When 'Avengers: Endgame' briefly passed 'Avatar' as the biggest box office hit of all time in 2019, a series of tweets began to circulate pondering how, despite its enormous critical and commercial success, James Cameron's 2009 action epic had left "no cultural impact". The contention of this discourse was that, because the film hadn't pollinated across all forms of pop culture the way the MCU or 'Harry Potter' or 'Star Wars' or select 80s properties had (but particularly, the MCU), the film wasn't consequently very good.
To say the comment was in mean spirit would be an understatement, but to say it is in any way correct would be wildly misinformed. It's been a few years since these tweets were made, and yet I think about them all the time, and they still annoy me now as they did then. I could wax lyrical about how such comments are indicative of fans of that particular franchise, but the more pertinent concern (with both the original film in re-release and the long-awaited sequel only months away) is how ill-informed a view that is.
To say that a film of any kind has had no cultural impact is to peddle the idea that the quality of any work of art is an objective fact, that its value is negligible and that no-one is there to defend it. Despite what current fandom attitudes want to assert, we do not live in a monoculture; there cannot and should not be one definitive opinion on anything artistic. In the 13 years since the release of 'Avatar', I have met a number of people for whom the film was a deeply important experience. They connected with its philosophies about the relationship we need to have with nature and the scope of writer/director James Cameron's world building. They would speak of it with the same quiet reverence with which I speak about 'The Lord of the Rings'. I always found this surprising, wonderful and moving.
To be frank, it's pretty rich of that particular comic book fandom to be dismissive of anything anyone else likes when they cry blue bloody murder every time anyone throws even the slightest criticism at their own franchise. It was never a question of the quality of 'Avatar' or, frankly, the quality of anything. It was to say, "This thing we love made more money than that thing you say you love, so it's obviously better," and this is an attitude I cannot stand. Well, 'Avatar' took the crown back when it was re-released in China that same year, so hooray for it.
What I find ironic though is the idea that 'Avatar' hasn't left any kind of cultural footprint, when its footprints across film culture are gigantic. If the cultural value of a film only comes from its merchandise or franchises or spinning off into other forms, then there's a hell of a lot of great and important films out there that also don't leave any impression of themselves. We might as well pack 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' in a box and forget it exists under that criteria.
The true impact of a work is in the effect it has on the work created in its wake, and the real irony is that the films of the MCU (the many, many, many films of the MCU) would not exist without what was achieved on 'Avatar'. The history of cinema has a number of visual effects landmarks - 'Star Wars', '2001', 'Jurassic Park', 'The Matrix', 'The Lord of the Rings' - hell, James Cameron himself is responsible for four of them, not only 'Avatar' but 'The Abyss', 'T2: Judgement Day' and 'Titanic'. Each of these films set a staggering benchmark that the rest of the film world scrambled to match, and with them, the craft of cinema took a leap forward.
The difference between all of those films and 'Avatar', I argue, is that with this film, Cameron set the bar so high that no one since has even come close to reaching it. I remember sitting in the cinema in December 2009 and the first shot of Neytiri (Zoë Saldana, 'Star Trek') appeared on screen. I gasped. The whole cinema did. Somehow, this completely invented creature looked more real than any of the human characters we had been watching. The way she moved, the depth of her eyes, the texture of her skin, everything felt shockingly alive. I knew I was seeing something truly incredible in that moment, and each passing second of the film only convinced me further of this. It's now been over a decade, and I have seen nothing that comes close to that moment.
You might dismiss this as shaky ground for cultural impact, that fancy visual effects aren't everything, but the power of cinema is its ability to offer a window into the impossible, create moving images beyond what we can see in reality. That's why the brachiosaurus in 'Jurassic Park' still astounds, but 'Avatar' takes this one step further with a fully-imagined ecosystem like nothing in our natural world, rendered as close to reality as cinema has been able to achieve. Yes, a great film is more than its visual effects, but sometimes these aesthetic achievements are so significant that they define its existence. Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' barely has a story and very sweaty dialogue, but its aesthetics are so powerful that none of that matters. I think 'Avatar' falls into a similar category.
Its story may not be that special or distinct, but a story really is only as good as how well it is told. The tragedy when (for that brief moment) 'Endgame' surpassed 'Avatar' was that a fully original film was no longer the biggest box office hit of all time - and before you make the argument that the film is just a rehash of 'Pocahontas' or a remix of 'Fern Gully', those stories also fall into ever-evolving storytelling traditions. A romantic couple connecting over a cultural divide is 'Romeo and Juliet', a fight to preserve the ecology of a seemingly hostile environment is 'Dune', and even these stories have mythological roots. Storytelling is the recycling of tropes over thousands and thousands of years, and the joy of the continued tradition of telling one another stories is seeing the variations with each new telling. If you're going to dismiss 'Avatar' as derivative, you had best lay that same criticism on 'Star Wars' or the story of Superman, because we're talking about the same thing here.
I will at least concede that Cameron's screenplay isn't his strongest, but the appeal of his films has never been his writing. For a man whom we think of most for his action films, Cameron is a surprisingly sentimental storyteller. Almost all of his films have a gooey emotional centre, whether it is the friendship between John Connor and the Terminator in 'T2' or the romance between Jack and Rose in 'Titanic'. 'True Lies' is silly to the point of being a Looney Tunes cartoon and the end of 'The Abyss' is so optimistic that you sit somewhere between disbelief and ridicule. Cameron does not deal in subtlety in his writing, opting for shocking directness; he has something to say and he's just going to say it. 'Avatar' has many of the same qualities in its writing as his other films, and yet you won't hear any questions around their cultural impact.
The first shot of Neytiri appeared on screen. I gasped. The whole cinema did. The way she moved, the depth of her eyes, the texture of her skin, everything felt shockingly alive.
You don't come to a James Cameron film for a profound screenplay though. You come for the spectacle, and almost no one on the planet either living or dead has ever had the grasp of spectacle that Cameron has. He directs the living daylights out of 'Avatar', the motion capture technology allowing him to move his camera in impossible ways and fill it with images the likes of which you've never seen before. His intention is to throw you head-first into a complete alien world of his invention, immerse you in it to the point where you feel like you've actually been there. The journey is accented with some on-the-nose musings on the collision between corporate greed and the natural world, but he then uses these themes as the emotional underpinning to a series of jaw- dropping, white-knuckle, world-shattering action sequences that leave you absolutely breathless. Every flying sequence in any film since feels like a poor copy by comparison, and that isn't to say that the technology hasn't been there for them to use. The difference is that Cameron knows how to use it, both in terms of spectacle but also to serve the storytelling. Of course 'Avatar' is a love story of two beings from two different worlds, because you need an emotional journey to underpin it and you need to see the betrayal and destruction of Pandora through the eyes of those destroying and those being destroyed. Without it, how could we hope to connect with this world and how could Cameron hope to communicate his fury at our disrespect for the natural world. The result, I would argue, is an astonishing piece of entertainment, a standard-bearer for what visual effects are capable of creating for us, fully-realised worlds and impossible characters, but also a reminder that, without a core of humanity, none of this means anything. That first shot of Naytiri can be as technically impressive as its possible for a pixel to be, but it doesn't make a difference if Zoë Saldana isn't as terrific as she is behind those pixels, or if the film isn't as invested in her character as it is her appearance.
I'm not going to say that 'Avatar' is some misunderstood masterpiece. There are certainly flaws, and it never reaches the heights of Cameron's work on 'Aliens' or 'Titanic'. I am able to see past the bloated runtime and the clunky dialogue, and yet I understand that others might not be able to. That's okay! That's the beauty of art - it is subjective and personal. To say that 'Avatar' has no cultural impact though is a foolish, ill-informed and dismissive stance to take. Its cultural impact is in every single visual effects shot in every single film made almost every week in the 13 years since its release. Every high-concept action sequence, in everything from 'Dune' to 'Gravity' to 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' to (yes) the MCU is indebted to it.
More than anything though, how many films made in those 13 years have ever dared to be as big and as ambitious, to invest that much time and money and resources into coming up with something that immersive or that original. 'Avatar' was so astoundingly ahead of its time that the only thing that has any possibilities of matching it is its own sequel. We are still living in the aftershocks of 'Avatar'; we've just become so used to them that we've stopped noticing.
This month, 'Avatar' returns to cinemas, newly restored and once again in 3D. I will be there the moment the doors open, ready to go back to the Pandora I remember before discovering what else James Cameron has to show us of this world he has created. I'm going to see it on the biggest screen I can with the loudest sound possible, because that's the way it was meant to be seen. For all its flaws, 'Avatar' is a work of pure cinema, the kind of experience only this medium could give us.
Back when the first trailers for 'Avatar' were released, there was scepticism about it. There were mutterings that it would fail, that Cameron would have a flop on his hands. And then it made more money than any film in history in a matter of weeks. Hell, they had to re-release 'Endgame' to get it over the line. There were the same doubts about 'Titanic' and 'Alien' and 'The Abyss' and pretty much every damn film James Cameron has ever made, and every time he delivered above and beyond. So if you've been dismissing 'Avatar' because, like those idiots back in 2019, you don't think it has "any cultural impact", follow me into the cinema and remind yourself of what it has to offer.
If anything, you'll be ready for December when 'Avatar: The Way of Water' blows us all away in ways we never even knew a film could blow us away before.