Remember Avatar? Me Neither.
Last week @aliarikan tweeted this:
You know what actually does deserve an essay? How AVATAR, the most successful film in history, has left nary a blip on pop-culture.— Ali Arikan (@aliarikan) August 1, 2013
Great question (Thanks to Daniel Zarick for sending me the tweet.). Why don’t we quote Avatar the way we quote The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars? Why didn’t it leave a lasting impression on pop culture? Nevermind the half-baked environmentalist sermon, the simplistic depiction of tribal civilizations, and the love interest stuck deep in the uncanny valley. I think we forget Avatar because it lacks the basic optimism that’s at the core of all lasting adventure stories.
The adventure flics that last allow us to believe in the resilience and potential greatness of mankind. In Indiana Jones, a normal man becomes a highly-educated globe trotter who defends history and freedom with his fists. Star Trek gives you a flicker of hope that mankind might pull it together and bring earth to a golden age of cooperation and democracy. In Star Wars, a farm boy learns powerful magic and gets a kiss from his sister, and The Lord of the Rings argues that men can overcome their faults and temptations, choosing friendship over power.
As you watch these movies, you connect with the lead by putting yourself in his or her shoes—imagining that you might be capable of that level of heroism. However naive and fantastic, these stories let you believe—if only for a few hours—the best about yourself, about others, and about humanity. Remember the tag line from the first great superhero movie: you’ll believe a man can fly.
Avatar offers no such optimism. In that future, humanity is composed of corporate sociopaths and military monsters bent on committing atrocities. The hero is an exception, and how does he fight injustice? By leaving his humanity behind and becoming an alien.
Pop culture is a grand expression of who we are, how we like to feel, and what we like to believe. Maybe Avatar failed to influence pop because it presented a universe in which the key to solving humanity’s problems is ceasing to be human.