Who would’ve thunk it? A movie without an already pre-established cinematic universe, not based on decades of books or comics, with revolutionary politics at its core, a film in which U.S. soldiers are triumphantly killed — who would have thought it’d be so damn successful?
Directed by James Cameron, Avatar holds many box-office records, including the title for the overall highest-grossing film. In 2009, it was the first film to earn more than $2 billion and concluded its original box office run with gross revenue of $2.749 billion. The film also broke the record for the largest domestic opening weekend for a film not based on a franchise and the largest opening weekend for an environmentalist film. Domestically, it had led the box office for seven consecutive weeks. This was the longest consecutive lead since the 15-week run from Cameron himself, with his 1997 film, Titanic. Worldwide, the film held the number one box office spot for 11 consecutive weeks, surpassing the previous record of nine weeks which was held by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.
Updated September 25, 2022: If you love Avatar, you’ll be happy to know we’ve updated this article with additional info surrounding the franchise, including this year’s highly anticipated sequel as well as the recent box office returns from its theatrical re-release.
In 2019 the massive box office triumph lost its title for the highest-grossing film to Avengers: Endgame, which had a gross of $2.797 billion. However, a 2021 re-release of Avatar in China led to the film reclaiming its title and positioning itself with a cumulative gross of $2.847 billion. In anticipation of the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, 20th Century Fox re-released Avatar in theaters on September 23, 2022, where it took the number three spot with $10 million, beating out other major re-releases like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Jaws. Worldwide the re-release of Avatar brought in $30 million making it the biggest movie at the worldwide box office and bringing its already legendary intake to $2.85 billion.
After more than 12 years the film is still incredibly relevant and loved by many, with millions of people. anticipating the sequel movies, the second and third of which began filming in 2017 and have 2022 and 2024 release dates respectively. But what exactly made this 2009 adventure fantasy so incredibly popular? Everyone expected it to be a bomb, yet it went on to become a surprise hit that has managed the amazing feat of staying relevant almost 12 years later.
James Cameron’s Track Record
James Cameron boasts a wildly successful and extensive resume. The name recognition and appreciation of a director can do a lot to help popularize a movie. Cameron’s film career was springboarded into success with his 1984 movie The Terminator. Both written and directed by Cameron, the unique sci-fi story captivated and entertained an audience whose world was and still is becoming increasingly integrated with technology. It’s with this film that Cameron established himself as an incredibly competent world-builder and creator with strikingly original ideas. His subsequent films, from the 1986 Aliens up until his most recent, Avatar, all demonstrate his ability to create novel, relevant, and moving stories.
Beyond original storytelling (which is an incredible feat in and of itself), James Cameron is able to effectively translate his ideas onto the screen. Many other great stories, usually in the form of novels or comics, find a lackluster representation when adapted for cinema. This could be because the medium wasn’t originally meant for the screen, or perhaps it is the fault of an incongruence between the original creator and the hired director; sometimes, it’s simply just impossible to convert a sci-fi idea into a visual medium. Whatever the case is, we don’t see it with Cameron, who is able to effectively create an original story made solely for cinema, something that is becoming more and more uncommon.
The translation of the story to the movie isn’t as direct as just creating a screenplay or script, for him. Cameron is involved in every step of the process, and with a blockbuster film like Avatar, there are a lot of processes. Cameron prepared the actors before shooting by sending them to Hawaii to experience a tropical environment and had them meet with a professor of plant physiology to understand methods a botanist may use. He appointed a linguist to develop the Na’vi language and worked closely with designers and illustrators on 3-D renderings, paintings, and sculptures. Additionally, Cameron had new technology built specifically for this film. Cameron is ambitious and determined, not just in this epic masterpiece but also in his anticipation of four additional sequels, creating five movies total in a process which is sure to take more than two decades. With Cameron not having directed any non-Avatar related film for the past 12 years and the foreseeable future, it seems as if the director is primed to dominate the 2020s with his blue, alien vision.
Groundbreaking Special Effects and Technology
The movie was originally supposed to begin production in 1997 and was set for a 1999 release. However, Cameron postponed this, feeling that the technology was not yet developed enough to tell the story as he envisioned. Leading up to the principal photography in 2007, James Cameron and Vince Pace developed a modified 3-D camera to capture their footage. Additionally, Cameron utilized innovative and new visual effect techniques. This included a larger motion-capture stage and an improved method of facial expression capture technology. During the motion-capture process, Cameron used a new virtual camera system that placed the actor in a virtual environment and could display reactions in real-time. Cameron has said that the film is 60% CGI and 40% live-action, and yet the combination is rather seamless.
The enormous amount of data being stored and transferred led to the creation of a new cloud computing digital asset manager created by Microsoft. The company responsible for the visual effects in Avatar is Weta Digital based out of the capital of New Zealand. Weta used a massive server farm consisting of 4,000 HP servers, 35,000 processor cores, 104 terabytes of RAM, and three petabytes of storage. Cameron had previously pushed the boundaries of digital technology with The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but with Avatar the filmmaker took it to the next level and that work was up on the screen. The dedication paid off as the visuals were not to gloss over the story, but as a tool to enhance it and bring the viewer into the story.
3D Helped Boost Avatar’s Ticket
It cannot be understated how much 3D played into Avatar’s box office success story. While 3D had seen a resurgence in 2009 with releases like My Bloody Valentine 3D, Monsters vs Aliens, and A Christmas Carol it was Avatar that showed audiences a new way of using the technology. It brought viewers into the world of Pandora, and it was such a breathtaking sight they wanted to keep returning to it as they would not get this same sensation when the movie finally arrived on home video.
3D ticket prices are more than standard tickets, so that certainly helped Avatar’s box office. Even the recent re-release found that 90% of people who went to see it over the weekend chose 3D. Avatar created the modern 3D trend, and while other films have used it effectively while others quickly tried to cash in, Avatar remains the gold standard for what audiences imagine as a 3D cinematic experience.
A Much-Needed Metaphor and a Powerful Story
Throughout the movie, Cameron deploys the use of metaphor and symbolism to drive at a much larger meaning. One of the most obvious is the relationship between humans and the environment. Avatar, we see humans destroying the natural world and stripping it of its resources. Without regard for the native population or the ecosystems in which they live, the humans in the film are motivated by greed and constant gratification. In 2009, as well as today, ecological degradation resonates with many viewers.
Additionally, the theme of imperialism is present throughout this film. Avatar subverts the alien invader troupe with humans as the one with the advanced weaponry going to a new planet to conquer with the Na’vi in the role that must humans find themselves in alien invasion stories like War of the Worlds. The attempted eradication of the native population is shown and invokes the idea of colonization. The use of terms like “shock and awe” in the film describe the technique of overwhelming displays of force refer that is used in modern occupation and warfare. Naomi Klein has even written a book on the subject, about how greed exploits disaster and profits from it, especially with the help of various militaries. The theme of corporate interest overriding the needs of the planet and people has only gotten more topical since 2009.
Although the world we see throughout the film is fictitious, the familiarity with the realistic themes creates a deep emotional response. By the end of the film, through the work of the protagonists, the wrongdoers meet their end and the good guys actually kind of win, inspiring audiences to participate in the very real struggles against climate disaster, war, greed, and racism. Avatar is a cinematic spectacle, a visually and technologically innovative film from one of the most successful directors alive, and one which takes viewers on a thrilling, emotional journey through powerful motifs and empathetic characters. Audiences will get to travel this journey, again and again, this decade, as sequels are sure to dominate the box office once again. Welcome to the Avatar Decade.
Setup for a Promising Franchise
Speaking of the Avatar Decade — a big reason why audiences flocked to theaters back in 2009 was because of the long 12-year gap between Titanic and Avatar, knowing that whatever the film was that kept him away for so long had to be special. Well, it’s been 13 years since the first Avatar and audiences are craving that cinematic spectacle that James Cameron has provided for over four decades. What began as a single one-off sci-fi film, Cameron has now set to form into a massive sci-fi generational epic. With the press and buzz surrounding The Way of Water, 20th Century Studios’ thrilling trailer for the sequel was released online to great acclaim and record numbers. And the internet quickly dissected it, frame by frame. The highly anticipated film is slated to hit theaters on December 16, 2022.