It’s pretty striking, really, how quickly Avatar vanished from the public consciousness. The movie came out at the end of 2009, and in the years since, we’ve seen really no lasting attempts to keep the universe alive. There aren’t any Avatar toys, novels, or comics being sold. No video game franchise. People don’t wear Avatar t-shirts, or reference it except in occasional satire. Nobody’s wondering what the Avatar universe holds, or about the backstories of its characters. It was a pretty 3D movie, but otherwise entirely forgettable. And “forgotten” is exactly what happened to it, except in the mind of James Cameron and as trivia about top box office receipts.
Avatar’s disappearance happened so fast, with so little cultural impact, that I got to wondering whether any other movie comes close.
The answer is “No.” Avatar looks rather unique in this regard. To figure it out, I went to Box Office Mojo’s list of all time top “Sci-Fi — Adventure” movies, and sorted it by estimated ticket sold. Avatar sits at #5. People bought 97,000,000 tickets to see it. Here’s what its company in the Top 20 looks like, skipping movies that are sequels to films already in the list, and so piggybacking on their parent’s cultural impact.
Back to the Future
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
2001: A Space Oddessy
Guardians of the Galaxy
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Wars, of course, has more cultural influence than any movie ever made. The others either continue to live in public consciousness, are considered eminently rewatchable classics, or have inspired entire genres. The only that might not fit this are the last two. Guardians of the Galaxy is part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so it’s impossible to judge what its impact would’ve been without membership in the MCU. (My bet, however, is that without the MCU tie-in, it wouldn’t have cracked the Top 20 in the first place.) Star Trek: The Motion Picture itself is something of a forgotten film, but it kicked off the Star Trek movie franchise, and there’s no doubting the importance of that. Avatar, which falls between E.T. and Jurassic Park in box office receipts, stands alone as leaving not a ripple.
And it’s not like Cameron has no experience making culturally influential films. He gave us Aliens, the Terminator movies, and Titanic. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
The easy answer is that Avatar was just a spectacle. People didn’t see it for its characters, story, or worldbuilding. They saw it because it was the first major 3D movie to make full use of that medium. But still, really popular scifi stuff tends to take on a life of its own. That’s the nature of scifi fandom. The fans want to live in the world, explore it more, expand upon it. Or, at the very least, reference it incessantly. And yet, nothing.
Now 3D’s been done. We’ve all seen Avatar. Four more Avatars will be nothing more than four more Avatars, without the breakthrough to drive ticket sales. Still, the movie’s absence from pop culture remains interesting. It’s not even parodied. To make something so big and yet so forgettable is, itself, a rather remarkable achievement.