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Forgotten Beauty: Explaining The Perplexing Success of Avatar

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice….

There has arguably never been a more puzzling movie to evaluate than James Cameron’s Avatar. No film has ever had a greater discrepancy between its numerical success and its perceived cultural impact (or apparent lack thereof). Despite being the most successful movie in box-office history, for more than a decade cultural pundits and opinionated movie fans on social media have cultivated a narrative that nobody likes or cares about it. Yes, the 2009 film grossed $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office—more than cultural landmark films such as Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Force Awakens— but when’s the last time a kid in a blue Na’vi costume came trick-or-treating at your door?

Well, they say you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. Avatar: The Way of Water, the long-awaited sequel 12 years in the making, quickly dismantled those popular narratives. Within mere weeks, the movie rocketed into the top 10 box-office-grossing films of all time, even flying past mega-hit Top Gun: Maverick. The movie is drawing audiences to theaters in a way that hasn’t been seen since …. well, the first Avatar movie.

The deja vu success story has caused many people to ask, why? What is it about the Avatar films that resonates with audiences?

Commercialization and Beauty

One thing the “Avatar made no cultural impact” criticism has exposed is the total commercialization of cinema and entertainment. Cultural success today is often equated with expansive fandoms, annual conventions, and Funko Pops. Thus, the primary argument against Avatar has been the notable lack of these commercial elements. Perhaps the problem lies in weighing those arbitrary standards too heavily in the first place. In fact, Avatar may have found success precisely because it has resisted commercialization.

Of course, the films are by no means indie, arthouse pictures. They are expensive movies intended to make lots of money. Yet, in a recent interview with The Wrap, director James Cameron articulated the difference between his films and many other blockbusters:

“Let’s just be here, right? I mean that’s, I think, what the film is saying. You liking what you see? Let’s hang out. Let’s just hang out, look around, smell the roses. Movies don’t do that . . . We got into a big conflict with the studio brass at Fox on the first film because they kept saying stuff like, ‘Well you can cut out all that flying stuff, we don’t need all that. That doesn’t advance the plot.’ I’m like, ‘You’re absolutely correct, it doesn’t advance the plot. It’s doing something completely else. It’s allowing people to enjoy the moment . . . People forget to put beauty into a film. There’s a lot of snark, there’s a lot of sarcasm, there’s a lot of cutesy jokes in movies. There’s a lot of people playing things off as if they’re super cool and therefore diluting the sense of stakes, the sense of jeopardy. I go straight at just being earnest. If there’s jeopardy, it’s real. People could die. And if you like what you see, let’s just hang out for a bit. Let’s not rush through this because of artificial concepts like ‘plot’ [laughs]. It sounds dumb but it works.”

If you’re looking to explain the monumental success of the Avatar films, there’s perhaps no better place to start than the statement, “People forget to put beauty into a film.”

Space for the Beautiful

Humans innately desire beauty. In the Bible, King David captures the sentiment in song: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4). The visual beauty of the created world points toward a transcendent reality in a special way. Yet, so often in life—and in films—we’re too busy to slow down and appreciate it. 

One of the most unfortunate trends in the current movie discourse has been the elevation of the “plot” as the be-all and end-all of cinema. Many people today have been conditioned to consider a movie as merely a visualized plot. “Yes, the film looks gorgeous, but what about the plot?” What if a movie is more than just a plot?

Unlike a book, film is a visual artform. A movie has as much in common with a painting as it does with a book. Thus, the visuals are as foundational to the artistic package of a movie as the plot is. Our obsession with “plot” probably says much about our short attention spans and need to “just get on with it.” In our pragmatic minds, we value the destination more than the journey, so anything that isn’t directly moving us toward that destination is deemed “wasted time.” Thus, we’ve forgotten that time spent appreciating beauty is rarely wasted.

Pandora’s beauty is obviously born from James Cameron’s creative mind, and the spiritual transcendence it invokes in the characters is pantheistic and inconsistent with a biblical worldview. Christians need not wholesale embrace or affirm everything in the film. Yet, in adherence to J. R. R. Tolkien’s theory of “sub-creation,” the secondary world of Pandora reflects a glimmer of the beauty of God’s creation, and there is value in that.

The Avatar movies remind us to enjoy the journey. The films are a refreshing antidote to our fast-paced lives, designed to slow us down and direct our eyes toward beauty. Their unprecedented success suggests audiences are still thirsty for beauty and transcendence, left parched by the steady bombardment of commercialized entertainment.

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