For most of us, James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar feels like a flash in the pan; a relic of our childhood that was emblematic of the 3D craze that dominated the early 2010’s, but that’s largely how it would remain in the pop culture zeitgeist– a relic.
James Cameron is a curious figure in pop culture– his model of filmmaking is frankly, insane. Frequently bankrupting himself to fund cutting-edge technology often custom-made for his films, he walks the line between the giant of the industry and the perpetual underdog. Further to this, despite the critical and commercial acclaim, his films are often derided in the public arena; Avatar is a “laboriously silly blockbuster”, and Titanic is “mediocre”. What’s interesting is that his earlier work– Aliens, Sanctum and Terminator— are all still favoured and hold good in the court of public opinion.
But allow me, for a moment, to theorise; Aliens and Terminator, while fantastic films, are largely genre pieces. They never stray too far from the confines of the sci-fi epic or the horror-thriller. What this means is they are like most other well-made blockbusters. They are cut-and-dry “movies”. Cameron brings his signature love for detailed effects, but on the whole, I would argue Terminator and Titanic are chalk and cheese– the latter a director in his prime and the former a director just beginning. What sets Avatar (and, by extension, Titanic) apart is that at the outset they present themselves as genre pieces; the sci-fi epic, the disaster film, but use those tropes as a Trojan horse as such to explore more universal themes; love, but also our place in the world, and how to trust your beliefs when they clash against all you’ve ever known. This, coupled with the sheer amount of money (including his own) that Cameron sinks into these features so they are absolutely and precisely perfect, ultimately creates works that are disarmingly earnest. It’s easy, then, in the wake of the Marvel franchise that undercuts nearly every emotional note with a quip or the likes of Michael Bay’s filmography that privilege aesthetic at the price of nearly all else, to recoil from such a heartfelt and sincere expression of adoration not just for cinema but for the emotional connections it allows as an art-form. Hence, Avatar is teased for having blue people and a mineral called “unobtanium” and Titanic is nit-picked to death over the possibility that Jack could have– nay should have– survived.
The film podcast Unspooled made a great point about Cameron, which was that he’s an easy guy to target merely because he does his job so frustratingly well. Say what you will about Avatar, but not only does its CGI “hold up” in 2022 but actually still looks strikingly up to date. Not only is Cameron good at technology, but his writing and world-building are unrivalled and to boot, his films continue to place in the top 5 global box office grosses of all time. He’s an all-star, in the truest sense.
But with the rerelease of the first instalment for a limited two week-run internationally, an online debate was sparked, with people asking the very valid question: does Avatar have any cultural footprint at all? Admittedly until talk of the sequel, the most popular avatar was animated and named Ang. The blue Cameron epic spawned only 300-ish fan-fictions on the popular site Archive of Our Own and except for an SNL parody of its use of the papyrus font, it didn’t grow to have half the cultural afterlife as, say, Titanic.
And though, many on Twitter propose this lack of afterlife to be a result of Avatar’s lack of artistic merit, I argue the opposite. Much like Denis Villaneuve’s recent Dune, which I would argue had the same societal flash-in-the-pan experience, Cameron’s Avatar is so profoundly “new”, so obviously and incredibly removed from our lived experiences and so privileged in its visual experience that of course, it couldn’t have a cultural afterlife the way we currently experience them– we simply aren’t as advanced as we need to be. What would possibly be the point in reducing down to iPhone size something so inherently cinematic? The 21st-century state of affairs has seen Hollywood create films like snacks, easily digestible and immediately understandable– but Avatar is a whole six-course meal. We can’t sustain its place in the zeitgeist because we don’t have the cultural appetite for it– yet.
But I will argue that Avatar certainly has had an “afterlife”, just perhaps not one to be celebrated. People often gripe about the white saviourism (to which I say *cough cough* Dune), the frankly bizarre sex scene (I won’t defend that) and the underlying ableism in Jake’s quest to “get his legs back” (as a paraplegic in his human body). I don’t deny these, necessarily, but I do think they come from an inherently flawed approach, which is to say these critiques approach Avatar (2009) as a totality instead of one part of a five-part series. Further, film writer for Forbes, Mark Hughes has made the astute point that Cameron’s ability to get the audience to relate to a group of indigenous people and so astutely villainize the mega-corporation which is an obviously coded American military metaphor is groundbreaking and impressive in its own right.
So yeah, there aren’t too many TikTok edits of Jake Sully thirst traps– but by comparison, its two-week limited re-release in September 2022 made $10.7 million resulting in a lifetime box office of $268.8 million. This means that even when adjusted for inflation, Avatar still reigns from the coveted #1 spot of highest-grossing film of all time. Not only that but the film is conservatively estimated to earn anywhere from $649 million to $1.5 billion. If that’s not culturally relevant enough for you, I don’t know what is.
Written by Mia Eve Sherry