Religion & Liberty Online

The Success of Avatar Is Nothing to Celebrate

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

The sequel to the record-breaking box office success Avatar is here. The enemy is still America/Europeans. The victims this time: whales. For all its technological innovation, the sheer banality of its theme is the most remarkable thing about it.

Read More…

The biggest box office success in cinema history, strictly in dollars taken in, is Avatar, the 2009 movie that made 3D a technology audiences would finally flock to. The movie made some $785 million in America, more than another $2 billion in the rest of the world, adding up to about $2.9 billion. Since then, it’s sold an additional $430 million in DVDs (including 3D Blu-ray editions). We have to use our imaginations when it comes to how much the movie was watched online in pirated copies. One is tempted to say that everyone has seen it. If there’s globalization, Avatar is it.

In 2022 we finally got a sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, which is also an incredible success, having grossed more than $620 million in America in its first month, with another $1.5 billion in the rest of the world. I’m confident it will make more than $700 million in America. Very few movies attain this kind of success, fewer still since the COVID panics have crippled the movie theater business. Three more of these movies are slated to appear and perhaps rather quicker than the 13 years between the first two, given the astonishing success and the technological achievements involved in the production so far.

James Cameron is the man who made this franchise, which married his interest in science fiction, going back to Terminator (1984), and his interest in blockbuster success—that is, strong appeals to American passions—for example, Titanic, the movie he made before Avatar, which also became the most popular movie of its time (1997). One thing that has changed is that Cameron started out trying to appeal to men, then changed to appealing to women, but found astonishing success with a sentimentality missing from his early works, and now wants to appeal to families, to children especially. Some of the more perceptive critics pointed out how simpleminded the original was, even how it functioned as a kind of faux religion all its own. The sequel has also been panned by others as stunningly unoriginal and “full of itself.” This suggests to me they think the Avatar movies themselves to be childish.

The arrival of Avatar: The Way of Water at least makes clear what it is Cameron wants America’s children and, by extension, the world’s children to see and to believe. The first movie was an obvious retelling of Euro-American conflicts with Native Americans in the 19th century. The story summarizes, of course, but it also focuses on a simple teaching: Americans are evil and possibly monstrous. The Natives were innocent and, though proud warriors, peaceful. One may say this is nonsense and historically dubious; one may add that it is unpatriotic. But it may nevertheless be rather persuasive, especially because Cameron makes no arguments and starts no fights—he merely uses images that speak to things most kids are ready to believe.

The sequel continues this story of American rapacity in the 19th century with the same malefactors looking to exploit the sea after they have already exploited the earth. This would be the whalers and the commercial invaders of island paradises like Hawaii. The whales, also mighty and yet pacific, are the good guys in this movie. This is a remarkable advance for Cameron. In terms of Hollywood storytelling, it’s his answer to other blockbuster franchises of the last decade that have tried to reimagine paganism: Planet of the Apes, King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic World.

The Pandora of Avatar is the New World, the Euro invasion a desperate escape from the Old; the discovery of the New is, however, not a good thing, much less anything providential. Lest you think I’m reading into the narrative, Cameron himself has admitted as much. (And Native American activists, ironically, are not exactly on his side, even if he claims to be on theirs.) Religion in the story is reduced to some kind of nature worship, a vague spirituality that should please people today. Sentimentality and amazement are the dominant attitudes to nature today, and Cameron shares them. They make a very good opposition to patriotism, which is much more particular and demanding. They also give Cameron the opportunity to make his movies about the discovery of the elements, a convenient device for storytelling and for focusing the attention of the audience.

Much of these movies, accordingly, is an animated version of the documentaries that now charm audiences without the limits reality imposes on living beings and production companies. Very long sequences explore forests and oceans and have nothing to do with the plot and might seem altogether pointless. But they certainly encourage a mood as they amaze the audience, making the case for technological imagination as the truest nature we can find. It’s hard to say as yet how persuasive the young find it, not least since no one is asking. But it is on the basis of this sentimental mood that the anti-Americanism of the story becomes not only plausible but necessary, as sentimentality must always lead to cruelty. Cameron, I believe, shares this strange piety about nature and an idea that somehow America is guilty of making the world ugly. He seems to believe audiences are also ready to believe this; I don’t know, for my part, that he is wrong.

These are movies with the simplest plots and, accordingly, the most moralistic conflicts you can imagine, and that is why they are powerful. They have a boring protagonist who wants to save the equally boring natives, indeed, to become one of them, and so he fights against the evil invaders who were once his people. The villains have the lowest motives—they’re capitalists!—and no redeeming features. In short, it’s the kind of caricature that describes much of our political discourse and our partisanship. It is unsurprising that our storytelling should have the same character—what is most familiar is most popular.

Intellectually, the Avatar stories seem worthless, beneath contempt, indeed, beneath argument. This leads people to underestimate them but also to feel themselves somehow disarmed. One looks ridiculous if one complains that the stories are anti-American. It takes a certain courage to deal with that problem, and courage is in very short supply in our times. Cameron seems to have proven his point in terms that are almost impossible to reject, especially for many conservatives—incredible profits and broad popularity without any scandal attached.

I expect the future Avatar movies to continue this retelling of American history for a new America that damns the past while suggesting wondrous images of a future ahead. It’s funny enough that the evidence for moral progress the movie gives is inventing new technologies that approach closer and closer to reality while purging it of its ugliness. Of course, readers may hold me to this prediction. For my part, I advise blunt honesty about this anti-Americanism. If conservatives wish to abandon the culture, especially the entertainment of the young, to such products, they’re free to do so. But it’s still better to see the problem for what it is.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.