James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ opened on December 18, 2009, five years ago this month. In a theatrical release that would stretch on for 34 weeks, Cameron’s motion-captured 3D spectacle grossed $749 million in the U.S. and an additional $2 billion overseas. Box-office-wise, it is the biggest movie in history by an absurd margin; it tops its closest competition, Cameron’s own ‘Titanic,’ by some $600 million. That’s more than ‘The Dark Knight’ made in its entire domestic theatrical run.

To be totally honest, I didn’t remember it was ‘Avatar’ anniversary. That’s not unusual though; as Scott Mendelson wrote in Forbes earlier this month, the film—which, again, is the number one movie of all time—seems to have “left no pop culture footprint” whatsoever. Millions upon millions of people paid to see ‘Avatar,’ and millions upon millions of people have apparently forgotten about it completely:

Kids don’t play ‘Avatar’ on the playground nor with action figures in their homes. There is little-if-any ‘Avatar’-themed merchandise in any given store. Most general moviegoers couldn’t tell you the name of a single character from the film, nor could they name any of the actors who appeared in it ... ‘Avatar’ didn’t inspire a legion of would-be ‘Avatar’ rip-offs, save perhaps for Walt Disney’s disastrous ‘John Carter.’ It didn’t set the mold for anything that followed save its use of 3D which turned the post-conversion tool into a valuable way to boost box office overseas.

There were ‘Avatar’ action figures; most are available on eBay for cheap. eBay is full of discount ‘Avatar’ merchandise, in fact; the PlayStation 3 game will run you a measly dollar plus shipping, and a licensed T-shirt costs about the same. Search for used ‘Avatar’ DVDs on eBay and you’ll see lots of “Or Best Offer”s next to the prices—whatever you’re willing to pay, the sellers will consider. Clearly, there’s plenty of supply and little demand.

Mendelson’s right about the ‘Avatar’ knockoffs as well; there haven’t been many, although there have been lots of 3D movies—so many, in fact, that they seemed to have killed audience’s appetite for the format (and their willingness to pay a surcharge for it, at least in the United States). That’s about it as far as ‘Avatar’’s cultural legacy goes—at least until James Cameron and Fox start releasing a trilogy of ‘Avatar’ sequels in the winter of 2016, and Disney opens a brand new “Avatar Land” in their Animal Kingdom amusement park sometime in 2017.

Although Mendelson himself says that he believes ‘Avatar’ holds up, many of the comments around his piece and the general obliviousness of the public to its fifth anniversary imply that the movie is unworthy of its status as the biggest of all-time. How could a huge blockbuster vanish so quickly into obscurity? ‘Titanic,’ the previous “biggest movie ever” at least launched Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to mega-stardom and generated zeitgeist-defining lines of dialogue that are still quoted to this day. (“I’m the king of the world!”) Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are still working in Hollywood, but neither became huge, iconic figures in pop culture (Saldana arguably generated more buzz in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ a much smaller movie). And no one quotes ‘Avatar.’ Hell, I just re-watched ‘Avatar’ last night and I can’t quote a single line of dialogue from it.

(Wait! Yes, I can! Stephen Lang saying “You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora!” But that’s it. And it’s mostly cribbed from a line in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Also, it’s not particularly quotable, except in a conversation about ‘Avatar.’)

Given the fact that ‘Avatar’ hasn’t made a lasting cultural impact, I approached my re-watch skeptically, expecting to find a dated, silly, ugly film. Because that would explain it, right? That would make ‘Avatar’ less of a movie than an event, one that swept up people in a storm of publicity about its high-tech special effects and immersive 3D imagery. A naysayer could look at ‘Avatar’s record-breaking box office and the general apathy around the film just five years later, and declare the film nothing more than a bunch of noise. I had a hunch I would find a movie that deserved to be forgotten.

But that’s not what happened.

True, ‘Avatar’ doesn’t offer much in the way of quotable dialogue. But “I’ll never let go, Jack” notwithstanding, dialogue has never been Cameron’s strong suit; going to one of his movies for the words is like going to Red Lobster for a steak. Cameron’s strength has been and always will be as a visual storyteller, and even without the benefit of a massive screen and some of the best 3D effects in history, ‘Avatar’ is still a gorgeous movie. At home, you feel the repetitiveness of the many (many) flying scenes —mostly because you can’t feel the visceral height and speed of those flying scenes without 3D—but even on a small screen, ‘Avatar’ looks beautiful. The crazy colors of Pandora, this alien world populated by strange and terrifying creatures and bioluminescent plant life, still pop. Wandering that planet at night, when the forest is illuminated by these crazy dayglo colors, is still an intoxicating experience.

20th Century Fox

The story is basic, and arguably derivative—‘Dances With Wolves’ in space—but it taps into something primal about the moviegoing experience. The whole story revolves around “avatars,” human-piloted alien bodies, which serves as a metaphor for the voyeurism and escapism of cinema. Our hero, Jake Sully (Worthington) enters a dark, enclosed space and is transported to a new world, an extremely literal version of the way all of us go to the theater for that moment when the lights go down and we are taken away from our mundane lives and allowed to experience someone else’s. And the world of Pandora is legitimately awe-inspiring, with its floating mountains, rainbow-colored flying dragons, and massive, incandescent willow trees. Add in the 3D, and ‘Avatar’ is both about—and comes close to replicating the sensation of—an out-of-body experience. No wonder so many people bought into that journey.

‘Avatar’ is still a very solid movie. It’s gorgeous and moving and exciting. It doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. So the question then is why has it been?

There are simplistic good-versus-evil dynamics at play, but there are some complex shadings at work as well, mostly in the film’s depiction and use of technology. In short, ‘Avatar’ valorizes the natural world and denigrates the technological one; its heroes are the native Na’vi, who live in harmony with nature, its villains are the humans, who wish to exploit nature for financial gain. But this planet of incredible natural wonder in inherently unnatural; it doesn’t exist, and could only be created with the use of advanced digital technology. So the movie is vehemently against the very thing that made itself possible. (This tension between the simultaneous allure and fear of technology is something Cameron has explored throughout his entire career, starting all the way back in ‘The Terminator.’)

‘Avatar’ is also an action movie that often feels uncomfortable with its own violence. It’s filled with exo-suits and advanced weapons and hovercopters—all the “cool” stuff that drives most modern blockbusters. But Cameron seems much more interested in Pandora’s flora and fauna—which, interestingly, always appear immediately after an action scene. Jake first discovers the nighttime beauty of Pandora, for example, after he finally stops fighting with the indigenous animals and begins listening to Na’vi shaman Neytiri (Saldana). Of course, the movie is full of fighting; the whole last act of the movie is one enormous battle between the humans and the Na’vi. But when the fight finally ends, Jake refers to the war as “the time of great sorrow,” and at times it does feel like Cameron is including the action out of an obligation; the price he has to pay to tell a story about ecology and interconnectedness.

Of course, there are a few bum notes. Worthington isn’t a terrific actor, and his American accent is full of holes. Some of the visual splendor is lost on DVD or even Blu-ray. There are a few aspects of the plot that are confusing (the avatars are so expensive that the humans bring in Jake to replace his dead twin brother as a pilot just so they don't lose their investment, but they're apparently not so important that they put any kind of tracking device in them so that they can be found if and when they get lost, as Jake does immediately upon undertaking his first mission away from the human base). But ‘Avatar’ is still a very solid movie. It’s gorgeous and moving and exciting. It doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

So the question then is why has it been? A lot has been made of the similarities between ‘Avatar’ and other movies. It’s an inversion of Cameron’s own ‘Aliens,’ if the colonial marines were played as the bad guys and Sigourney Weaver switched sides halfway through and tried to help save the alien queen. It bears the influence of ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ and countless Westerns. It’s a movie built out of other movies.

But watching ‘Avatar’ again this week for the first time in five years, I was struck by all of the differences between ‘Avatar’ and other modern blockbusters. It’s not based on an existing property. It’s not inspired by a comic book, or a toy, or a video game, and while they were a few tie-in comics, toys, and games for the film, they haven’t been continually produced for the last half-decade. The ‘Avatar’ name hasn’t been exploited into an inch of its life (type it into Google, in fact, and you’re more likely to get results for Nickelodeon’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ cartoon). It’s not part of a cinematic universe; it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It tells one complete story from beginning to end—and it tells that story with a surprising amount of darkness. It’s a piece of escapism, but one freighted with heavy (and largely unpopular) messages about environmentalism, conservation, and run-amok capitalism. Many of the lead characters—including both of my personal favorites—die over the course of the film.

In other words, ‘Avatar’ isn’t a brand; it’s a movie, perhaps one of the last that will ever be made of its scale and scope. In the five years since ‘Avatar’’s release, the five biggest hits at the box office have been sequels (‘Toy Story 3,’ ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2,’ ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’) or Marvel movies (‘The Avengers,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), and Hollywood has become almost entirely focused on building, subdividing, and perpetually extending movie series as long as they possibly can. Those films haven’t been forgotten because we have not been allowed to forget them—because they have been sold to us over and over as books and shirts and Halloween costumes and breakfast cereals and Blu-ray box sets and a million other branded products.

‘Avatar,’ in contrast, wasn’t primarily a product, it was an idea; the somewhat flawed but deeply felt creation of one guy. No amount of test screenings or focus groups would create a movie as conflicted, confused, weird, messy, and beautiful as ‘Avatar.’ Ironically, if anyone but that one guy was in charge of ‘Avatar,’ the film probably wouldn’t have been forgotten, because if anyone but James Cameron was in charge of ‘Avatar’ Fox probably would have already cranked out one or two sequels and who knows how many other ancillary materials. ‘Avatar’ would be remembered—and grossly watered down.

Which is why I’m curious, and a little nervous, about all this ‘Avatar’ stuff coming down the pipeline in the next couple years; three sequels, an amusement park, all kinds of associated paraphernalia. They’ll certainly raise the film’s profile. But even with Cameron overseeing everything, the sequels will also turn one of the most singular blockbusters of the last 25 years into yet another never-ending franchise. They could be great movies, and they’ll definitely bring ‘Avatar’ back into the public consciousness. But they could also make it more visible and less special all at once.

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