Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. Audiences loved the film, as did most critics. Yet in 2009 the film failed to excite me, my review was controversial, and to this day Avatar continues to give me a headache. To this day I also remember the buildup to that film’s release… and the aftermath.
I had heard rumblings about Avatar for years. James Cameron’s last theatrical film had been Titanic in 1997 — then the top-grossing film of all time — and after that massive success the director dropped out of the spotlight, focusing his time on a few IMAX documentaries. It seemed quite possible in my mind that Cameron might not ever make a film again, and with each passing year I paid less attention to the rumors that swirled about his next project.
It wasn’t until San Diego Comic-Con in 2009 that Avatar truly grabbed my attention. Signs showcasing the blue Na’vi aliens were everywhere, and all the buzz at the convention was about 20th Century Fox’s panel and the Avatar footage they would show.
My curiosity was piqued. I was a fan of Cameron’s films in the 80s and early 90s; the two Terminator films and Aliens are among some of my favorite movies. I was less thrilled with The Abyss and True Lies, and Titanic was the breaking point. The film was way too long in all respects, and while I thought it was competently made I never cared for it. As such, I wanted to see what the man who made Terminator 2 would do, but his later works prevented me from being excited.
As I wasn’t passionate for Avatar I never even thought it should be reviewed on Now Playing Podcast. That idea came from my co-host Stuart.
My memory is slightly fuzzy, but as I recall Avatar was the first film Stuart ever championed to review on the show.
Before 2009 Stuart had reviewed two only two movies for Now Playing. In 2008 I asked him to review Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I knew that compilation of episodes that Warner Bros. laughingly called a “film” was an atrocity that made The Phantom Menace look like The Maltese Falcon by comparison. Yet due to my primary podcast, Star Wars Action News, I didn’t want to eviscerate the film myself for fear of alienating any Star Wars fans excited for Clone Wars. Stuart had been writing reviews for another website for some time, and as he was one of my few friends who was not a fan of Star Wars, I felt he’d be perfect for the job.
Later that same year Stuart came to visit and we ended up seeing the Clive Barker film The Midnight Meat Train. Marjorie suggested we record a Now Playing review and I was shocked how much fun I had. Stuart’s knowledge of film plus my own horror fandom made that easily one of my favorite “early episodes” we recorded. But it was a one-off recording; there were no plans for there ever to be another. Still, I wanted to talk more horror with Stuart.
But Now Playing was not a priority for me in 2007 or 2008. During those years the show had languished; lack of regular content caused downloads to drop from the thousands to the tens. Several efforts to reignite the show had not caught on with listeners, but I enjoyed having an outlet to discuss movies when so inclined.
Things started to turn around in January 2009 when I was inspired to return to Now Playing to review the rebooted Friday the 13th, and it wasn’t enough to just do that one movie — I wanted to review the entire Friday the 13th series. And I wanted Stuart to join us.
He was hesitant. He didn’t love the franchise and wasn’t entirely sure what would be involved. Still, he agreed. Even with the lower caliber Friday entries, the recording sessions were fun. More, the audience was responding, and we started getting thousands of listeners again. As such, near the end of the Friday the 13th Retrospective we decided to continue going with Star Trek.
Things snowballed, and by late 2009 Stuart had been on dozens of shows discussing The Terminator, Halloween and more. Yet it seemed he was going along with the group. Even though there were series where he strongly liked early installments, the new releases didn’t excite him. The theatrical weekend-of-release recordings left him cold.
Until Avatar. After a long series of Halloween movie reviews Stuart wanted to do a one-off review for Cameron’s newest film.
Now it was my turn to resist.
I was hesitant for a number of reasons. First, Now Playing had tried for years to do weekend-of-release reviews, but it was the retrospective series’ that really clicked with listeners. Even in 2009 Marjorie and I had done a couple one-off reviews, but they didn’t reach a wide audience.
More, I was the editor for weekend-of-release recordings. Those shows take a bigger time commitment than any other. It’s easy to be a host on a series that doesn’t excite you — two hours of watching, two hours of recording, and you’re done. As the editor I’d have to spend another dozen hours, or more, editing and polishing the show. It’s hard to commit that amount of time for a film in which I had only mild interest.
But Stuart had been agreeable, reviewing some schlocky horror along the way. And he had already signed on for 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street retrospective, a series I was ecstatic about. Now Playing scheduling is all about negotiation, so I agreed not only to Avatar but also to his idea of a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio team-up retrospective that would kick off 2010.
Plus Stuart followed film development and studio tracking far more than I did, and he knew how big Avatar would be.
Not to say I was totally resistant. More than wanting to be a team player and “give one up” for Stuart, as the film’s marketing started to hit I was curious. As I recall though, that curiosity was more muted, and it never reached a Spider-Man 3 level where I’d have been moved to podcast about the movie. But I did get swept up in the hype enough to give Avatar the “full Now Playing treatment” — special opening and closing credits.
In many ways Stuart was right. I never would have predicted Avatar would be the biggest film ever. That Cameron’s work could best even Titanic seemed unreal to me, yet it happened. And Stuart was also right that our review would get a lot of downloads; there was interest in the movie, and so it followed that our downloads were the highest we’d gotten for a one-off review at that time.
But I had to be honest in my review of the film, and I didn’t like it very much. Avatar was made by the James Cameron who directed Titanic, not the Cameron who directed The Terminator. The story was unoriginal and propagated the story trope of an indigenous people needing a white, male savior. The movie wasn’t terrible, but it was overly long and I never found myself enthralled with the world of Pandora. It seemed Cameron had spent too much time making documentaries and forgot how to tell a story.
But the technology impressed the living hell out of me. Cameron, at his best, is a filmmaker of tight, exciting action movies, but even when he’s not at his best he pushes the envelope of filmmaking. The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Titanic all represented giant leaps in computer-generated effects. With Avatar, Cameron not only used computer imagery, but he also advanced 3-D technology to a level I’d not seen outside of theme parks.
In 2009, 3-D films were still a novelty to me. Growing up after the boom of 3-D in the 50s I only got to see two films in that format: Jaws 3-D and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (which only had the climax in 3-D). Yet the idea of being immersed in a film was exciting, so I went to see the Terminator show at Universal Studios with its amazing 3-D effects, I went to a museum to see the IMAX 3-D documentary Space Station, and I even went to see Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over in 2003 despite never having seen the first two Spy Kids films.
Slowly, 3-D films were returning, propelled by digital projection technologies. I had to travel hours to digital theaters to see such films as My Bloody Valentine 3D and The Final Destination just for the effects. They were good; gimmicky, but fun.
Yet none could hold a candle to Avatar, which not only had eye-popping effects but added depth to the frame. The 3-D was at times attention-grabbing, but at other times subtle. For the first time I saw how this new technique could really aid films in drawing viewers into the story.
That was what I thought leaving the theater in 2009. For this article I revisited Avatar on video (albeit in 2-D), and listened to the archived Now Playing Podcast review. I stand by everything I say; the movie was really impressive to look at, but also horribly dull.
The film ended up with one “Recommend” from Stuart. Marjorie — who had also co-hosted the Terminator reviews and thus was the natural choice to co-host more Cameron reviews — sided with me, and we gave two “Not Recommends.”
Reviews are a funny thing, no matter what you say, it pisses someone off. Every Now Playing host has received vitriol-filled e-mails, tweets, reviews, and more from listeners who disagree with their opinions. Rarely is this feedback constructive, filled with counter-arguments that support an opposing view. Usually the e-mails feel like notes from a kindergarten student, tantamount to saying, “You are a doodie-head,” though with many more four-letter words and, in some special cases, threats of physical violence.
Sometimes liking a film can be cause for this type of reaction, but it’s more common with negative reviews. No matter what title is being discussed, somewhere that film has an ardent fan whose feelings are hurt by having their film criticized. Superman IV, Halloween III, even Star Trek V, they all have their supporters.
While we received a few nasty-grams for our negative reviews of the Friday the 13th reboot, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, and even 2009’s Star Trek, nothing prepared me for the backlash I would receive for giving Avatar a mild “Not Recommend.” The attacks came from all sources, but primarily nasty e-mails. Listeners not only said they were never listening to our show again, they wanted to be sure I knew it, and not just from watching server traffic. They wanted to make noise as they (supposedly) walked out the door.
Our audience only continued to increase throughout 2010, but the scathing, often personal, attacks let me realize that by putting myself out there and expressing my thoughts I was really opening myself up for a lot of negativity.
While that trend has continued — each host speaking unpopular truths — I’m happy to report the positive feedback from listeners far outweighs the negative, but in the midst of Avatar-gate there were times it didn’t feel that way.
Yet, for all the attacks I received in 2009 for giving Avatar a red arrow, I have to wonder; is there still the love for this film? It truthfully feels like that movie was a flash in a pan. I see the disc on Walmart movie racks, but I know of no one who regularly re-watches the movie. It’s not in rotation on cable, network, or pay television. I see no Na’vi cosplay at conventions, and rarely does Avatar show up on lists I read of favorite or best films.
If you still love, or even strongly like, Avatar, please let me know in the comments below. For while the studio talks of two, and now three, sequels in concurrent production, I simply don’t see the demand from the fan base. Actually, I don’t even see the fan base existing at all.
So in that regard I feel vindicated. Unlike Titanic, which was inescapable for many years after its release, Avatar seems forgotten.
But I am not above issuing a correction when due, and I did say something in our 2009 review that history has proven untrue. I stated Avatar was the best looking film I’d ever seen, with the greatest 3-D effects to date, and I stand by those thoughts. I continued, though, that the next year we’d see films with even better CGI visuals, and even greater 3-D, and in that I was dead wrong. Cameron is more than an artist, he’s a technician. He has both the will, and (thanks to his track record) the studio support, to linger in development and ensure the films he makes always reach new heights. Yet here we are, five years later, and no film has bested Avatar‘s use of 3-D in film. Cameron’s work is still my high watermark against which I measure all other 3-D.
More, it seems no filmmaker is even trying to achieve that result. Technical difficulties have kept many directors away from filming in 3-D. Joss Whedon had intended to shoot 2012’s The Avengers in 3-D, but while filming the Thor stinger scene he encountered numerous production delays caused by the cameras. As such, he abandoned the medium and chose to shoot in 2-D.
Disney then post-converted The Avengers to 3-D for theaters.
And that may be Avatar’s longest lasting, and worst, outgrowth — the 3-D cash grab. It was not just by popularity that Avatar became the world’s top-grossing film, much of that was due to inflated ticket prices. The general cost of movie tickets has been steadily rising for decades, but premium surcharges put on IMAX presentations and 3-D films boosted Avatar to even greater heights. Studios wanted to continue to reap those rewards. It took a year for studios to implement the change, but by 2011 almost every major motion picture released was in 3-D — the majority post-converted in order to make more money through higher ticket prices.
Recently it seems that audiences are wising up to this gimmick and realizing that, especially with post-conversion 3-D films, the effects are not worth the extra cost. Many articles I’ve read point to a decline in 3-D film popularity. But to this day, every time I go to theaters and pay a 3-D surcharge, and every time I leave the theater with an eye-strain headache due to a piss-poor 3-D post-conversion job, I know that is truly Avatar‘s legacy.
Perhaps Cameron will succeed in bringing Avatar back to the screens. Hopefully the story will be more original, and tighter. More importantly, maybe they will change Avatar‘s place in film history from “the film that popularized 3-D” to “the sci-fi fantasy saga of the 21st Century.”
Or perhaps I’ll give more negative reviews to dull films.
Time will tell.
But then again, perhaps the true, best legacy of Avatar was expanding Now Playing’s boundaries. It’s not often that we do one-off reviews, but Stuart’s correct insistence that we review Cameron’s 2009 epic exposed our show to new listeners and helped expand even the type of film we review. For that, I am grateful.
Tomorrow — 2010!
Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys. You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec