Disney’s long-awaited streaming service, Disney+, launched yesterday, and with it comes the re-release of Avatar, acquired when Disney bought Fox last March. It’ll be one of the site’s most high-profile films and oddly one of its most unremarkable titles, too.
Avatar’s global impact upon first release a decade ago was indisputably huge. James Cameron’s sci-fi epic was Event Viewing writ large. Everyone had to go see it and had to see it in 3D. And we pretty much all did—some of us two or three times—helping it become the highest grossing film of all time, with $2.789 billion, not adjusted for inflation (a title it since lost to Avengers: Endgame). Like James Cameron's 'Titanic' it was a blockbuster with critical acclaim, garnering a 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The late Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars, saying "'Avatar' is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It's a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult."
And yet 10 years later, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from its relative erasure from our collective consciousness. After ushering in the new age of 3D and capitalizing on the epic scale of IMAX, the film hung around on home media with little to show for itself. It was fun and action-packed, but there wasn’t much to talk about, and rewatches felt like an exercise in diminishing returns.
It’s hard to say when the hype died down exactly. Talk of Avatar was impossible to avoid while it lasted. The film hit theatres in December 2009, and by the time it was released on DVD and Blu-ray the following April, it beat sales records for both formats. Fears of fans taking their own lives to avoid coping with the impossibility of ever living in Cameron’s fantasy world made it into the news cycle.
But even by March at least some of the sheen had worn off when Avatar, for all its record breaking, failed to win most of the Oscars it was nominated for—including the big ticket best director and best picture awards that would have given the film a degree of industrial legitimacy not often bestowed upon big popcorn movies. An extended re-release came and went without much fanfare. And by the time Cameron announced four sequels in 2017, it felt like the franchise was running on fumes before it could even get going.
Avatar’s premise is remarkably simple, despite how much stuff is packed into it. A big faceless company is mining a rare mineral, unobtanium, from the almost habitable moon Pandora. As a way to garner legitimacy, they’ve allowed scientists to study a humanoid, blue-skinned indigenous population on Pandora, the Na’vi. To make contact, the scientists have created human/Na’vi hybrid clones, and humans can transfer their consciousnesses into these avatars. Our protagonist, Jake Sully, is one such avatar-using human, and—bonus—because he lost the use of his legs as a Marine, becoming Na’vi lets him walk again.
In a way, the whole thing is one big, self-satisfied metaphor for the immersion of watching a 3D movie. Jake can experience a realistic interaction with a fantasy world while motionless in a dark pod.
Things get messy when Jake makes contact with the Na’vi, and he realizes they’re an oppressed people looking to regain their resources and way of life. As someone with a foot in both worlds, he predictably becomes a kind of leader to the Na’vi and helps them take on their oppressors. It’s admittedly a fun movie, though its white saviour theme of “going native” really can’t be masked by its sci-fi trappings. No amount of blue skin excuses the “noble savage” tropes and obvious allusions to colonial history and racist New World narratives. Cameron keeps this particular metaphor too close to the source, and it leaves a foul aftertaste.
Not that bad taste or offensive content has ever stopped a film from achieving cult status (or from earning boatloads of money in Avatar’s case). Given its mysterious fade to irrelevance, Avatar may be the exact opposite of a cult film.
Cult films usually build a reputation over time. They have a certain quotability, inspiring line readings from The Big Lebowski, Casablanca, The Room, or They Live. No one quotes Avatar. You don’t hear “I see you” or “Pandora will shit you out dead” the way you might reference “game over, man” and “get away from her, you bitch” from Cameron’s Aliens, or “I’ll be back” and “hasta la vista, baby” from his Terminator films.
Cult films also tend to invite participation, whether that’s dressing up, singing along, and yelling “slut” and “asshole,” at a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, throwing spoons and footballs at The Room, or creating fan art and writing fiction that extends the story world of Star Trek.
The body of Avatar fanfiction is remarkably tiny. I can’t speak to what people are making and keeping private, but Archive of Our Own, one of the internet’s most popular fanfic destinations, hosts just 198 pieces of Avatar fic. Go down a few titles and you’ll find that 160,467 entries accompany the Marvel Avengers films.
Cult films also last. They endure, culturally. And they do so organically, as when fans line up to see Blade Runner at repertory screenings, or raise money for charity at yearly screenings of Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Announcing sequels ain’t it. And outside of Cameron’s quest to make new Avatar films into the next millennium, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of audience-driven effort to keep the Avatar conversation going (though dark horse presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson has apparently carried the torch for years).
Cameron’s own Titanic, the colossal hit whose records Avatar had to beat, is a great counter-example, showing how a gargantuan cinematic phenomenon can exhibit elements of the cult film. It remains the subject of think-pieces and discursive analysis more than two decades on—its title song alone would keep the film iconic even without its “I’m the king of the world” and “draw me like one of your French girls” quotability, or its debate-inspiring question marks like “why would old Rose throw the jewel away?” or “could Jack have fit on the door with Rose and survived?” (of course he could have! They gave up after trying once!).
What stands out most about Avatar now though, what assures it its place among historically pivotal films, is the fact that it literally transformed how movies are distributed and exhibited. Cameron was pretty sneaky about it too. While he sold the film’s novelty by appealing to the immersive potential of his new 3D technology, what he really did was force the hands of movie theatres resistant to the switch to digital projection. (Having seen the film in both IMAX 3D and on a 12-inch laptop, I’d argue this industrial shift was a far more exciting attraction than the film itself.) Digital broke through, while the Trojan horse that was 3D is now on the decline.
The whole Avatar experience felt like the making of a cult classic in reverse. All of Avatar’s cultural capital was used up spectacularly quickly upon release rather than building over time. It was perhaps too mainstream to build any kind of cultural movement. Or maybe it was too obvious. Blade Runner asks us to consider whether its protagonist, Rick Deckard, was a Replicant, the machines he’s been hunting, the whole time. Night of the Living Dead and Freaks ask us to question what it means to be a monster, without providing easy answers. Plan 9 From Outer Space forces us to ask, “How did this even get made?”
Cult films usually aren’t quite as neat and tidy as Avatar, a film that offers little to unpack on repeat viewings. Jokes about Cameron scratching out character names and settings from Disney’s Pocahontas were right on the money. As were comparisons to Dances With Wolves and other colonial white saviour fantasies.
All technological game-changing things considered, Avatar may have just been a little too, well, two-dimensional to develop any kind of cultural stamina.
I doubt any of that will matter when Avatar 2 hits theatres in 2021, though. Hollywood loves a spectacle, and a franchise. And for all the dunking Cameron invites, he’s more than proven himself up to the task of keeping us entertained.
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