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Does Avatar have any cultural impact? In defence of James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster

Caitlin Hall


Clip from the Film Avatar

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James Cameron’s magnum opus—the original Avatar film—is in the middle of a two-week re-release, in anticipation of its long-awaited sequel. Avatar: The Way of Water premieres in the UK on December 16, thirteen years after the release of the first movie.

Many argue that, despite still being the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar hasn’t had much of an impact on pop culture. In an industry dominated by superhero films, Cameron’s epic science-fiction movie managed to outperform the Avengers and retain its place at the top of box office stats.

Was Avatar’s success just part of the zeitgeist of the late 2000s? On its original release, 3D technology seemed like it was going to be a game-changer—it wasn’t worth going to see a movie if the characters didn’t pop out of the screen and the action wasn’t literally in your face. Like many other trends, however, 3D technology eventually fizzled out and was replaced by IMAX screens, 4k (Ultra HD) resolution, and the popularity of streaming services. Fewer people go to the cinema nowadays, let alone pay £15 per ticket to see a movie in 3D.

Avatar’s box office record hasn’t gone uncontended. Avengers: Endgame surpassed Avatar’s record in July 2019, after 89 days of release. James Cameron was finally beaten; however, Avatar wasn’t going to go down without a fight. In March 2021, Avatar reclaimed the top spot after a re-release in China; its worldwide gross (at the time of writing) is $2.880 billion.

Unlike its main contender, Avatar is an original concept, not one based on existing intellectual property. Avengers: Endgame was the twenty-second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a primed audience waiting for its release. In comparison, Cameron’s inspiration for his original screenplay was ‘every single science fiction book [he] read as a kid’. Audiences were excited to see something completely new and breath-taking; Collider compares Jake Sully’s first glimpse of Pandora to other movie ‘moments of astonishment, whether its Alan Grant (Sam Neill) seeing a dinosaur in Jurassic Park or Elliot (Henry Thomas) flying with his alien friend on a bike’.

Those that doubt Avatar’s impact ignore it’s worth overseas. We tend to take a very Western view of the film industry’s cultural footprint. For instance, it’s been suggested that Marvel movies are thinly veiled examples of American military propaganda. They might resonate more with a Western audience as a result, but does the rest of the world feel alienated by a figure like Captain America? Some say that Avatar’s plot is nothing new, but it could also be argued that it’s a simple story with universal appeal, fusing climate change concerns with commentary on colonialism. I personally think these topics are more pressing than ever.

James Cameron

Arguably, Avatar isn’t even Cameron’s best project. When it topped the box office, it surpassed the previous record set by his own 1997 epic historical romance, Titanic. We also have him to thank for the Aliens and Terminator franchises. The announcement of a further four Avatar movies was met with a degree of disbelief. Whilst the first Avatar movie was a massive commercial success, it’s been over a decade since its launch—is anyone still interested? However, if history has shown us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t doubt James Cameron.

I like Marvel movies; I pay to watch most of them at the cinema, and I’d even go as far to say I would prefer to watch Avengers: Endgame over Avatar. However, I also like rooting for the underdog. In Hollywood today, where sequels and franchises reign supreme, highly acclaimed filmmaker and three-times Oscar winner James Cameron is the underdog. It would devastate me if an Avengers movie knocked Avatar off the first-place podium. Even if you agree that Avatar achieved no cultural impact (few can even remember the name of the main character in the highest-grossing movie ever), it feels like the ultimate example of ‘sticking it to The Man’ (‘The Man’ being the Marvel overlords).

Perhaps the only person that doesn’t have an opinion is Zoe Saldana, who appears in both Avatar and Avengers: Endgame; she’s won either way. Disney owns Marvel, makers of Avengers: Endgame, and 20th Century Fox, the distributors of Avatar—so they’ll likely welcome competition between the two; it’s all just money in their pockets.

Low-budget independents are unlikely to be in favour of sequels, remakes, and anything that sells merchandise. They’re too few and far between, unfortunately. The highest grossing independent movie of all time is the 2004 controversial biblical drama, The Passion of the Christ.

Clearly, plenty of people are still interested in Avatar—the 2022 re-release was the #1 movie at the box office across multiple countries last weekend.

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