Avatar: A Gross Mistake

looks at the growing gap between critical acclaim and box-office success

Image: 20th Century Fox

Beauty and the Beast is now the 13th highest grossing film of all time, and it’s still showing in cinemas across the country. Disney’s ingenious move – “you know those beloved Disney classics… shall we just do them again?” – seems to be working in terms of box office revenue. But critics and audiences alike are leaving with the lukewarm taste of disappointment in their mouths, the general consensus being that Beauty and the Beast makes a solid effort, but fails to improve on the animated classic.

Discussions of a sequel have already emerged before the film has left theatres. I truly hope Disney go down the Fast and Furious track with sequel names. I may get excited with ‘2 Beauty 2 Beast’ and ‘Beauty and Beaster’. Stupid yet brilliant naming choices aside, I can imagine very little that may entice movie goers to go see the happily-ever-after stretched into another two-hour feature. I seriously doubt that this movie will remain in the minds of the general audience or film critics for much longer. Looking at the highest-grossing films of all time, most of them seem to be pretty forgettable – Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Iron Man 3. Minions.

Avatar continues to hold the number one spot, a fact that still surprises me every time I hear it. Marvel, Lord of the Rings, and Disney couldn’t take this top space. I can’t remember the name of a single character from Avatar. There were blue people, Sigourney Weaver, and a heavy-handed message about colonialism. It also brought the gimmick of 3D into cinemas, which was heralded by some as ‘the third revolution’ of cinema at Avatar’s release. In hindsight, 3D gave people headaches rather than vastly improving the cinematic experience. 3D has been steadily on the decline for a while now, and James Cameron probably remains better remembered for Aliens and the Terminator franchise than Avatar.

Cameron also holds second place in the list of highest grossing films for Titanic. Another original, nonfranchise film (I am, of course, ignoring Titanic II – a direct to TV film which actually exists). It has the recipe for success; the true-life setting and tragic outcome appealing it to the Oscar crowd; young Leonardo DeCaprio; the mass market appeal of epic romance. But there are hundreds of films with this formula that haven’t made this transition. Titanic was a critical darling, still being tied for the most Oscars won by a single film, and most nominations. In retrospect, it is an enjoyable film, but it’s also saccharine and melodramatic, with morally dubious fictionalisation of true life stories. Unlike Avatar, it is a film that has transitioned into pop culture and has remained in the memory of the public for longer. But its legacy is more one of parody with its extravagance, Celine Dion soundtrack, and the endless debate of whether they could both fit on that door.

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

So, how to fix this disconnect between box office and appeal and a cinematic legacy: Cameron has a plan. Quoting a tweet about being unable to remember a single line of dialogue from Avatar, Cameron wrote: “the film, despite making a lot of money, didn’t make a huge impression on people…The idea being that if we had five Avatar movies spanning, you know, two decades or whatever, and people were just being constantly bombarded with Avatar from every direction something would have to stick”. So, will Cameron’s plan of entering the public consciousness with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledgehammer work? There’s no way to predict whether these films will be an utter flop, moderate successes, or storm the box office like their predecessor.

Many films now considered classics weren’t particularly well received at their opening and have only risen to prominence later. Citizen Kane famously wasn’t particularly well received at its opening. Stanley Kubrick, often viewed as one of the greatest cinematic minds of the twenty first century, only won one Oscar (Best Effects) for 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a definite discrepancy between cinematic legacy and box office rankings – Cameron’s Aliens, The Terminator and Terminator 2 make an appearance on the IMDb Top 250. Avatar and Titanic, raking in mammoth amounts in comparison, do not.

Unfortunately, uniform franchises, sequels and remakes are going to be filling most of the screen at the local multiplex for the foreseeable future. That’s where the money is. However, it’s a good sign that the two highest grossing films of all time are exempt from this. Avatar and Titanic are also the only two in the top ten highest grossing movies not to be made in this decade, so while people bemoan the death of the cinema due to the availability of streaming services, there’s some life in the Odeons and Vues of the world yet. However, attendance is still down, so this extra revenue can be attributed largely to increased ticket prices. The way to make money is to make films that are simply passable – they do little wrong, but they make no effort to challenge audiences; inoffensive, passive, they can kill two hours on your day off. Studios want money, and truly great films don’t seem to make much. Grown Ups 2 was a box office hit. People are dumb. What a revelation.

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