One of the longest-awaited sequels in movie history, early reception to Avatar: The Way of Water’s first trailer has been mostly positive. The first film, released in 2009, certainly has its fans and they’ve been looking for more movies like Avatar ever since. There are also people who are just excited for a tentpole blockbuster that doesn’t feature superheroes, while others are expressing indifference, reminding us that while the movie made over $2 billion and garnered mostly good reviews, it didn’t leave much of a cultural mark in its wake.
At the least, it’s unfortunate that in order for The Way of Water to succeed in this current box office climate, it needs to make at least as much as it did the last time. That’s not an easy feat for any movie, let alone a sequel to a film that was released when Barack Obama was still the President of the United States.
We’ll just have to see. In the meantime, as you rewatch the first Avatar to get ready for the sequel, here are ten other movies like Avatar to keep in mind.
Movies Like Avatar
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
2001: A Space Odyssey hits some of the same notes as Avatar, and certainly made an impact on Cameron as both a film fan and filmmaker.
Cameron has also said that he finds the world of this film about earth’s initial contact with an extraordinary force of beings in the universe, a bit too “sterile.” Like Avatar or not, there is a marked effort on the part of Cameron as writer and director to create a world of visual splendor with depth for both its characters and its building of history and culture. 2001 is stunning, but some do find the film to be a little clinical at times, detached to a degree from its people and story.
Nonetheless, 2001’s stature as a hallmark of cinematic planning and execution is not to be denied. The DNA of that film clearly exists in Avatar, and we’ll likely see it come up again in The Way of Water.
9. The Abyss (1989)
Director: James Cameron
It could be argued that The Abyss marked the first time Cameron’s penchant for visual power and technical achievement surpassed his desire to make a film with compelling characters or a consistently engaging story. The film isn’t quite as much fun as works like Aliens or True Lies, but it does share a number of qualities, some good and some arguably less-than-stellar, with Avatar and its impending sequel.
Both films concern humanity encountering foreign beings through exploration. However, whereas Avatar basically opens on the part where we’re already traveling through unknown regions, searching for a savior for humans, The Abyss starts in mystery. A civilian diving team is tasked with tracking down a lost nuclear submarine and discover something far more extraordinary.
Abyss sometimes takes a little too long to get to the point, but this film, much like Avatar, should be commended for trying to build something that will have substantial emotional significance by the end of the movie.
Does it work? Well, Abyss is visually sumptuous, and the characters are at least played well by strong performers like Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It just doesn’t all quite sustain the momentum of a movie that runs well over two hours.
8. Dances with Wolves (1990)
Director: Kevin Costner
Kevin Costner hit the stratosphere for fame and respectability in the wake of Dances with Wolves. The film won major Oscars in 1991, bringing Costner trophies for both directing and co-producing his western epic set during the Civil War. It was a critical and commercial juggernaut in every sense of the word, with some of the most overpowering cinematography in the history of the medium by Dean Semler.
Avatar has been compared frequently to Dances with Wolves, though sometimes the comparison isn’t a flattering one where Avatar is concerned. Nonetheless, if you like Avatar’s story of a disillusioned human soldier (Sam Worthington) meeting and becoming connected to a community of alien beings on a faraway planet, it’s a good bet you’re also going to like Dances with Wolves. Both feature the same basic premise and concern reluctant heroes who must now fight for a place they desire to call home, but Avatar still sets itself apart with its attention to a massive science fiction universe
Dances with Wolves, however, is not set in outer space, so you may want to keep that in mind.
7. District 9 (2009)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
District 9 and Avatar have been compared to each other in the past. Both films draw from stories of human beings coming into meaningful contact with a new species from a place that was previously unknown to us. However, District 9 brings the aliens to Earth, as opposed to the planet Pandora acting as the main setting for Avatar.
While this film is a story of heroism against monstrous odds, it’s also a reminder of what some will do for control, salvation, or simply because it’s fun to destroy something that’s not yours. It essentially tells the story of what would have happened if the colonists of Avatar had succeeded in their aspirations of finding a new place to live.
District 9 is also much grittier and perhaps meaner (in a good way) than Avatar. Its aliens are simply refugees who have no choice but to exist on the mercy of the cruel. This doesn’t stop District 9 from being a thrilling story of revolution with masterful action scenes and pacing. It’s one of the best movies on this list, which is a strong recommendation indeed.
6. Dune (2021)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
A far-reaching war built around a savage bid for control of a precious resource sets the stage for both Dune and Avatar. Both films also strive to create something deep and sustainable within the fibre of the alien worlds and the unfamiliar beings who inhabit them. However, Avatar is arguably a more straightforward action epic.
Dune has some brilliant moments of intense combat and potential catastrophe for its heroes but is also a movie about the physical and the spiritual journey of the individual working together. How does that journey unify and where? What are its implications for those around the protagonist? Dune in any form goes on about these subjects in a more chaotic fashion than Avatar.
Dune is a story about destiny. It is about a young man named Paul Atreides who is forced to make decisions that could have profound and long-lasting ramifications for the entire known universe. This is a simple enough premise, but fans of Avatar who still haven’t seen this will likely appreciate just how far this modernized adaptation of a classic novel will take that basic setup.
5. FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)
Director: Bill Kroyer
Avatar is compared to FernGully more than any other film in this or any other universe. There are quite literally dozens of articles, videos, blog posts, and other mediums discussing this topic. We won’t spend too much time on it here, but the similarities are impossible to ignore.
FernGully is a moving, exciting animated feature about a young lumberjack who discovers a world of fairies living in the Amazon rainforest. If you love all things Avatar, it stands to reason that you’re going to appreciate everything this movie offers. The appealing voice performances by Samantha Mathis, Jonathan Ward, Robin Williams, and Tim Curry are also worth appreciating. FernGully isn’t perfect, but its music, characters, and message of environmentalism have just as much appeal now as they did 30+ years ago.
The animation for FernGully is also a flurry of fun character designs and a sense of depth of a world that certain pockets of humanity are all-too willing to obliterate.
4. King Kong (1933)
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
If you’re particularly devoted to Avatar, you probably have a deep interest in the technology that led to some of the visual wonders. King Kong in any form can be compared to Avatar simply because it gives us another variation on the story of humanity discovering something remarkable, and then doing everything in their power to convert it to something manageable in human terms. The original 1933 classic can be specifically interesting to those looking for movies like Avatar, beyond King Kong’s value as pure entertainment.
King Kong was an early highlight of special effects work in the history of film. Even as technology has improved, the 1933 original still has a power in its stop-motion animation and extraordinary climax that no other version of this story has quite captured to the same degree of perfection. No one can say whether Cameron is actually a fan of the movie, but it seems probable that he at least admires the film as an early example of just how large-scale an adventure film could really be.
King Kong is part of the foundation upon which Avatar and its upcoming sequel currently rest. It’s a memorable look at what happens when people try to take something that isn’t theirs.
3. The Last Samurai (2003)
Director: Edward Zwick
Another movie that has been compared to Avatar by some, it’s hard to argue with the similarities these stories share.
Both are epics with striking looks at war, the rush of modern times threatening to swallow up something that was there before, and the suggested courage one needs to stand up for something they themselves don’t fully understand just yet.
Tom Cruise plays this character well in The Last Samurai as a former U.S. Army Captain who’s haunted by his participation in the horrible acts committed against indigenous peoples in his own country. He’s given the opportunity to train Japanese soldiers for a decidedly more western-style army in Japan, and this becomes a catalyst for dramatic change within Cruise’s Nathan Algren.
White savior tropes aside, The Last Samurai at least endeavors to treat the locals like actual human beings, and not necessarily people in need of Cruise’s particular brand of stoic heroism. The film’s title doesn’t really convey Algren’s actual participation in this film, and what that means, although it’s hard to argue that the film doesn’t make him out to be our primary protagonist.
As you’ll find while watching The Last Samurai, the real hero of this story is played by Ken Watanabe.
2. The Matrix (1999)
Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Both Avatar and The Matrix represent peaks in the desire to combine a captivating story with genuinely fascinating characters with the best visual dazzle film itself has to offer. People generally agree that both movies achieved these goals. Nearly everybody can agree that if you want something stunning to watch, The Matrix and Avatar are stellar choices.
The Matrix still dazzles. Appreciate its breathtaking action sequences, larger ideas about the world in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) and a band of rebels battle against a presence controlling humanity from the ground up, and its use of slow motion effects and game-changing bullet-time sequences. It’s still far and away the best of its franchise.
Both The Matrix and Avatar also use technology as an interesting starting point for their protagonists, as the hero in each uses computers and other mediums to engage fully with a world that’s new and strange to them. Avatar just happens to take that concept a little bit further.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Director: James Cameron
One thing you must admire about James Cameron as a storyteller is his emphasis on the belief that people aren’t all bad. Some of his best moments throughout his filmography reflect a writer and director who believes that at least some human beings will meet the onslaught of intentional or even just unconscious evil.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day continues the plot of its predecessor, as a young boy named John Connor (Edward Furlong) is given a protector in the form of the type of cyborg that tried to murder his mother (Linda Hamilton) years prior. His death will eliminate any hope for humanity to win its future war with an army of ruthless, unstoppable machines.
Luckily, with Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his most iconic role) as the cyborg, not even a particularly ambitious liquid metal killing machine (played beautifully and chillingly by Robert Patrick) can be much of a threat. Yet Terminator 2 is one of the tensest action movies ever made. It’s also Cameron’s best movie to date and is a must-see for anyone who has enjoyed Avatar.
Both films show Cameron at the height of being able to work with groundbreaking technology. Only one of those movies is truly perfect.
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