Avatar Remastered, Revisited

The highest grossing film of all time when not adjusting for inflation (1939’s Gone with the Wind will always have that title), not based on established IP, and created by Steven Spielberg’s successor as king of the blockbuster James Cameron, should have an indelible mark on 21st Century culture, right? 

2009’s Avatar is perhaps the most curious artefact in the history of cinema. At once a totemic text seen by an entire generation, reviving 3D as the preferred medium for primetime blockbuster entertainment (as well as leading electronics companies to release 3D TV’s), until audiences grew weary years later. And yet, why does the film seem to lack any form of lasting cultural imprint?

This is a film Roger Ebert opened his four-star review by stating, “Watching “Avatar,” I felt sort of the same as when I saw “Star Wars” in 1977.” So, why does a film celebrated by critics and seen by an enormous audience at the time feel so disconnected from cinema history and modern culture?

Now, in 2022, 20th Century Fox (now owned by Disney) has remastered Avatar, putting it back in theatres before the release of Avatar 2: The Way of Water (2022). I was not writing about films when the film was in theatres in 2009, but I was among the masses that saw the film in IMAX, an experience that left a mark on my psyche, even if the film itself did not. By remastering and rereleasing the film into theatres upon the release of its long gestated sequel, they are giving a new generation the opportunity to live through that again, but does it hold up?

Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri in Avatar

Surprisingly, it really does. The film is an 80s action film dressed in the clothes of a 21st sci-fi epic. The performances are hammy (Stephen Lang is an all-time 80s villain in this), creating a buoyancy between scenes. This buoyancy allows Cameron to do what he does better than almost any filmmaker; pace an engaging film, no matter the runtime. Genuinely one of the breeziest 160+ minute films you’re likely to see, something that has been severely lacking in modern Hollywood filmmaking.

Visually, the film is without comparison. It is ridiculous to consider the budget for the film is akin to this year’s The Gray Man, the cinematic equivalent of a beige wall. The visuals have been upscaled and remastered for this new version returning to cinemas and is remarkable to see a film of this quality on screen, especially within a quiet month of theatrical releases. Cameron has always been able to get the most out of a budget, finding new ways to scale up even an enormous sci-fi epic. 

Avatar was once the story of the 2000s, and as we get further away from its release the clearer it is that the film excels in stark contrast to modern blockbuster filmmaking. You could do a lot worse this weekend than seeing the somehow ill-remembered, but still high-quality mega-blockbuster from one of Hollywood’s living legends.

Avatar Remastered is having a limited release in theatres from September 22nd.