‘Avatar’ and the Mystery of the Vanishing Blockbuster

First it was said that James Cameron was no match for reality. In late 2009, before “Avatar” came out, skeptics warned that the visual-effects behemoth would never recoup its unearthly budget, estimated to be upward of $237 million. In just over two weeks, it grossed $1 billion, quieting doubters, at least temporarily. After that, the story reversed: Reality was no match for “Avatar.” The condition went by different names: “Avatar” Syndrome, Post-Pandoran Depression or PADS (Post-“Avatar” Depression Syndrome). It was marked by despair and suicidal ideation, brought on by the insurmountable gap between real life and Cameron’s C.G.I. Eden.

This was at the dawn of the era when a small group of people acting weird online could set off a dayslong cycle of news. Here, the source was a multipage thread on the independent fan site Avatar Forums — “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible.” By that point, January 2010, even certain well-adjusted people had seen the movie two or three times, lured back to theaters by the all-consuming tale of an ex-Marine fighting to save the Na’vi race from the venal designs of a mining corporation. For the people posting on the thread, watching was not enough; they wanted to live inside Cameron’s world, to fly through Pandora as a 10-foot-tall blue alien, in perfect symbiosis with nature. One of the afflicted, Ivar Hill, told CNN, “I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world.”

Hill was 17 at the time, living with his parents in Borås, Sweden. He first saw “Avatar” at the local cinema and woke up the next day feeling empty and lost. On Avatar Forums, he found others who felt trapped, who yearned for a chance to start over on Pandora or dreamed of leading a Na’vi lifestyle here on earth. Some of them recognized the futility of the sentiment. Others went searching for a feeling of escape, seeing the movie again and again and brainstorming tips for improving their own lives. “Start living like Neytiri,” one wrote, “in touch with nature, the environment, and not being greedy and wasteful.” Hill belonged to the second group. He started reading philosophy. He devoted more time to communing with nature. “I would go out into the woods and spend time there hiking,” he says. “ ‘Avatar’ made me feel like I could sit out in a forest and just be.”

Hill saw “Avatar” four times, once even traveling an hour to Gothenburg, at the time the nearest city with a 3-D-equipped theater. Eventually, with two friends he met online, he started his own fan forum, Tree of Souls, named for the holy site where the Na’vi go to experience the interconnectedness of all things. In the chat room, he met a woman named Heather, who had also experienced post-“Avatar” depression. After messaging about the film, they moved on to more metaphysical concerns. “Neither of us was the kind of person who had ever been looking for a partner,” he says. “But a few weeks after we first started talking, we kind of realized, ‘Huh, we’re feeling something here.’” In 2012, the pair met for the first time at an in-person “Avatar” event in Seattle. Two years later, they were married in Sweden. The couple now live in the Pacific Northwest, where Hill, who became an American citizen last year, works as a video-game developer. “My life would be very, very different if I hadn’t randomly ended up seeing that film in 2010,” he says.

Hill still operates Tree of Souls, one of the few surviving “Avatar” fan forums. The site today is mostly speculation about “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the first in a series of four long-delayed sequels that will transform “Avatar” into a franchise. “The Way of Water,” which was shot simultaneously with a yet-to-be-titled third film (and part of a fourth), arrives in theaters Dec. 16. When asked about his plans for the premiere, Hill was nonchalant. Though “Avatar” altered the course of his whole life — arguably more than even James Cameron’s — he doesn’t really think there’s anything that special about the movie. It was just the thing that happened to cross his path at the moment when he was already searching. “Maybe if it wasn’t ‘Avatar,’ something else would have come along,” Hill says. He thinks of the sequel as just another movie. “It’s going to be really interesting to see, but it’s not like I’m counting down the days.”

Of all the questions raised by “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the most pressing seems to be: “Who asked for this?” Though the first “Avatar” was the world’s top-grossing movie not once, but twice, reclaiming the title from “Avengers: Endgame” after a 2021 rerelease in China, its most oft-cited claim to fame is its surprising lack of cultural impact. While films of similar scale and ambition — “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Iron Man” — have spawned fandoms and quotable lines and shareable memes and licensed merchandise, “Avatar” has spawned mainly punch lines. On the fifth anniversary of the film, Forbes announced, “Five Years Ago, ‘Avatar’ Grossed $2.7 Billion but Left No Pop Culture Footprint.” A few years later, Buzzfeed ran a quiz titled, “Do You Remember Anything at All About ‘Avatar’?” challenging readers to answer basic questions like, “What is the name of the male lead character in ‘Avatar’?” and “Which of these actors played the male lead?”

Even if you cannot answer these questions, chances are high you have seen “Avatar.” (According to a study by the consumer-research firm MRI-Simmons, an estimated one in five American adults saw it in theaters.) To jog your memory, a quick rundown of the plot: The year is 2154. Earth, as you might expect, is a husk. Four light-years away on an inhabited moon called Pandora, an outfit called the Resources Development Administration extracts a mineral called unobtanium. This is not an in-and-out mission. The air on Pandora is toxic to human lungs and mining operations are resisted by the Na’vi, an Indigenous group that lives off the land and is rightly distrustful of “the Sky People.” To learn the Na’vi mind and protect its own investments, the R.D.A. funds a side project called the Avatar Program, in which scientists create Na’vi clones that can be piloted by humans. Each of these “avatars” is matched to a single researcher’s DNA. When one researcher dies before his avatar is fully formed, his twin brother is tapped to take over his role. Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is a paraplegic ex-Marine. In this avatar body, he discovers a new freedom. What follows is basically what you would expect: Guy goes native, has a change of heart, saves the local race from his own kind.

“Avatar” was first mentioned in the press in 1996. Before a single frame was shot, the film was foretold as a kind of prophecy. A headline in The Tampa Bay Times announced, “Synthetic Actors to Star in ‘Avatar.’” At that point, motion-capture was practically science fiction, and C.G.I. had mainly been used to render nonhuman creatures or effects (the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” for example). Cameron was promising a marriage of the two that would produce lifelike humanoids. He would soon find out that the technology was not there yet. After “Titanic” in 1997, “Avatar” was set aside as Cameron began to work out the technological kinks. In the meantime, he produced an academically disreputable documentary about the lost tomb of Jesus. He designed and built a submarine and then piloted it to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Work on “Avatar” officially began in 2005. Cameron contracted a linguistics consultant at the University of Southern California to begin development on Na’vi — a lexicon of more than 2,800 words, drawing on the rarest structures of human language. From there, the anecdotes only got more insane: a team of botanists advising on imaginary flora; a bespoke head rig to record facial expressions; a motion-capture stage in Howard Hughes’s airplane hangar, six times larger than any seen before. Each new detail fed a tornado of hype, a low-pressure system of buzz so rapacious that it grew to encompass everything from the film’s tech — a 3-D camera system, invented by Cameron, which could mimic the spread between the human eyes — to its budget, estimates of which ranged from $237 million to $500 million. (No one could agree exactly when to start the meter — on the first day of production? With Cameron’s R.& D.? On the day of his birth?) One line that Cameron trotted around town was that watching “Avatar” would be like “dreaming with your eyes wide open.” An article in this newspaper skewered the hype: “James Cameron has been working feverishly to complete a movie that may: a) Change filmmaking forever, b) Alter your brain, c) Cure cancer.”

The Return of ‘Avatar’

The director James Cameron takes us back to the world of Pandora for the sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

  • What to Know: The sequel opens on Dec. 16, 13 years after “Avatar” shattered box office records. If you remember little about the original movie, here is a refresher.
  • Holding Their Breath: Cameron and the sequel’s cast discussed what it took to get the new “Avatar” made and to bring it to life in a changed world.
  • Sigourney Weaver: Hollywood has never quite known what to do with the actress, who has four films out this season, including the “Avatar” sequel. She spoke to us about her unusually fluid career.
  • Back to the Theater: To help reacquaint audiences with the 3-D filmmaking that dazzled audiences in 2009, the first movie was rereleased in theaters on Sept. 23.

“Avatar” premiered on Dec. 18, 2009, at No. 1, bringing in a respectable, if not astounding, $73 million. Celebrities logged on to newly ascendant Twitter to spread the word (Michael Moore), announce their plans to see it on peyote (John Mayer) or lament their sad fate to not bed a Na’vi (Rainn Wilson). The Los Angeles Times suggested that the film had done for 3-D technology what “The Jazz Singer” did for sound. By the first week of January, “Avatar” surpassed $1 billion, setting a record for reaching that milestone. By the end of the month, it was the first movie to ever gross $2 billion. In China, a quartz-sandstone pillar in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain. In Palestine, people put on blueface to protest an Israeli separation barrier. Oscar nominations flooded in, along with a wave of “Avatar” porn, suggesting a strong libidinal undercurrent to the hype. In April 2010, when two sequels were announced, it came as no surprise to anyone.

These sequels would be repeatedly delayed, reportedly on account of: two sequels expanding into three (2013); delays in script delivery (2015); three sequels ballooning to four (2016); the epicness of this quadripartite undertaking, which Cameron at one point likened to “building the Three Gorges Dam” (2017); Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which demanded a shake-up in the rollout strategy, to better harmonize with the “Star Wars” release schedule (Disney, by then, also owned Lucasfilm) (2019); and finally, the novel coronavirus (2020). (Disney disputed some of these accounts but declined to directly address the cause of the delays.) Over this 13-year period, the entertainment industry underwent a transformational shift, the beginning of which almost exactly coincided with the moment that “Avatar” was released. In 2008, “Iron Man” came out, the first of the 30 (and counting) movies that today make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As “Avatar” promised one future for film — ​original world building, envelope-​pushing effects, the theater as the site of cinematic innovation — Marvel, and other endeavors that would follow, went on to develop a very different one.

Credit…Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

In this vision, any given movie was merely one installment in a more complex cultural product called the franchise. The on-again-off-again Disney chief executive Bob Iger defined the franchise as “something that creates value across multiple businesses and across multiple territories over a long period of time.” A franchise is an ecosystem oriented toward an infinite horizon, in which a common set of characters and stories are constantly refreshed and reworked across platforms. From 2008 to today, entertainment brands, old and new, turned themselves over to the new model. “Harry Potter” turned seven books and eight movies into three spinoff movies, more than 30 video games, a Broadway show, five theme-park worlds, an interactive website and more; “Star Wars” turned the original trilogy into the nine-film “Skywalker Saga” plus two more stand-alone films, an animated movie, nearly 20 TV shows, action figures, trading cards, a hotel — the list goes on.

According to data from Franchise Entertainment Research, in 2019, franchise movies made up 42 percent of Hollywood’s new wide releases and accounted for 83 percent of global box-office proceeds. The ascent of this networked form of entertainment has had far-reaching cultural effects on everything from the tone and plot structure of movies, to what it means to be a fan, to how we calculate success. If “Avatar” feels irrelevant today, it has less to do with the film itself and more to do with how the world has changed around it.

After the success of “Avatar,” there were naturally some attempts to expand the brand under the franchise model that was emerging. Even when these brand extensions were thoughtful, few could withstand the long wait for the sequel. A novelization by the science-fiction author Steven Charles Gould was announced in 2013 but hasn’t yet materialized. “Avatar: The Game,” which was set before the events of the film, sold decently, but by 2014, its servers were shut down. Even the Mattel toys had problems: The Na’vi figures were produced at the wrong scale; the lack of young children’s toys overlooked future audiences. Those who might have shelled out for collectibles might not have been eager to do so for the articulated figurine of an R.D.A. bureaucrat, played by Giovanni Ribisi, putting a golf ball.

In July, when I first started working on this article, a search on Amazon for “Avatar” returned only products for “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” an unrelated franchise owned by Nickelodeon. Today just one major vestige of the fandom still survives, Pandora: World of “Avatar,” a detailed 12-acre simulacrum rising from the flatlands of Orlando, Fla. The theme park offers the most fleshed-out look at how “Avatar” might remake itself in the age of the franchise.

Pandora is inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom, an attraction that combines the pious conservationism of a zoo with the wacky extremity of a carnival. When it opened in 2017, about halfway through the sequel delays, it was widely regarded as Disney’s response to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of “Harry Potter.” Wizarding World is all-encompassing, inviting its guests to live as Potter does, down to even mundane tasks like exchanging Muggle currency for galleons. With Pandora, Disney aimed to raise the bar, promising not just a world but an entire alien world to explore.

Pandora is one of five “lands” within Animal Kingdom, the other four being “Africa,” “Asia,” “Discovery Island” and “DinoLand U.S.A.” In the spatial arrangement of this taxonomic nightmare, Pandora is in the southwest of the park, on a plot of land rumored to have originally been reserved for a never-built zoo of mythical beasts. The first thing I saw upon landing on the planet was a signpost offering a welcome in Na’vi: “OEL NGATI KAMEIE (I See You).” As fodder for an immersive theme-park experience, the plot of “Avatar” presents certain challenges, namely regarding the role of the immersed in light of the fact that the movie concludes with the Na’vi’s kicking major human ass and banishing their colonizers back to earth. To square the race-war thing with the hordes of human guests, the park is set more than a generation after the first movie, following a yet-to-be-cinematically-​depicted armistice. The sign cleared this up with some slapdash world building, introducing the “Pandora Conservation Initiative,” a joint venture between “the indigenous Na’vi people” and an Earth-based venture called Alpha Centauri Expeditions. In other words, we were tourists playing tourists.

Like many postcolonial people, the Na’vi now support themselves by selling a version of their culture to outsiders. On Pandora, there are three major attractions: Flight of Passage, a 3-D-simulator ride; an “It’s a Small World”-style boat tour called Na’vi River Journey; and a scale replica of the Valley of Mo’ara, the massive floating mountain range that Neytiri, Jake Sully’s love interest, calls home. (The range didn’t have a name until after the park was built.) As I entered the park, these mountains loomed above me, held aloft by steel supports disguised to look like mossy vines. The pristine green of this false Amazon was interrupted only by the teals and magentas of plastic sprayer fans and sun-protective T-shirts and quick-dry bucket hats. Families all around posed for photos. Most of the children, I guessed, were not yet born at the time the first “Avatar” was released.

According to Derek Johnson, a professor of media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of “Media Franchising,” one major feature of a franchise versus a movie is not just its multiple sites of production — the theme park, the toy, the television show — but also its orientation toward the future. In order to survive, it must maintain a careful balance between novelty and familiarity, courting the next generation of fans without driving away too many of the old ones. By now, there are certain canonical tactics that work in service of this overarching goal: The prequel invites a new generation into an old saga. The reboot refreshes the father’s intellectual property to win the pocket change of the son. The spinoff inducts a new demographic, centering a side character (often a person of color or a woman). In between, a fandom is maintained through intermittent product tie-ins and announcements.

Today it has been thoroughly demonstrated that superhero and fantasy movies are the best forms of intellectual property for the endless reiteration necessitated by the franchise model. But it was not always self-evident that they would come to dominate. In the years surrounding “Avatar,” executives were still experimenting with adapting different types of source material: the young-adult novel (“Twilight”), the theme-park ride (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), the board game (“Battleship”), the casual-​gaming app (“The Angry Birds Movie”) and even the Unicode pictogram keyboard (“The Emoji Movie”). The most successful franchises share certain principles: an epic plot, on the scale of all mankind, sweeping enough to encompass different stories; a detailed setting, with high specificity, implying a world beyond what gets shown onscreen; assorted sects and institutions, providing easy points of fan identification; a set of distinctive totems to merchandise — a scarf, a shield, a mask, a ring. One challenge facing Pandora: World of “Avatar” is the relative thinness of the actual world of “Avatar”: The movie offers few clues about Pandoran life beyond just what is shown onscreen.

This was evident at the Satu’li Canteen, an air-conditioned fast-casual concession housed in a reclaimed R.D.A. mess hall. In “Avatar,” the Na’vi eat something called Spartan fruit, which grows from the fictional kuchenium polyphyllum. Short of bioengineering a new species, park designers were left to fill in the gaps for what a restaurant on Pandora might serve. This prompt was made even more challenging by a mandate that the food appear alien, while also looking and tasting familiar — or, in the words of one Imagineer, “like chicken” — enough to satisfy the average Disney visitor.

The menu that day offered strange-but-​recognizable delicacies: “steamed pods” (beef bao buns), “teylu” (hot dogs wrapped in dough) and “ber’ri” (blueberry cream-cheese mousse). I ordered the crispy fried tofu bowl, which arrived topped with bright orange, fruit-flavored boba. Pandoran appeared to be a fusion cuisine: local ingredients mixed with the traditional lunch fare of Midtown. After lunch, I went outside for a drink at Pongu Pongu. On tap was a Pandoran craft beer called Mo’ara High Country Ale. I ordered the Night Blossom, a nonalcoholic slushie, presumably conceived as Pandora’s answer to Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of “Harry Potter” — a soft drink so delicious and successful it sold one million units in six months, substantially offsetting the cost of the park. Night Blossom tasted the way your teeth feel after eating a Jolly Rancher. Suffice to say, it would not be paying for Pandora. As I took three sips and threw it in the trash, I struggled to picture a Na’vi onscreen sucking one down under the Tree of Souls.

After lunch, I downloaded an app and scheduled reservations for both rides. Conventional wisdom about Avatar’s cultural irrelevance notwithstanding, the park was swamped, and the first available time slot was hours away. I wandered into Windtraders gift shop, curious to see which elements from the preindustrial world of “Avatar” might lend themselves to merchandising. In one corner, I found T-shirts that said “Pandora” in the type style of a national park, riffing on the tourists-playing-tourists conceit. In another corner hung a wall of light-up “woodsprites,” the omniscient seeds from the Tree of Souls, which play a pivotal role in the film. Bioluminescence — in the form of light-up toys, black-light Christmas ornaments and glow-in-the-dark sweatshirts — was a key feature of “Avatar” merch. This choice made sense, in the way that light evokes the 3-D spectacle that real dimensionality cannot. Still, it was hardly a light saber.

Leaving the gift shop, I strolled back through the mountains, dreading the hours I still had to kill until my scheduled ride reservations. I walked around in desperate search of a Na’vi. I studied a replica of the mech suit worn by the movie’s forgettable villain. Eventually, I just got in line. Waiting, by that point, seemed more entertaining than spending the rest of my evening in the park. As it turns out, a 3-D simulacrum of a 3-D movie kind of cancels itself out. Divorced from the dazzle of visual effects, I could see the aesthetic universe of “Avatar” for what it was: a glorified World Market sale section. The Na’vi alone were just a tiki-bar mishmash of traits that white people perceive as foreign: dreadlocks, beadwork, body mods, loincloths, feathers, cowrie shells. Compared with that of Hogwarts or Tatooine, the logic of their world seemed to lack imagination: What were the odds that, galaxies away, a society not only had two genders, but those genders were “male” and “female” — and the females were stacked?

Six weeks later, on Sept. 23, Disney rereleased “Avatar” into theaters, in an ostensible effort to revive the intellectual property and prime the viewing public for “The Way of Water.” I went to see it with a group of 20 friends. In two rows of recliners, as the previews played, we took turns leaning over and asking, “Are we supposed to wear the 3-D glasses for this part?” The action did not leap from the screen so much as stumble forward in a seasick kind of way. I worried that I would not make it three hours, but from the first moment Jake Sully appeared, my skepticism slipped away, replaced with sudden, overwhelming understanding of why people once lost their minds for “Avatar.”

Here is probably a good place to disclose that when I first started working on this article, I had never seen “Avatar.” The film came out my senior year of high school, when I was still committed to the thought that nothing popular could ever be good. (I have spent my life revising and re-​revising this position.) My plan was to see it for the first time in 3-D, as it was intended to be seen, but all my attempts to make this happen led nowhere. I ended up watching “Avatar” for the first time on a laptop screen in my hotel room in Orlando. Everything I had heard seemed accurate — the plot was rote; the dialogue, forgettable. The experience was so unremarkable it left me questioning my own humanity: Was the movie’s success a global mass delusion or was I lacking in some fundamental trait that would let me even understand why it was loved?

Watching in 3-D was a different experience. As Jake and Neytiri darted through the forest, the special effects brought me into their world. The action did not just come forward as one frame, but instead wove me into the movement onscreen, the tendrils of plants and falling drops of water each reaching out from a different point in space. The Na’vi bodies appeared to have mass. It was hard to discern what was real or C.G.I., which led me to wonder, “Why even distinguish?” This, in turn, produced a twisted surge of delight at the prospect of man’s becoming God.

The history of recorded images might be described as an incremental quest to master the building blocks of consciousness — first sight, then motion, then sound, then color. With “Avatar,” Cameron revealed that human ingenuity could marshal even more: physics, light, dimensionality; the ineffable sense of an object being real; the life force that makes a thing feel alive. As Sully soared through the floating mountain range, I thought of those apocryphal Victorians, ducking as a train appeared to rush out from the screen. I thought of all the geegaws and novelties and illusions of the latter part of the last millennium: the magic lantern show, electric lights, the Ferris wheel, color television and Pong. I didn’t know that I could still be dazzled.

This is not to say that “Avatar” is good. The movie is basically a demo tape, each plot point reverse-engineered to show off some new feat of technology. The awe it inspires was not just about itself but rather the hope of new possibilities. It was easy to imagine someone in 2009 leaving the theater and asking: “What if we made more movies like this? What if we made good movies like this?” The year 2009 was a relatively optimistic one: Obama had just won on the audacity of “hope.” Climate change still felt far away. The forever wars were going to end. Surely we would fix whatever caused the recession. “Avatar” pointed toward a widening horizon — better effects, new cinematic worlds, new innovations in 3-D technology. It did not yet seem incongruous to wrap a project based in infinite progress around a story about the perils of infinite growth.

Watching that day, I could still access these feelings but they were tied to a sense of melancholy, knowing that “The Way of Water” will emerge into an almost total deferment of that dream. Today, 3-D is niche (at best); digital effects are used to cut costs; home streaming is threatening the theater; and projects of ambitious world-building are overlooked in favor of stories with existing fanbases. We did not get here by pure chance: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated broadcast media, allowing companies to form megaconglomerates. In this world of mergers and acquisitions, the franchise blossomed into a highly efficacious product, allowing companies to maximize intellectual property across their numerous platforms. As the economy grew more financialized, and even movie studios began behaving more like banks — promising profits quarter over quarter — the franchise product became even more appealing. Because franchises have a ready audience, they effectively functioned as a way to manage risk, allowing companies to bet bigger and win bigger.

Pulling a tactic from the franchise playbook, the screening ended with a post-credit sequence previewing “The Way of Water.” The movie takes place 15 years after the events of the first film (but still before the world of the theme park), following Sully, Neytiri and their children on some sort of partly undersea adventure. Most of what we know about the movie comes from a decade of tabloid oddities — it was shot in a 265,000-gallon ocean simulator! Sigourney Weaver plays a teenager! Kate Winslet trained to hold her breath for seven and a half minutes! The preview showed a young Na’vi splashing alongside a whale-like creature. It felt obvious that the clip had been chosen to show off Cameron’s latest innovation: underwater motion capture. The ocean was rendered so effectively it was hard to remember I was seeing something new.

The story of “Avatar,” however hacky it may be, still suggests that humanity can save itself in the face of rapacious profiteering. This is something we have a moral imperative to keep believing. In today’s franchise movies, visions of the future are inherently constrained by the mandate to keep the franchise up and running — a project that forecloses any story line critiquing growth, consumerism or globalization. If the business of the franchise points toward an ever-widening horizon, the movies produced within its logic must do the opposite. Their vision of life is necessarily circular, always pointing back to itself.

Jamie Lauren Keiles is a contributing writer for the magazine. They are currently working on a book about the rise of gender-neutral pronouns and nonbinary identity in America.

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