Avatar’s ‘cultural impact’ is a silly debate

If you will indulge me for a moment, allow me to greet you with a traditional Na’vi salutation: oel ngati kameieOr Ich hoffe, dass Sie mir bald begegnen.. There are lots of ways to learn how to say hello in Na’vi. First and most obviously, you can go to the source: James Cameron’s AvatarThis is the movie that introduced us the blue, tall cat-people, who were briefly eclipsed by Avengers: EndgameBefore a rerelease. You can also easily do a quick Google search, which will lead you to countless wikis, fan sites, and videos documenting how to speak Na’vi. Or, if you’re the adventurous type, you can fly to Orlando, Florida, and visit Pandora – The World of Avatar in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

I could not tell you why it’s so easy to learn a bunch of phrases in a fake language that is only about 12 years old — Tolkien’s elvish and Star Trek’s Klingon have had considerably more time to marinate in fans’ brains — but if I had to hazard a guess, I would shrug and simply point at the film’s $2.9 billion box office gross, a number still staggering in an era where studios essentially expect at least one billion-dollar film every year.

This number has been a problem for a particular type of cultural critic over the past decade. It has led to the common idea of “The memetic idea that…” Avatar has had a strange lack of “cultural impact.” It’s objectively the biggest movie ever made, the argument goes, but why can’t anyone remember the main character’s name? Or quote a line?

Neytiri, a blue-skinned alien with large eyes and tightly braided hair, in Avatar. She has glowing markings on her face and wears a choker necklace with a large pendant.

Image: 20th Century Fox

It’s a fascinating question. And one wholly removed from whether or not the movie is, in the popular imagination, “good.” In fact, AvatarIt is quite absurd on paper! The Na’vi are perhaps the strangest instance of cultural appropriation in a film, an amalgam of broad Indigenous tropes and colonial guilt assembled in a populace of gangly 9-foot-tall humanoid cats. The plot, about a human who switches sides to help defend the Indigenous group from a colonial power, is a shopworn story that’s been told over and over again in Hollywood since at least Dance with Wolves. And look at the MCU — that stuff is everywhere! Why not? Avatar?

Both elusive as well as simple, the solution is: NumerousThere are many ways that a work of art or an event can have an impact on a culture. It can be obvious, subtle, or for good. Unfortunately, the most easily parsed metric for “cultural impact,” at least on the social media spaces where this sort of thing is discussed, is also the bleakest one: buying shit. Toys, toys, games and T-shirts. But most importantly, a ticket for another movie at the megafranchise.

However AvatarFirst and foremost, it is a FilmThis movie is a movie that’s as good or better than any other movie. Each individual part is perhaps unremarkable — its dialogue, its cast, its plot — but together, on a giant screen, the collision of humanity and technology is dazzling enough to vault out of the uncanny valley and into something enthralling enough that throngs of people all over the world are just compelled to see it. It is a compelling film. Again, either in 2009 — because movies don’t make $2 billion without repeat viewings — or in 2022, when a rerelease grossed $75 million.

The main character in James Cameron’s Avatar, a blue-skinned alien with large eyes and hair that resembles locs. Stripes of war paint are on his face and shoulders, and he carries a bow.

Image: 20th Century Fox

A casual guess of what? Avatar The Culture might refer to: The dream of one blockbuster cinematic experience, movies that can only be seen in one theater in a world where IP is being streamed onto a single screen you view at home.

Cultural issues are difficult to define in broad terms. Engaging directly with them often reveals more about you than what they have seen. Social media platforms push us to adopt the language of the metrics and algorithms that fuel them, and so we measure culture the way an engineer measures “engagement” — with numbers. Money. In other words, money from a capitalist viewpoint.

Movies are however commerce art, and art is engaged with on a personal level, one that really isn’t processed in public in anything other than the broadest terms. AvatarAlthough it’s not difficult to read, the text is easy to understand and focuses on modern issues. Ecological devastation and the military-industrial complex are its villains, and its heroes fight them simply because their superpower is empathy — seeing other people as people, and the planet as alive. So even if the name Jake Sully doesn’t linger in a viewer’s brain, maybe that does. The vistas at Pandora might make sense, even though it isn’t a theater. It seems so lavish and extravagant that even the generousest home theater set can not sell it.

People tend to keep a single experience in their minds. Maybe they don’t quote it directly, but in the soon bygone absence of endless sequels to go see and otherwise signal their interest, they make jokes or memes or perhaps they start thinking about movies. They might make fan websites about all the funny words used by cat people and the meanings they use in English. They learn to speak a language they didn’t know before.

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