If you have 10 seconds to say everything you know about James Cameron, what would you say? He directed Titanic, The Terminator sequels, and Aliens. He’s Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband. Oh, and he directed Avatar. Yes. Wait, what’s that one about again?
Avatar was a 161 minute-long epic sci-fi film set in a future where humans tried to colonize the planet Pandora in order to obtain a rare and expensive mineral hilariously called unobtanium.
In a blue-tinted futuristic city, Jake Scully was a paraplegic ex-marine who feels that his country had failed him. He wanted a new pair of legs, but it's impossible for a veteran with the kind of insurance he had. He feels helpless and useless, until one night, two men dressed in black offered him an opportunity that will change his life forever, which was to replace his deceased identical twin to go on a mission on Pandora and operate a Na’vi-human hybrid called “avatar” that’s genetically matched to him. Once linked to his avatar, Jake immediately ran out of the room and into the field, excited to be running again. But in the first trip to the forest, he proved to be difficult. His hunger for adventure, unfortunately, brought danger to everyone else on the team.
The plot had peaks and valleys and borderline functional character writing that were decent enough to support the weight necessary to carry the story, but it never went beyond that. The film was weighed down by its obvious influences from Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas and its use of the white male savior trope—an untrained white man came to a foreign land and was immediately recognized as the “special” one destined to save everyone from the danger that he, in fact, brought in the first place. There’s not even an explanation why Jake, instead of Grace, a scientist with an established connection to Pandora from the time she taught English to the children of Pandora, was chosen as the special one. Instead, Grace had to witness the death of one of her students on the hand of her people, and eventually died as well.
When it came out in 2009, Avatar changed the mainstream cinema forever by introducing the world to 3D as a way to enhance a narrative. It broke records worldwide and became an instant blockbuster. The reviews were good, too.
So why did it disappear from pop culture almost completely?
Suffice to say, on paper, the movie was extraordinarily successful. But its success could only be attributed to its 3D technology, visual effects, and the blue cat people. Avatar’s visuals put the visual effect-heavy films that preceded it to shame, such as The Lord of the Rings (2001), King Kong (2005), Transformers (2007). This was no surprise, especially since Cameron said in 2014 that the first thing he did for Avatar was write 1,500 pages of notes of the world, the cultures, the clans, the animals, and the environment that makes up the film. It was heavily promoted as a visual experience that you couldn't recreate at home. In that sense, it was true to its word. But that’s it. Its storyline, however, was underwhelming.
If you asked people what they remembered about Avatar, they would ask you back, “Which one? Avatar: The Last Airbender or Avatar, Avatar?” At least in Indonesia, they would. Then if you asked them what they thought the movie was about, some people would say it's a love story, and others would say it’s just the lives of blue cat people. This speaks volumes of Avatar and its tragic downfall to pop culture obscurity.
The only reference to Avatar in recent memory was when Saturday Night Live created a brilliant skit titled “Papyrus” that talked about the overall silliness that is Avatar, even down to its font choice. The skit featured Ryan Gosling as an increasingly-maniacal person trying to figure out why a giant, international blockbuster like Avatar would use the inferior font Papyrus as its logo. “He just got away with it. This man, this… professional graphic designer. This laziness… was it cruelty?” he lamented, while driving to the house of said graphic designer to stalk him. The skit ended with the title “Papyrus” against a black screen, written in Comic Sans.
There are other reasons as to why the movie failed to establish its own cult following. Take a look at some of the movies with record-breaking box office numbers. What do they have in similarity? Yep, continuity. Sequels that work. The seventh installments of Star Wars and Fast Furious and two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are all in the top 10. Without question, they earned those rankings because of the well-constructed storylines, how they keep the momentum going, and how they get the audience wanting more. Avatar, though sitting on top of the list, didn't have any of those things. It’s feel-good ending could be the reason why. When you think about it, Avatar ended so well that made you think there's nothing else to develop. A closure—that’s what Avatar was in pop culture history.
Sure, there are four Avatar sequels in production with a release schedule stretched out until 2025. The first sequel will focus on the younger generation of the Na’vi people—Sully and Neytiri’s children—since the creators hope to bring a more youthful energy to the franchise. But we think it’s pointless to try to be relevant again, since it’s been way too long since the first film was released. The damage has been done—it’s a boring film and we’d be surprised if anybody's willing to spend money to see the sequels.
Avatar might not be as memorable as it was intended to be or as groundbreaking as Cameron thought it was. And it might not have given us a new understanding of one other and the world around us, but it's overall a well-paced, richly detailed, carefully choreographed, and stylized film despite some thin characters and hokey plot points. It's a film that served its purpose at the time: to entertain and for that, we can’t complain.