

“The point [of the film] was to show that, like Jake Sully, we must defy convention and brave uncertainty if we are to stand on the side of biospheric truth,” Mark Peterson wrote for The Torch. “To do any justice whatsoever to the Earth, each one of us must make conscious sacrifices to reduce our individual consumption.”

It is depressing to think about what the film’s legacy has become since that contributing writer’s piece was published. What does the general public truly remember about the film? Not much more than the visual spectacle of the piece, unfortunately; this is most evident in how people have discussed “Avatar” in the aforementioned “Avengers: Endgame” debate, despite Cameron’s attempts to highlight environmentalism and colonial exploitation.

I will not pretend that “Avatar” is a flawless work; the film does not boast any award-winning performances, although Zoe Saldaña stands out from her castmates as the female lead Neytiri. Thankfully the writing is just strong enough to keep up with “Avatar’s” technical achievements, making for an excellent experience that many films today cannot achieve without A-list castings.

The sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” will arrive in theaters on December 16, so this remastered version of the first film could not have arrived at a better time. A third feature has also been filmed and is slated for a 2024 release, with biannual installments beyond that soon to be confirmed as well. Needless to say, there is no better time to check out 2009’s “Avatar” if you have not already. Perhaps these later entries in the story of Pandora will leave a greater impact on pop culture moving forward.

Viewers can see “Avatar” in beautiful IMAX 3D for a limited time only. Though it is currently unavailable on the streaming service due to its theatrical run, expect the epic to return to Disney+ sometime in the coming weeks.