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‘Avatar’ in 2022: Returning to Pandora is a journey worth taking (in theaters)

<p>Twelve years after its release, James Cameron&#x27;s &quot;Avatar&quot; has found its way back into theaters to get fans reacquainted with the story ahead of the sequel, &quot;Avatar: The Way of Water.&quot; </p>

Twelve years after its release, James Cameron's "Avatar" has found its way back into theaters to get fans reacquainted with the story ahead of the sequel, "Avatar: The Way of Water."

It feels a lot longer than 12 years since the original theatrical release of “Avatar.”

In many ways, James Cameron’s science fiction epic belongs to a different generation of filmmaking. One where studios were still willing to take a risk on original concepts, where technological innovation was a major selling point, where movies making over a billion dollars was a privilege and not an expectation.

Considering the time gap, it’s easy to forget the significant cultural imprint “Avatar’s” release made. It became, and remains, the highest-grossing film of all time not with a roster of pre-existing characters or an oversaturated brand name, but by daring to be different, pushing the boundaries of what special effects and worldbuilding in film could look and feel like.

At least, that was the sentiment in 2009.

Now, in 2022, it seems much harder to find a common consensus on “Avatar.” People still remember the film, but it’s not uncommon to see it referred to as overrated or waved off as being pretty to look at but empty inside.

With the first of its long-gestating sequels set to hit theaters this December, it makes sense that Disney-owned 20th Century Studios would decide to re-release the film now, sporting a slew of technical enhancements presented in 3D and on the biggest screens available.

In hindsight, this feels like the only way to watch it.

“Avatar’s” greatest strength is, as it has always been, Pandora. One of the most fully-realized worlds ever put to film, the planet is teeming with alien life of all varieties spread across a landscape of incredible vistas, from dense forests to rushing rivers to breathtaking floating mountains.

Every new location is a chance to introduce some other fascinating layer: darting along an interconnected network of trees, soaring on the back of a massive winged beast, strolling across a gorgeous neon-lit jungle. There is a spiritual quality to Pandora that seeps from every nook and cranny, building an emotional connection with the viewer.

Flora and fauna play an important role as well, filling out these spaces and helping make Pandora feel naturally lived in. The design of every creature feels deliberate, as if they simply could not exist in this place in any other form.

Aiding in “Avatar’s” immersiveness are its visuals, which look just as good as they did over a decade ago.

The last 10 years of factory-line special effects underscore how lovingly crafted Pandora really is. Mixing practical elements with computer-generated ones keeps the action grounded, even during its most chaotic moments, and the 4K restoration brings out much of the CGI’s subtleties beautifully.

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Then there’s the 3D effect, which in many films feels like a tacked-on gimmick, but in “Avatar” accentuates everything nicely. Its usage varies throughout the film, sometimes adding depth to the sprawling skyscape, sometimes bringing the swarming bugs and glowing particles to the forefront. One thing it never does is get in the way.

The film balances this all with expert pacing. There’s never a dull moment, as even the slower sections have something to look at, building to a third-act action scene that is suitably propulsive and exhilarating.

In spectacle alone, “Avatar” is a monumental achievement. The trouble is, it also has to have a narrative.

On paper, “Avatar” is a pretty simple film. Marine veteran Jake Sully serves as a blank-slate audience surrogate attempting to learn the ways of the Na’vi, the native population of Pandora, and navigate their conflict with the humans that have taken up residence on the planet.

For what it is, the story mostly works. It’s nothing terribly special and has its moments of convenience and cliche, but serves its purpose as a necessary guiding force to get to the film’s unrivaled highs.

There is also some praise due for the willingness of a film of this scale to confront issues like environmentalism, capitalism and especially colonialism, even if it gets a tad on-the-nose at times. It’s obvious Cameron put some care into writing a film that complemented its own world.

Unfortunately, the film’s greatest weakness lies in its most recognizable aspect: the Na’vi.

Even at release, “Avatar” received comparisons to films like “Pocahontas” and “Dances with Wolves” for its usage of the Na’vi as a not-so-subtle parallel to Native Americans. While not an inherently problematic decision, analyzing the film from this perspective reveals lots of little problems and confusing choices.

Perhaps the most concerning element is the main thrust of the film; in order to build relations with the Na’vi, humans decide to … create artificial Na’vi and put human consciousness in them.

At its most charitable, this could be seen as a purely aesthetic choice completely divorced from any of the film’s themes. At worst, it feels like a bafflingly literal form of cultural appropriation; if only one race could actually wear the skin of another.

As it stands, the film lands somewhere in the middle. It never explicitly confronts the ethical or moral complications of this kind of scientific creation, but due to the feeling of magical realism perpetuated throughout it seems less like a direct commentary on race relations and more of a plot convenience to get characters into specific situations.

Whether the overall intent of the film’s message is read as clumsy but admirable or tone-deaf and ignorant, it’s clear “Avatar” is best enjoyed when its narrative is viewed as supplemental material, the side-dish to its visual feast.

It could be argued, then, that “Avatar” never should have been allowed outside of movie theaters.

When moved to a smaller screen, the film loses its largest selling point, forcing audiences to think less about its world and more about its plot. For many, this seems to have led to an erasure of what the first time seeing the film felt like, the mass excitement and thrill of shipping off to a whole new universe.

So returning now feels like finally being able to once again meet “Avatar” on its own level, capturing the feeling of experiencing something special for the first time, for the second time.

And for those curious about the sneak peak given for the upcoming sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” during the credits — it looks like it just might be worth the wait.