As Jurassic World surpasses $1.5 billion in receipts — it now stands as the world’s third-highest-grossing movie ever — it’s high time to look at the two movies it’s poised to overtake. Both belong to maximalist auteur, director James Cameron, a borderline insane obsessive dude who prides himself on pushing boundaries and spending decades to create new technology to bring his impossibly bonkers ideas to the screen. Titanic — No. 2, $2.1 billion — continues to resonate, still on the nostalgia of the droves of former teens who flocked to see former heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. But some say Avatar — No. 1, $2.7 billion — fluked its way to the top without a drop of reverberating influence. How?
Many Avatar haters would say it outright sucks, or that its Pocahontas-in-space-but-with-giant-blue-cat-people plotline is hilariously derivative and simplistic. Others put aside the relative merits of its cliches to directly question why it seems to have dropped out of the culture altogether.
Matt Singer at Screencrush offered a shrewd argument about why it doesn’t seem to have any lasting cultural impact. So did Scott Mendelsohn at Forbes and Siddhant Adlakha at Birth.Movies.Death. Theirs are all well-argued points, but I’m here to stick up for the giant blue dragon-riding cat people.
Avatar hasn’t bitten off a larger chunk of cultural clout because it’s the bittersweet money-making victim of its own technological advances. It was too ambitious, destined to have limited repercussions after it left theaters for home video. It is the essential 3-D cinema experience. A spectacle of that size, you can’t watch from your couch covered in Doritos dust, checking Twitter on your phone for the 20th time. The only place you could legitimately watch Avatar is in a darkened 3-D theater, on a humongous screen, with sound that gives you a nosebleed.
For most movies, this dynamic isn’t so critical. You could just as easily get a perfectly fine experience out of other top-earners like Frozen or The Dark Knight Rises on your 32-inch flatscreen. Avatar isn’t one of those movies.
I remember the first time I watched it on a TV at home. It was gunk: a shallow-looking, comically splashy and expensive live-action FernGully sequel. It was nothing like the 3-D images of the alien planet Pandora and its fully realized ecosystem that pulled me in from my theater seat.
People loved Avatar for the precise immersion Cameron created, and for the depth of its innovative 3-D. Eventually 3-D TVs made a brief splash when the format started to become the new normal for potential blockbusters, but the fad faded as people realized they couldn’t adequately re-create the 3-D theater experience.
The only place it can truly live now is when repertory houses re-evaluate and showcase 3-D, as Brooklyn’s BAMcinematek did in May. Otherwise, it’s destined to be seen in reruns on third-tier cable channels, or loitering in bargain DVD bins. The best we can do now is to hope it’s re-released and re-experienced in theaters when Cameron begins to roll out his rumored handful of sequels. If not, people will still complain that it’s the meaningless box office champ forgotten by the millions of people who put it there.