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Remembering Avatar, and the collective fever dream of its insane success

To this day it is the most financially successful movie ever made. So why the hell has everyone decided to collectively forget about its existence?


Where are they now?


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?"

Awash in the cooling remnants of a bizarre fever dream, it came back in slivers. Fragmented memories I couldn't quite grasp.

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

Hair sex.

Wait, hair sex?

Guys. Remember Avatar? Guys...


Remember Avatar?

My long entrenched Avatar memories were dislodged, I suspect, by news that Avengers: Endgame is getting a second cinematic release. A re-release I suspect, designed to push Endgame toward its ultimate destiny as the all-time box office king. It's close. Incredibly close in fact. Avengers: Endgame is currently sitting at $2.744 billion according to estimates.

Avatar is at $2.787 billion.

That is a wild amount of cash.

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.


Remember when Sam Worthington was a Hollywood lead?


A toy whip from Indiana Jones. When you hold down a button it plays John Williams' iconic score. When you whip it, it makes 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 history forgot.

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 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 dollar 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. Terminator 2 and Aliens are two of the greatest action movies ever made, 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 James Cameron.

But none of Cameron's 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, 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.