You may have read that "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is poised to obliterate the domestic record of reigning box-office champ "Avatar." James Cameron's 3-D spectacle — released six years to the day before "Force" — made more than $760 million (plus about $2 billion worldwide) total following its December release in 2009. The seventh installment of the "Star Wars" franchise has pulled in just north of $740 million (and about the same overseas) a little more than two weeks after its release.
This news sets in motion two divergent trains of thought. The first goes something like this: Whoa. "Star Wars" is bringing in a ton of money. Maybe LucasFilm was worth $4 billion after all. Also, J.J. Abrams should feel free to exhale now.
And the second train: Really? "Avatar" is currently the most popular movie in our nation's history? How can that be true?
In fact, it's not. (So now we can all exhale.) The reality is a little more complex. "Avatar" is the biggest domestic moneymaker if you're not accounting for inflation. Luckily, Box Office Mojo has an adjusted list of all-time winners. The site divides each movie's revenue by the average ticket price of the day then multiplies the number of tickets by our current average ticket price. "Avatar" holds its own, no question. It's number 14 on the list, which means "The Force Awakens" will need to bring in another $100 million to overtake the movie on inflation-adjusted grounds. (Meanwhile, it will have to bring in another billion dollars to get to the top spot, which is currently occupied by "Gone With the Wind.")
It's also worth noting that "Avatar" got an extra bump because so many people saw it in 3-D and IMAX 3-D, and those tickets are significantly pricier than your average entry fee.
Still, it makes you wonder how a movie that generated so much cash has basically fallen off the cultural map just six years on. What made "Avatar" so popular? And, then, what made it so forgettable?
Here are some thoughts on how it might have happened.
The reviews were good and word of mouth was strong
"Avatar" didn't have a huge opening weekend domestically. In fairness, it debuted at the same time a snowstorm was sweeping through the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. But it opened below projections, which no doubt freaked out Fox, a studio that wasn't entirely keen to make Cameron's movie in the first place.
No matter. In its second weekend, "Avatar" had less than a 2 percent drop in revenue, which is basically unheard of. (For comparison's sake, "The Force Awakens" made about 40 percent less during its second weekend than its opening one.) In its second weekend, "Avatar" beat out Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes," not to mention Fox's safety net for the movie, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."
Movie-goers continued showing up in droves thanks to enthusiastic reviews — 83 percent positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes — plus glowing praise from other audience members, many of whom went to see the movie multiple times. Some reviews did acknowledge that the story was a little weak. The movie takes place on a ravaged Earth in 2154, and follows a paraplegic Marine (Sam Worthington), who, through a blue-skinned avatar, explores a resource-rich planet called Pandora. There he meets and falls in star-crossed love with one of the planet's natives (Zoe Saldana), forcing him to rethink his imperialistic mission.
The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday had this to say about the movie: "Its cliche-ridden dialogue ("Come to papa"? Really?) and its pyrotechnically excessive climax leaves an impression less of a film than of an extravagant demonstration of a new software delivery system."
Even so, that didn't change the fact that…
Everyone was talking about it
The obvious reason people were hyping "Avatar" was because it was visually spectacular thanks to technical achievements. Cameron made a movie that blended two worlds — one that was entirely live action and one that used computer-generated images and motion-capture technology against real backdrops to create Pandora and its inhabitants, the blue Na'vi. The images turned out to be stunning. Cameron wanted the two worlds to become almost indistinguishable, and the use of motion-capture for alien characters really brought the fantastical to life. (How Andy Serkis didn't end up with a supporting role is a mystery.)
These aspects won "Avatar" three Oscars in 2010 for cinematography, visual effects and art direction.
But the other reason people were talking about the movie was its social and political themes. You might compare the effect to "American Sniper," which inspired scores of think pieces and heated debates, which in turn led to more ticket sales. In order for people to weigh in on the various "Avatar" controversies, they had to see the movie. That way they could speak authoritatively on what "Avatar" said about race; if the whole white savior storyline was problematic; and whether the movie, with its heavy-handed eco-friendly messages, didn't smell vaguely of patchouli.
Another reason people felt compelled to see the movie was that…
"Avatar" was meant to be viewed on the biggest screen possible
Fans who recommended "Avatar" to friends always had the same directive: Go see it right away. The movie was best appreciated in a theater, preferably in immersive IMAX 3-D. This was not the kind of movie that would inspire people to say, "I'll just wait till it's on Netflix."
That was a boon for "Avatar" in the short term. It created urgency at the time, which in turn led to huge ticket sales.
People probably gave the same advice when recommending "Star Wars" in 1977. All those chase scenes and visuals were custom-made for a movie theater. The difference is that, although people came for the spectacle, "Star Wars" was just as enjoyable at home given its memorable characters, quotable dialogue and thrilling suspense.
The same can't really be said about "Avatar," which isn't really worth renting, given that….
It has a derivative story, ham-fisted script and subpar acting
What did "Avatar" remind people of? Take your pick: "Dances With Wolves," "FernGully," the "John Carter" series, "Pocahontas," "Dune," the obscure novella "Call Me Joe" and the "Timespirits" comic, just to name a few.
"My inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid," Cameron told Entertainment Weekly at the time. And that's exactly how the movie felt — though not necessarily in a good way. It was as if the writer-director cherry-picked items from other stories and threw them into one semi-coherent whole.
The characters didn't make much of an impact, nor did they have lasting appeal. (Just think about the number of people who still dress up as Darth Vader, the Ghostbusters or Marty McFly every Halloween. When is the last time you saw a blue alien?)
It's hard to decide whether the fault lies with the dialogue or the acting, but the interactions between characters also came across as entirely unnatural, especially when star Sam Worthington was stiffly delivering his lines. His role in such a high-profile blockbuster seemed to seal his fate as the next big A-lister. That understandably never came to bear.
He'll have another shot at proving himself, though, because he's scheduled to appear in…
The "Avatar" sequels (which) are taking forever to arrive
The three movies have been pushed back multiple times. Now it seems as if the first will get a Christmas 2017 release, which is still a long way off.
While Cameron has been working on getting those scripts together, other franchises have sprung up and dimmed our memories of Pandora and the Na'vi. We've had the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy; we've gotten four installments with Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games; three new "Star Wars" movies will have materialized between the last "Avatar" and the next one.
With our short attention spans, studios tend to want to get movies out in quick succession, lest the public forget how much they love Iron Man's quips or the charming cinematic destination that is Middle Earth.
People love to say that absence makes the heart grow fonder — and sometimes it does. Seeing Han Solo onscreen last month was certainly a thrilling sight. But that's not always the case. With "Avatar," absence has only made the movie easier to forget.