It’s no exaggeration to call Avatar one of the most bizarrely underrated movies of the last decade. James Cameron’s sci-fi epic made nearly 2.8 billion dollars worldwide, scoring nine Oscar nominations and three wins. Everybody saw this thing. Yet nowadays it seems to garner little but shrugs and outright scorn from many audiences. Just look at the comments section of any article about its upcoming sequels. It's wild.
The complaints raised by Avatar’s critics have become predictable by now, varying wildly in how reasonable they are. It’s a ripoff of Pocahontas? Sure, but stories are recycled all the time, in every narrative medium. Sam Worthington’s an uncharismatic protagonist? I think he does a serviceable job, but I get it. It’s a white-saviour narrative with barely-disguised Native American analogues? Absolutely with you there. People only went to see it because of the 3D? That was definitely part of it, but I’d posit that “a new movie by the director of Titanic, Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, The Abyss, and True Lies” was just as big a deal.
Which brings me to the nice thing I’m saying for this column (about a movie I genuinely like, but I accept many people despise): James Cameron’s direction in Avatar is so good, it feels literally textbook.
That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not. Cameron is one of those rare directors who knows (either instinctively or with considerable planning) what shots and blocking to use to create his desired emotional, tonal, or narrative effect. This is a basic building block of directing, but it’s remarkable how difficult that building block is. You can complain about the script or duration of Avatar all you want, but not a single shot in the movie is wasted or ineffective.
There are multiple schools of directing, of course, all of which have different values. Some directors value expression and beauty; others, bombast and dynamism; still others, pace or jokes or scale or realism or intimacy. Just like in painting or music, there’s no one style inherently more effective than any other - all these styles can coexist happily in the wide world of cinema.
James Cameron comes from a school of directing that values narrative functionality and visual grammar above all else. Film grammar is a subject so layered and complex that huge tomes have been written about it, but the basic premise is this: if film is a language, then that language must have grammar. A century of invention and analysis in filmmaking has taught that different shot sizes, edits, and camera moves have specific, definable effects upon audiences. The way filmmakers use shots, edits, and other elements of visual storytelling, then, represent that grammar - and how it’s deployed has powerful effects on the audience.
On a basic level, rules like (but not limited to) breaking the 180-degree line exist to establish consistent action and prevent the audience from becoming disoriented. But digging deeper, emotion and narrative are inextricably tied to the basic building blocks of film grammar. Whether because we’re trained to, or because of something more intrinsically psychological, we’re awed when the camera pulls back dramatically; we get emotionally invested in a closeup; a smash cut jars, makes us pay attention, or creates a comic juxtaposition. When a film fails to connect, it’s often (but not always) down to misuse of this film grammar. Tom Hooper’s films are notorious in this regard: he puts shots in his films that objectively work counter to the intended effect.
James Cameron doesn’t have this problem. He never has, really; pretty much his entire filmography is unimpeachable when it comes to direction. Every shot in Avatar has a purpose: when the camera lingers on Jakes’s toes gripping the dirt for the first time in years, when it angles low to take in his forest surroundings, when it thunders frantically through the bush as he’s chased by wildlife, or when it goes handheld for frantic emotional scenes, there’s no questioning Cameron’s storytelling goals - or whether he’s achieving them. Without exception, we always know where everybody is and what they’re doing - a surprisingly difficult skill that few directors truly master. Only Steven Spielberg really betters Cameron in this regard, infusing his films with more emotional heft without sacrificing the rhythm and motion of action.
Best of all, for all Cameron’s obsession with technical innovations, he never lets them get in the way of his storytelling (in the way that his colleague Peter Jackson notably has). Cameron might be shooting twelve-foot-tall blue aliens flying around on dragons fighting mech warriors, but he shoots that material with the same attention to geography and storytelling basics that he’d use to shoot a dialogue scene (and, importantly, vice versa). Though entirely digital in many cases, the camerawork in Avatar remains rooted in real camera techniques; the blocking, rooted in physics, thanks to being accomplished physically in a motion-capture volume. Even his 3D depth cues are used subtly, in conjunction with more traditional focus-plane control. It’s seriously stunning craftsmanship for anyone who values that kind of thing.
There are definitely audiences out there who still love Avatar - they’re just not the same people who comment on BMD articles or participate in Film Twitter snark. The online film-criticism bubble may represent interesting discourse, but it likely isn’t representative of the public at large, who mostly just want to go to the movies to have a good time. Avatar delivered that good time. It remains to be seen whether or not its sequels will match it, but if James Cameron maintains the propulsive, functional quality of his direction, it’s likely they will.
Unless, of course you’re determined not to have a good time.