Around this time thirteen years ago, many were asking if the meteoric success of the long-awaited Avatar would herald a new era in cinema or at least if it would reverse the post-recession blues of declining ticket sales, shrinking budgets and an increasingly risk-averse sequel-heavy slate of upcoming releases. After all, it was a true marvel of audio-visual craftsmanship, a spectacle to end all spectacles.
However, despite its titanic (sic!) box office take, which to this day stands undefeated at nearly three billion dollars world-wide, James Cameron’s sci-fi opus of love and anti-colonial environmentalism did not leave much of a footprint on our culture, especially given just how much of a juggernaut it was at the time. It might be as good a time as any to wonder why that is, and if history is going to repeat itself once the impact of the newly released sequel is measured as well.
In case you don’t remember, or you are too young to have been aware of it, the release of Avatar was a big deal in 2009. In fact, it had been a big deal for much of the 2000s as rumours of James Cameron’s long-gestating passion project slowly took shape and became an actual movie in production. To put it in perspective, imagine that Cameron, having hit an absolute jackpot at the Oscars with his record-breaking tally for Titanic, effectively disappeared into the woods to figure out what he’d do next. Once he decided it was in his best interest to temporarily side-line an adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita, the work on Avatar began. As the production ramped up, media would periodically light up with seemingly irrelevant scraps of news regarding the fact the filmmakers were developing a language for the Na’vi, the indigenous race on the planet Pandora, as well as even the most minute details of the worldbuilding including plant biology, tribal customs, evolutionary pathways for animal life etc. And that’s all before the film was officially greenlit by Fox in 2006! And even at that, Fox executives were seeing this movie as a massive gamble, as they were undersigning the nearly quarter-billion price tag for a completely original science-fiction entity overseen by a maverick filmmaker whose vision of cinema was perhaps ahead of its time.
Cameron managed to successfully negotiate the temporary return of 3D into the landscape of blockbuster filmmaking, which is arguably the only lasting effect one can attribute to the release of Avatar. Though, the audiences quickly cooled off and reverted back to preferring 2D screenings when possible. Everything else – books, games, theme parks – came and went. Some would like to believe this is not the case and, in some places, like China, the movie stayed relevant for longer than it did elsewhere. However, it is frankly undeniable that a movie this big should have made much more of an impact instead! Between the money it made and the hype it generated at the time of its release, Avatar had no excuse but to become Star Wars of its time. But it didn’t.
Again, this is where the film’s defenders would happily chime in and point to the video game that stayed alive for nearly five years and sold a few million copies, the successful theme park rides (many of which are in Asia), a line of action figures, books that Cameron promised to write but never did, stage adaptations etc. This is all true, but the biggest movie of all time whose cultural survival was predicated on the granularity of its worldbuilding should have generated a much greater, more intense and more consistent cultural interest than it did. I think it is fair to compare it directly to Star Wars, which was in its time a similar-sized juggernaut that terraformed the blockbuster landscape and became a persistent cultural icon. So, why can’t I find an Avatar lunchbox or a pencil case now, while I could probably rummage through my neighbour’s bins and find something Star Wars-themed in there, all covered in bin juice and carrot shavings?
The simple answer is that James Cameron slept through his window of opportunity to cement the film’s cultural stature by making a sequel while Avatar was still relatively fresh in our memories. Imagine if George Lucas had decided to take over a decade to come back with The Empire Strikes Back! Fortunately, he knew exactly what he had when Star Wars became a bona fide phenomenon and made sure every kid could get a light sabre, a Luke Skywalker lunchbox and a Darth Vader helmet to keep them busy for the few years it took to come back with a sequel.
Instead, to borrow a phrase from my mum, James Cameron showed himself to be a cow that moos a lot but doesn’t give much milk. He promised a lot and delivered little in terms of maintaining the brand and keeping the movie within the cultural conversation. Spending money on theme park rides and other ancillaries can only do so much. In fact, it is effectively an equivalent of performing CPR on a non-breathing patient. Chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation are not done to revive anyone, but to slow down the process of dying, while you wait for the ambulance with a mobile defibrillator to arrive. Question is, now that the defibrillator has made an appearance thirteen years later, if the patient can be fully revived or if Avatar will soon have to be taken off life support anyway. In short, the odds are short for the sequel, at least for anyone rational.
Another, much more important reason why Cameron’s movie failed to leave a mark on the world in a way a movie its size perhaps should have might have to do with what the movie was made of, narratively speaking. Again, to come back to Lucas’ Star Wars or even The Matrix, two movies which successfully penetrated the popular culture, ensnared masses of people and remained memetically recognizable for many years after their arrival. Their success was largely predicated on the simple fact they functioned as cultural estuaries bringing together seemingly disparate points of interest with strong identity hooks. On top of that, they both had an intense ‘cool factor’ about them, which compelled their audiences to invest time and effort in those worlds.
And it’s not necessarily a product of some singular genius that made Star Wars such a resonant work of fiction, as it is effectively a collage of tropes lifted verbatim from westerns, fantasy serials, WWII movies and samurai films. It’s a movie made of cliches that somehow captured the hearts and minds of millions who then used their own imaginations to expand this world and let it have its own heartbeat.
On paper, James Cameron fits the bill as the second coming of George Lucas in this respect as he is also well known for borrowing mercilessly from pre-existing material, relying on predictable character tropes and earnest genre clichés to propel what he is most interested in – the grand spectacle. It doesn’t take a genius to see how paper-thin the characters in T2, True Lies or The Abyss are or how familiar their dramatic predicaments are. In fact, this is a big part of James Cameron’s allure as a filmmaker – he writes predictable clichés so earnestly that they never get in the way of the spectacle, which is why the viewers never have any issues with accepting them at face value. Nobody ever complained about the shallowness of the domestic drama in True Lies or the cartoony depiction of space marines in Aliens – we just accept them for what they are because we have other things to look forward to. Question is, does it still hold true for Avatar?
Da liegt der Hund begraben, as Germans would say. This is where the problem is because Avatar veers from Cameron’s modus operandi in one major respect. In contrast to his previous movies (especially those strongly reliant on bespoke world-building), Avatar no longer functions as a collage of tropes and clichés, which inherently affects the perceived depth of the film’s interaction with the culture at large. Instead, it is largely a calque taken from one specific story – Pocahontas – and mapped over top of the framework of the spectacle Cameron was interested in crafting. As a result, the movie is effectively unidimensional and it becomes increasingly harder to excuse its many ‘Cameronisms’, such as blatant bits of exposition stuffed into the mouths of the principal actors, ridiculous character motivations and more.
At least from where I am sitting, Avatar is nowhere near as engrossing as it could be and it might be because I’m not the biggest Pocahontas fan in the world. On top of that, because the movie lacks more points of interest, it effectively becomes married to its central moralistic messaging, which combined with James Cameron’s characteristic ham-fisted screenwriting, comes across as extremely heavy-handed. Thus, the entire running time of the movie (which extends to almost three hours if you opt to watch the special edition) feels decidedly as though I was being given a lecture about white privilege, colonialism and environmentalism while queueing for a rollercoaster ride. Somehow, having spent three hours wating in line while being shouted at by rabid green protesters I wouldn’t feel happy to come back for more.
Consequently, because the thematic message of the movie is so overtly laid out spread-eagle across the entire spectacle, Avatar denies the viewer the opportunity to do their own thinking on the matter, which would be a perfect opportunity to recontextualize the movie and simply come back to its world, even if in your own head. This thematic frontloading clearly cheapens the experience because the spectacle can no longer be appreciated for what it is and the message itself immediately comes across as shallow, as the filmmaker spells everything out, as though to ensure nobody misses the point.
Therefore, the entire experience of watching Avatar is weirdly comparable to going to a fancy restaurant for a three-course dinner composed exclusively of dessert courses. You might think it’s a cool gimmick for a night out but once you down your starter lemon tart, brave through that succulent triple chocolate cake and then face off against a cream-rich Eton mess only to realize there’s ice cream coming in a second, you will know it’s too much. It’s too calorific, too rich, too dense and to top it all off, completely void of nutritional value. Plus, these sugary calorie-dense foods will do very little to satiate so you’ll be bound to crave a kebab on the way home, just to downregulate your ghrelin for the night.
So maybe that’s why Avatar did not claim a sustainable corner of fandom that would last for more than half a second. It’s simply inconceivable to eat only sweets for prolonged periods of time and avoid developing severe metabolic problems. And maybe those brave enough to adopt Avatar as their identities were quickly diagnosed with cinematic diabetes and had to have their feet amputated. Who knows?