Avatar has got to be the most overrated Sci-Fi movie of all time. Overrated doesn’t necessarily mean bad, just as underrated doesn’t particularly denote greatness. Either term simply implies that the merits of the film are out of proportion with the acclaim it received. The special effects in Avatar were groundbreaking. The film was visually spectacular, even in plain old 2D. But the story was so banal, so uninspired that it would not have been even moderately noteworthy without the hoopla surrounding James Cameron and his gazillion dollar special effects monstrosity.
With talk of a sequel coming in 2014 swarming around the internet, I got to wondering. If Avatar, with its predicable plot and unsubtle political overtones was the most overrated Sci-Fi film ever made, what was the most underrated? What is the yin to Cameron’s blue-skinned yang?
I’d have to give the nod to Luc Besson’s Fifth Element. Despite having an original concept, wonderful acting, and a barely-covered Mila Jovovich, the film gets little love from critics or genre fans. While there have been better Sci-Fi movies, and there have been more universally panned Sci-Fi movies, never has there been so wide a gap between the appreciation a film got and the appreciation it deserved.
Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker, and Jovovich deliver performances wonderfully in tune with the slick, futuristic, good-natured vibe of the film. The Fifth Element manages the difficult task of alternating between slapstick silliness and moving sentiment with a grace that is unusual for a Science Fiction piece. The impossibly wide-ranging operatic aria that separates the second and third acts is as marvelous as it is unforeseeable.
While the effects cannot compare to Avatar, they weren’t bad for 1997. In fact, because the film doesn’t try to do too much, the special effects still hold up pretty well today. With a budget of $90 million and a world-wide gross of $185M, roughly a 2-1 ratio, the film was not a flop, but it wasn’t a blockbuster success either. By comparison, Avatar cost an unprecedented $237 million to make, more than The Fifth Element fetched, but it has made more than $2 billion so far. That ratio of nearly 10 -1 is a whole lot more appealing to movie studios. Despite the visual feast that Avatar on BluRay offers, I’d still rather pop my old Fifth Element tape in the VHS player if I want an enjoyable, escapist two hours of Sci-Fi entertainment.