Anghus Houvouras on James Cameron’s Avatar and its complete lack of cultural impact…
We live in an age of entertainment extremism, where passionate fans go to ridiculous lengths to engage in hyperbolic discussions about their favorite movie or franchise. It can be exhausting to wade through social media and hear people make bold claims that aren’t based on anything remotely resembling the truth.
Today we’re going to tackle a topic that has been discussed at length online over the past month since James Cameron spoke Avatar was re-released in theaters and once again became the most successful film of all time. A familiar topic and subsequent narrative that emerged was discussed at length when the film was first released over a decade ago: Did Avatar have a significant cultural impact?
Rather than sharing feelings, let’s take a moment to establish some facts. What determines cultural impact? To answer this question, we’ll use the film that redefined the impact of pop culture in the modern age and the most influential film ever released, star warsas well as a few other popular movies that have had a lasting impact on our collective culture.
When released in May 1977, George Lucas’ love letter to sci-fi adventure became a massive hit and, to this day, remains the most culturally impactful film ever released. Using star wars As a model, let’s look at the impact of Avatar in terms of impact on pop culture.
1. Massive box office success
Clearly, Avatar easily erased the first benchmark; it was a smash hit at the box office, making over $2.7 billion. The movie was a staple in theaters for months after its release, which was pretty common when star wars was released in 1977. At the time Avatar released in theaters, most blockbusters had entered and exited multiplexes within 90 days.
Like Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, Avatar had stamina. It was a solid income week after week. People would come back to the theater to relive the movie over and over again. As star wars, Avatar was a water cooler movie that got fans a lot of excitement.
Now let’s talk about a few things. First of all, not every movie that has a cultural impact has to be a huge box office success. It doesn’t hurt, but there are movies with a big cultural impact that barely made it to the box office (office space). At the same time, it is not because a film is a huge success in the cinema that it has a significant cultural impact. This is a key point in the wording of the definition of “cultural impact”.
For me, cultural impact is measured by what happens outside the cinema. This brings us to our second point on the “pop culture earthquake ladder.”
George Lucas made a number of very savvy moves when dealing with 20th Century Fox. The most important thing being to keep the marketing rights of star wars. To quote Krusty the Klown, “It’s the sweetest plum.” star wars the merchandise was all the rage after the film’s release. T-shirts, lunchboxes, posters, trading cards, lapel pins, flamethrowers… Lucas was slapping “May The Force Be With You” on anything and everything, generating billions of dollars worldwide even after Return of the Jedi went out and the prospect of no longer star wars movies seemed like a real possibility.
In comparison, Avatar didn’t fare so well when it came to merchandising. There were action figures that weren’t selling incredibly well, a video game that was barely worth mentioning, t-shirts and backpacks… but none of that was flying off the shelves. Less than a year after its release, Avatar the merchandise had already disappeared from the shelves or ended up in the clearance section of most major retailers.
With Avatar: The Way of the Water launching in December and a new video game from Ubisoft around the same time, that could change. But as of writing this article, Avatar merch isn’t really a thing. You don’t see the children playing with it Avatar action figures or wearing Avatar school backpacks. How many kids do you see dressing up as the Na’vi for Halloween?
The film had no impact outside of the theatrical experience.
3. Memes and memorability
“May the force be with you”
“Do or don’t, there is no try.”
“Why, you half scruffy, scruffy, nervous shepherd.”
“These are not the droids you are looking for.”
“I have a bad feeling”
There are five random quotes from the original star wars movies. Most of them were typed from memory. star wars is a treasure trove of quotable lines as well as memorable, memorable moments. Even without the added benefit of the Prequel Trilogy, which might be the most memorable movie of the new millennium.
star wars has so many infinitely quoted moments. All lines that have become catchphrases in pop culture and are used in countless TV shows and movies. Kevin Smith has had a decades-long career in show business referencing the original trilogy. star wars memes and quotes are woven into western culture and a significant percentage of the thread count when it comes to our collective tapestry of pop culture.
East Avatar something you often see referenced outside of the original movie release? Are there any famous quotes from Avatar constantly referenced online? Any Avatar memes popping up in your social media feed every other day? Are quotes from the movie used frequently? The answer is no’. Avatars the most popular meme doesn’t even come from the movie. It’s an SNL sketch featuring Ryan Gosling who becomes obsessed with the Papyrus font used on the Avatar attach.
Again, as a cultural entity, Avatar failed to make an impact outside of the theatre.
The sincerest form of flattery is something many hard-hitting films are credited with and certainly helps make the case for cultural impact. Take a movie like die hard, for example. There was a whole cottage industry die hard clone which went into production after the Bruce Willis action classic became a big hit. Subsequent films that attempted to fill a similar thematic space have been described as “die hard on a (white)”. Passenger 57, Air Force One and Executive Decision were “die hard on a plane”. Under Siege has been “die hard on a boat”. The rapidity has been
“The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down” “die hard in a bus”.
Whereas die hard may not have spawned a multi-billion dollar merchandise line, it inspired a slew of imitators and is still a staple of meme culture. In a few weeks, netizens will continue the holiday tradition of lazily asking “East die hard a Christmas movie?“even though everyone stopped caring about it around 2015.
star wars created many new paradigms, but there weren’t many imitators. Despite the movie’s ridiculous success, most studios haven’t tried to copy the formula that led to star warshuge success. Of course, there have been a handful of efforts like The Last Starfighter Where Battlestar Galacticabut due to the technological breakthroughs and advances that George Lucas helped pioneer, the market for imitators was extremely limited.
Avatar, on the other hand, hasn’t really generated a slew of imitators. At best, it spurred studios to spend money trying to make 3D financially viable and help sell the spectacle of movies that could barely entertain in two dimensions, and adding a third wasn’t going to help (Gulliver’s TravelsI am looking at you). Avatar was not significantly creatively influential, nor did it inspire a multitude of imitators seeking to capitalize on Avatar mania.
5. Tradition and/or expanded universe
One of the things about massive cultural phenomena; they tend to inspire audiences to learn more about the fictional world depicted in the film. The most successful blockbuster franchises cross over into other media spawning books and graphic novels that propel the mythos forward into the gaps between new cinematic installments.
In the years since star wars entered the lexicon, there have been hundreds of novelizations, comics, and video games that built on the foundations of the original films and created interconnected universes with deep and satisfying lore.
There have been Avatar novels and comics that I’m sure got readers, but after 12 years the world of Pandora hasn’t expanded much beyond what we saw in the original movie. There’s one theme park attraction in Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park that has never generated much buzz. While Cameron and company talk about expanding the world of Avatarthe “World of Pandora” outside of the film has not been explored in any meaningful way, nor has there been any fan demand for it.
Avatar, despite being a hugely successful box office experiment, never managed to make a significant impact on pop culture. It’s a hugely successful film that, in the 13 years since its release, has never transcended the theater and evolved into something culturally relevant. Its impact is practically non-existent. It’s not even the most impactful artistic effort with the name Avatar. This designation would go to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
While passionate fans of Avatar might argue otherwise, the most successful film of all time had no real cultural impact. Barely blip on the pop culture seismic scale.
Let’s go back a year later The way of the water has landed and we’ll see if there have been any significant changes to the pop culture landscape…