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Avatar review – spectacular visuals undone by a slight and sappy story

James Cameron's epic blockbuster, the highest-grossing movie ever, is back in theatres to drum up anticipation for the sequel

I can still recall the conversation in the lobby afterwards, where it was genuinely proposed by multiple parties that Avatar was possibly the greatest cinematic achievement of all time (forgive me, I was but 20). Blame the hype machine, or maybe just bad taste, though then I'd been balled over by its sheer visual innovation, 3D spectacle that seemed to signal a new future of cinema that never really arrived. Tellingly, I never once felt the urge to revisit Avatar in the thirteen years after first seeing it – suggestive, perhaps, that that experience had been a slightly hollow one, with little to go back for outside of the film's technical heights.

Well, now Avatar has returned to theatres ahead of its long-awaited sequel, due in December, to confirm little else other than it is, in fact, a movie. How that initial assessment of blue-tinted perfection has buckled under the passage of time, although it must be said that James Cameron's billion dollar-grossing blockbuster for the most part remains visually stunning for something rendered in 2009.

Hundreds of years in the future, we find soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair user arrived on a faraway planet and enlisted as part of an experimental procedure that allows him to jump into the body of blue-skinned alien race “the Na'vi.” He's tasked with infiltrating their ranks, but falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), setting us on the path for a war between the humans and the planet's native inhabitants. But the story is clunky, the characters cardboard, the acting prosthetic, the politics wobbly and confused. The movie feels more than ever like a package of tropes, eased only by the arrival of a genuinely thrilling sequence every now and again as to lift us out of Cameron's hammy and stilted dialogue.

This was, and now still is again, the highest-grossing movie of all-time (and to this day we still find ourselves wondering why). But without the rush of new technology that captured our imaginations in 2009, Avatar does now play like a fairly average action movie effort. It's all very sincere, with an unsubtle emphasis on the power of love and nature over nukes, and the 162 minute runtime is eventually draining. Still, the final action sequence, an aerial battle that takes place through lush sky gardens modelled on China's Zhangjiajie Forest Park, stands as one of Cameron's best set-pieces and is still as thrilling as I remember. There are real moments of wonder here – but the Na'vi are fundamentally just not that interesting. Watching it again ironically made me less excited for Avatar 2.

Avatar is re-released in UK cinemas on 23 September.

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