I have a special relationship with James Cameron’s Avatar. After seeing it on Christmas Day 2009 with my father (my mom took my sisters to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel), I wrote a diatribe in a Facebook note. In it, I listed my ten biggest problems with the film. It was banal, nitpicky, and disengaged. It was also the first movie review I ever wrote. The response from my friends and family to my CinemaSins precursor was a resounding, “Hey, you should write reviews more often!” And the rest is history.
A couple of months after that, I wrote another review of Avatar. I wanted to be fairer to it. I wanted to get it in the way that everyone else seemed to get it. I ended the post with this immortal quote: “In five years, people will realize that Avatar really wasn’t very good after all. And this post will be proof that I knew it from the beginning.” Well, it’s now been over six years, and it turns out I was wrong. It’s not that nobody likes Avatar anymore — it’s that nobody remembers it. For a film which held the domestic box office record until it was toppled by Star Wars: The Force Awakens just a week ago, no one seems to care about it all that much. In the age where fandom nerdery runs pop culture, how is that even possible? (Fun fact: One of my compatriots in still thinking about Avatar is Michael Mann, who put it on his Sight and Sound poll of the ten best films ever made. I’m in good company.) In six years I’ve gone from one of Avatar’s lonely detractors to one of the only people who has an attachment to it. What the hell happened?
I decided to revisit the film after Star Wars broke its record to see if I could get a read on its paradoxical financial success and societal failure. I didn’t even have to track down a copy – believe it or not, I actually own the three-disc collector’s edition DVD of this film that I don’t even like. It has three different cuts of the film: the theatrical cut, the special edition re-release, and the director’s cut. Having three different versions of a three hour movie necessitated splitting the film onto two separate discs. And if that wasn’t enough to give me flashbacks to watching my parents’ VHS copy of Titanic, the DVD’s hideous compression makes it look uncannily like a tape. I decided to go with the theatrical cut, since that’s the version which made all the money.
Immediately, I was surprised by how well I remembered the details of this film. The intonations of certain line readings – even those spoken in Na’vi – echoed in my brain moments before they were said. The film gets stuck in your head in the way a pop song does, whether you like it or not. For some reason, the way that one military guy says, “Wait for MY mark!” as Jake gets off the transport ship, or Quaritch bizarre assertion that, “Pandora will shit you out dead with zero warning,” had stolen away in my subconscious. “Wait, how many times have I seen this film?” I thought to myself. This was supposed to be a revisit to analyze Avatar’s forgettableness, but I couldn’t help remembering it.
Let’s take it back to 2009 for a second. To talk about Avatar’s faded glory, we should first establish what that glory entailed. Unlike The Force Awakens, Avatar didn’t have a massive start at the box office. Its opening weekend returns came to around $77 million. It eventually made the amount of money that it did because it kept making money. People told their friends about it, and those people told their friends, and, most importantly, people went back to the theater to see it multiple times. The novelty of 3D probably bears the bulk of the responsibility here. In 2009, the format had just begun its comeback, and Cameron made sure to use it to its fullest extent. A CinemaScore survey at the time said that 3D was the number-one reason why people were interested in seeing the film. And why shouldn’t it have been? After all, the film had zero stars outside of Sigourney Weaver’s supporting role, its story wasn’t drawn from another older property, and Cameron hadn’t made a film in 12 years. People didn’t go to Avatar to see Avatar; they went to see Pandora pop off the screen.
It makes me think of Bollywood. This has started to become less the case in recent years, but traditionally Bollywood films are up to four hours long, with an intermission. This is because the cinema in India is treated similarly to the opera or the theater in America. It’s something grand, something special, something meant to take up your entire evening. Avatar feels more like a carnival attraction than a film, and nothing could make that more obvious than watching it on a crappy DVD, on my tiny TV, wearing headphones so I wouldn’t bother my family. As the film dragged on and on, spending upwards of 45 minutes on Jake Sully’s training with the Na’vi princess Neytiri, I thought about the people who paid to see it in theaters again and again. If this were a 90 minute film, pared down to just the most important beats of the story, would it have seemed worth it to buy another ticket? The sheer size of the film alone may have justified all those repeat viewings, because if nothing else, you were getting your money’s worth. The theatrical experience may have been extraordinary, but what did Avatar offer upon a rewatch?
As Jake and Neytiri pranced through the trees, I glanced at a Wikipedia list of the films released in Avatar’s wake, and I made an important discovery. Just a few months after its release, in May of 2010, Marvel Studios would launch into their cinematic universe in earnest with Iron Man 2. None of Marvel’s films have come close to Avatar’s financial haul, but they cast a much longer cultural shadow. As Avatar was adjusting to its place in history, Marvel was beginning to unlock the secret to relevancy which Avatar never did: Character.
I’m not a huge fan of Marvel movies, but their marketing ingenuity is undeniable. Their stroke of genius? Making the films themselves into marketing for each other. The Avengers became a massive hit because it had been teased for years in individual entries. People were excited to see the characters they loved interact with one another. I don’t think the writing of Marvel movies is very good. However, they really hit on something with their characters. They may not have much to them, but they’re sassy and quirky and amicable. They seem like people you might want to hang out with, if you think you can bear a ceaseless barrage of quips. This is why people keep coming back to Marvel movies. They want to spend more time with these characters. Relatable heroes who toss out one-liners weren’t invented by Marvel, but Marvel arguably perfected the formula, and they’ve got a legacy to show for it.
In comparison, the characters of Avatar aren’t quite so friendly. They’re funny in the way a script doctor called in to punch-up the screenplay might make them funny. There aren’t any jokes, but there are things which you can tell are meant to resemble jokes. The characters don’t have personalities, but they have vague personality traits. It’s an almost impressionistic approach to writing. Avatar wants us to recognize what it’s going for in lieu of giving us anything tangible. A kinder take might use the word “mythic,” which might be the intention.
The problem is that these characters aren’t unreachable and legendary so much as they’re poorly defined and bland. There’s a reason you don’t see fanart of Avatar on DeviantArt or shipping wars on Tumblr. Maybe no one cares about Avatar anymore because there’s no one in Avatar to care about. The characters are blown up so large that their personalities are stretched thin. The film doesn’t seem interested in them as people, and it seems even less interested in whatever story they’re functioning within. It’s all secondary to the spectacle of Cameron’s imagination, and even that would be forgivable if Avatar weren’t so unimaginative. It drops terms like “Toruk Makto” and “The Tree of Souls” and “Omaticaya” with total disinterest, as though it’s reading from an encyclopedia (which could probably be found in any bookstore in early 2010). If the film is that bored with itself, how can it expect audiences to care about its world any more than it already does?
As the credits rolled, I was a little disappointed that I’d come to such a boring conclusion about Avatar’s lack of staying power. In summary, the film was a box office juggernaut because of the novelty of the theatrical experience and a pop culture dud because it has nothing to offer outside of the theater. Case closed. A more important question had replaced it in my mind: Why does this film matter so much to me? The second film review I ever wrote was for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. I had a very positive reaction to it. But I don’t own that film on DVD, and I haven’t watched it once since I saw it in theaters. As I rewatched it this week, I started to remember how many times I’d watched Avatar. It had been a few years since my last viewing, but there had been a whole lot of viewings prior to that. It’s the only film for which I’ve ever felt compelled to write a second review. Now I’ve made it three reviews. If I travelled back in time, to Christmas Day 2009, I could tell my younger self this: “Someday, you will be the only person on the planet who has a personal attachment to Avatar.” I wouldn’t have understood why back then. But I think I have a better idea now.
Over the past year, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve thought about who I am, and I’ve thought about who I want to be. For the first time in my life, I started to assign meaning to my feelings and memories, and I made an effort to understand myself as a person. All of this to say: I’ve been questioning my gender identity. This isn’t a coming-out, so don’t take it as one. I say “questioning” because I haven’t come to a conclusion just yet. But as I re-watched Avatar, I began to think that my obsession with it may have been some subconscious pull towards a story about being transplanted into another body and finding freedom from the confines of your original one. Avatar makes no attempt to use its premise to explore themes of identity. I don’t think that it had to.
It’s unbelievable that I’m typing this right now, that I’m publically talking about this for the first time in the context of Avatar. Avatar, a movie which I cannot stress enough that I do not like. That I have never liked. A movie about which I have written thousands of negative words across multiple negative reviews. A movie that I own on DVD, that I have watched countless times, that shaped the course of my life in perhaps more ways than I understand. This dumb, boring movie that nobody cares about – that I can’t help but care about – belongs to me whether I want it to or not. I don’t know what’s in my future. I don’t know if I’m going to look back on this in a year, or a month, and smirk at my uncertainty. I don’t know when the truth of me is going to become obvious and irrefutable. What I do know is that Avatar is still on my shelf, and it’s not going anywhere. Everyone wanted to experience Avatar, and nobody wanted to own it. But Avatar owns a part of me. We’re stuck with each other, for better or for worse. What do I think of Avatar? Ask me again in six years.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox