It became quite the joke in 2019, as Marvel fans avidly waited for Avengers: Endgame to overtake James Cameron’s visually stunning Avatar as the highest-grossing Hollywood film. The repeated claim was that no one could remember much about Avatar, except that the characters were blue in a pristine, new world untouched by humans. At the surface, the premise wasn’t entirely new either–humans destroying homelands, this time belonging to alien-like species. Avatar was just one film, and yet, Endgame, a culmination of a decade worth of superhero tales, couldn’t defeat it in the first round.
Also, Avatar released in 2009, and it had more or less withdrawn from public consciousness, while Marvel had been manically releasing half-a-dozen films every year. Avengers Endgame finally did beat Avatar, owing to a clever re-release strategy.
Unlike the Marvel mammoths, Avatar hasn’t had a lasting impact on pop culture, its critics claim. No one thinks that Sam Worthington is a superhero. Where are the t-shirts and theme parks that decide a film’s influence on pop culture?
But that probably is the quiet power of Avatar—it’s a lesson that influence isn’t always glaringly obvious. Avatar didn’t need Lego sets and toys to prove its strength in Hollywood. It was a groundbreaking film for innumerable reasons, one major factor being its technological advancement and how it paved the path for other filmmakers to tread the same route.
With the second film, Avatar: Way of Water looming around the corner, James Cameron’s film has returned to the centrestage of discussion and debate. The trailers and posters are as splendid and visually breathtaking as predicted, and promises to capture the box office once more.
So what is this peculiar quality about Avatar that made it almost invincible?
Live-motion capture acting
It’s all about presentation. Before Avatar, Andy Serkis’s wizened Gollum from Lord of The Rings was the only standard for live-motion capture acting. However, Cameron created a novel form of motion capture that portrays the features and motions of the subject on set that transfers movement to animation, all of which is computer-generated. It didn’t just seem like just technology anymore, there was actual emotion in Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri’s and Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully. It brought the required soulful feeling to the story that Cameron intended, and didn’t seem just like fancy gimmicks to lure viewers in.
Avatar thus caused a revolution, which led to motion-capture being used much more in the past decade, and established the basic groundwork for popular films, including The Planet of the Apes trilogy. Later, Josh Brolin was signed on as the mad Titan Thanos for Marvel and he played the character entirely in motion-capture. Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book used the same technology, and then The Lion King with VR headsets.
Moreover, Avatar brought back the success of 3D films and created a new fad, setting a high benchmark and breaking box-office records in 3D, crossing 1 billion dollars. It became quite the trend and other directors turned to 3D films, including Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in November of 2011, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012. Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard decided to experiment with it in Goodbye To Language.
The themes of Avatar
Cameron seems to present two alternatives with Avatar—a terrifying future for humans, and an opportunity to create something marvellous, in tandem with nature.
The central plot of Avatar is human colonisation of an alien planet Pandora, where they are hunting for unobtanium. In doing so, they meet the N’avi, who have formed a harmonious connection with nature. It’s a grand tale of the indigenous resistance to the destruction of their homeland, which is portrayed as something close to Eden. This storytelling perhaps isn’t new at all; there have been enough variations with disturbing racist tinges through the past decades, including Disney’s own attempt with Pocahontas.
However, this is a James Cameron film—a director who can spin gold from the ordinary, as Titanic has proved. Cameron has always been fascinated with the idea of global devastation, as we saw in the Terminators, where nuclear war is unleashed by machines that possess awareness. It’s this theme of looming apocalypse, the power of excessive technology and the future that forms the crux of many of his films.
For Cameron, Avatar’s Pandora is a callback to the world that we once had—without the invention of invasive technology, concrete buildings—an ‘evocation of that world’ as he had said. Perhaps one of the biggest selling points of Avatar was the blend of soft nostalgia and ecology, presented with cautious storytelling. You almost begin to believe that this world could exist, which then feeds into the desire to escape from the cruel realities of the world that was plagued with Depression and climate politics. Pandora became a hypnotic escape.
However, Avatar, despite its glowing success, was met with sharp criticism too, and debates ensued in 2009 whether this was another exhausted, racist pursuance of the ‘noble savage’ or if it was in support of the indigenous peoples, represented by the N’avi. Cameron was also accused of perpetuating the ‘white Messiah’ narrative—where a white hero comes and saves the natives, and that the indigenous people need the white man to lead them. Cameron struggled to defend the film and had once said, “When indigenous populations who are at a bow and arrow level are met with technological superior forces, if somebody doesn’t help them, they lose. So we are not talking about a racial group within an existing population fighting for their rights.” Cameron also dismissed claims that the film is racist, asserting that Avatar is about respecting differences.
Avatar remained a high-grossing film, despite the discourse and debate that petered out after its release. The film didn’t create havoc in the world’s popular culture or spew memorable dialogues– and yet, it made an impact, a soft, but lasting dent.