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'Avatar': The Blockbuster Movie That History Forgot

Avatar is still the most financially successful movie ever. So why the hell has everyone forgetten about its existence?

avatar
Avatar is coming back to cinemas.
Disney

This morning, I woke up, bolt upright, drenched in sweat from an unhinged, unnamed nightmare.

This morning, I remembered the movie Avatar existed.

"Avatar," I whispered to myself. "Remember Avatar? The movie about the blue… things?"

Unobtanium... floating mountains... Sam Worthington as a Hollywood lead…

Hair sex.

Wait, hair sex?

My long-entrenched memories were dislodged, most likely, by the release of the first trailer for the movie's sequel, Avatar: The Way of the Water.

As part of the marketing blitz for the upcoming sequel, a remastered theatrical re-release of the original Avatar is also en route. A re-release scheduled, I suspect, to counter the collective Avatar brain wipe. To remind people Avatar was a thing that existed. 

Because Avatar is the movie history forgot.

Remember Avatar?

If a temperamental volcano decided to violently erupt -- Pompeii style -- coating my entire suburb in lava, future historians, I bet, would be able to almost perfectly reconstruct 21st century culture using the stuff lying around my house.

1228-science-avatar-movie_full_600.jpg

Remember when Sam Worthington was a Hollywood lead?

Disney

A toy whip from Indiana Jones. When you hold down a button, it plays John Williams' iconic score. When you make a whipping motion, it generates an amazing whipping noise. Best toy ever.

An Iron Man suit. Not an actual Iron Man suit, like a dress-up one, for kids. I should know, I have tried (and failed) to wear the thing multiple times.

Star Wars stuff. So much Star Wars stuff: books, Lego, Blu-rays, posters, toys.

But historians, after spending months poring through dust and DVDs I refused to throw in the bin, will find nothing in my house to confirm that Avatar existed or had any cultural impact on this strange bi-pedal race that collected pogs for some reason.

It is insane. How does a movie that so many people paid to watch have such a minuscule footprint on our collective culture?

Scrolling through the list of box office high performers, even the most casual fan of cinema can make connections. Think Titanic, think Celine and steamy sex in a car. Star Wars is Star Wars. Avengers is the new Star Wars.

Adjust for inflation and the connections are even stronger. Gone With The Wind and "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." E.T., The Sound of Music. These movies reverberate throughout history in ways we'll never be able to shake out.

In a list that powerful, Avatar feels like a drunken one-night stand.

Was Avatar a bad movie? I don't think so. Avatar was a bizarre, post-colonial Pocahontas you could accuse of being mildly racist -- but it was almost too stupid to be racist in any real damaging sense. It was a cinematic experience elevated by a heroic commitment to world building and aesthetic but brought back down to earth with clunky dialogue and a wooden Sam Worthington performance.

But none of that stopped Star Wars from inspiring a broad sense of wonder and possibility in an entire generation of kids (and adults). My kids dress up as the Avengers every goddamn day. My oldest still swings around a toy lightsaber. The idea that either of my children might dress up as blue Avatar people (what do you call them... Na'vi?) is insane.

Why did Avatar rake in all that dough but retain none of the cultural cachet?

Maybe it's because it sorta sucked. Mediocre movies can make money -- Aquaman took in almost $1.2 billion -- but average movies rarely make it to that $2 billion mark without the word of mouth and repeat viewings. A movie almost has to become a cultural event to rake in that kind of bread.

And that's almost certainly the key here, the reason why Avatar made so much money yet lurks in the shadows like a strange uncle squatting in the attic of our subconsciousness is that Avatar wasn't a cultural event, it was a tech event.

Unlike most of the movies in the box office top 10, Avatar wasn't a sweeping epic entry to a story we're invested in. It's not an epic conclusion to a brilliantly executed cinematic universe.

Avatar was about strapping a set of 3D glasses to your face to see what all the fuss was about. The movie was almost secondary. It wasn't designed to be forgettable, but it was forgettable nonetheless.

3D. Remember 3D? You might not remember Avatar, but you almost certainly remember 3D.

Remember paying extra to put on a set of dark glasses and suppress vomit on movies that had 3D but sure as hell weren't designed from the ground up to work in 3D. Remember TVs that came with one pair of glasses so you could watch the World Cup in 3D but your mates couldn't?

Remember the 3DS?

Remember 3D Blu-rays that no one bought?

What a weird time.

The Trojan Horse

It's funny, in an article about Avatar, it's taken me 700 words to mention its director.

James Cameron is undoubtedly one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history.  His Terminator 2 and Aliens are two of the greatest action movies ever made, and Titanic was a blockbuster success. But Cameron's movies tend to be inseparable from the technology he pioneers to make them possible. No one has used cinema to push the boundaries of tech quite like Cameron.

But none of his movies are tethered to their technology quite like Avatar.

3D. It's completely gone from television and it's a walking husk in cinemas. An interesting gimmick in its time but now universally loathed. When you think Avatar, you think 3D glasses and trying something because it was weird and worth doing once -- like a rollercoaster ride or virtual reality.

That's why we forget Avatar. We remember 3D, the trojan horse it came in on.

Now, when news of Avatar and its potential sequels pops up on the internet, I rub my eyes with weary disbelief. That movie… exists? That happened?

Now Avatar is like a Furby or a Tamagotchi. It's a warning. A permanent reminder that humanity, as a species, has the potential to go completely and collectively insane.