Late last week, Sigourney Weaver revealed that three sequels to Avatar would begin filming shortly. Given that Avatar was “the biggest-grossing movie ever,” this news was of course greeted with thousands of excited tweets and a wave of blog posts about the possible storylines and subplots of these new movies.
Or wait, no, sorry—actually the news was greeted with a collective shrug and the occasional yawn. People took to Twitter mostly to share the news that they didn’t care about the news. The critic Ali Arikan went so far as to request an essay about how Avatar, “the most successful film in history, has left nary a blip on pop-culture.” His request was retweeted 144 times and many others seconded his basic claim.
An essay is beyond my scope here, but Arikan’s query seems worth answering at least in briefer form. Because while Avatar was arguably instrumental in pushing more filmmakers to use 3-D (for better or worse), it really does seem to have otherwise largely vanished from the cultural landscape. The few similarly successful movies—The Dark Knight, Cameron’s own Titanic, a handful of others—live on in the popular imagination: We quote their dialogue, dress up as their characters for Halloween, create mashups on YouTube. But apart from possibly making a joke about unobtainium, have you quoted Avatar recently? As my colleague Willa Paskin pointed out in an email, Ben Stiller’s appearance as a Na’vi at the 2010 Oscar ceremony was arguably the highpoint of the movie’s afterlife.
So what happened?
Surely the movie’s characters and storyline are factors; more on them below. There are also simpler, albeit partial, explanations for how such a massively popular movie could be, if not forgotten, then, say, put in a box in the culture’s collective attic, so that no one plays with it anymore.
The first of these is that the movie is not quite as popular as people say it was. Arikan calls it “the most successful film in history,” but if you adjust for ticket-price inflation, it’s actually 14th all-time—still way up there, but a significant distance from the actual pinnacle. It’s below the first two Star Wars movies, for instance, and just above the third. So, using this measurement, you might expect the Na’vi to leave roughly the cultural footprint as Ewoks—not Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
Those grosses were goosed by the 3-D surcharge, of course, which brings us to partial explanation No. 2: Avatar, as much as any movie ever, was made to be watched in the theater, not at home. Watching Avatar on a big screen in 3-D was, for me at least, a visual pleasure. But so much of that effect would be lost even on a big home screen. Why bother? And if you don’t rewatch a movie, you’re not going to memorize any dialogue, and you’re less likely to grow attached to the characters.
Now, as for whether any of that dialogue was actually worth memorizing, or any of those characters worth growing attached to—well, now we’re into essay-length territory. My general feeling is that here the movie really is weaker than many of the other all-time cinema hits, and that this is the final explanation for its failure as a cultural touchstone. But it’s worth noting that Cameron confronted a challenge that other blockbuster-makers have avoided: He created an original (or quasi-original) story with new characters. Of course we’re still talking about Batman. But Jake Sully and Neytiri? They don’t have seven decades of previous incarnations to lean on (and yes, I had to look up those names).
While I was writing this my colleague Forrest Wickman pointed out that both Pacific Rim and After Earth, two more recent original properties, both appeared indebted to Avatar—the latter with its mysterious-lush-planet premise and the former with its Avatar-esque neural connections. Perhaps Cameron’s movie influenced other filmmakers more than it influenced moviegoers. But I can’t really say, since, like many Americans, I didn’t go to see either of those films.