AVATAR as Popular Cinema


Author: Eternality Tan

Published: 04-Dec-2011

Blockbustering Avatar

It has been two years since the successful release of writer-director James Cameron’s 3-D film, Avatar (2009), yet its global impact on popular media and culture remains strong as ever. Exuding almost every quality associated with the word “blockbuster”, Avatar was a massive undertaking, even by Hollywood standards, both financially and technologically.

Cucco (2009) has described the blockbuster in terms of its size, referring to its major economic investment and the large amount of takings at the box-office. Earning nearly US$2.8 billion worldwide from an estimated production budget of US$250 million (this is discounting the US$150 million spent on marketing and advertising as reported by Stanley (2010) in MediaWeek), Avatar is the highest-earning Hollywood feature of all-time, surpassing even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997).

(Estimated box-office figures and budget taken from Box Office Mojo and the Internet Movie Database respectively.)

In retrospect, it appears that “blockbustering” Avatar was no mean feat, considering it was neither part of a popular franchise that already had a mass following like the Transformers trilogy or the Harry Potter films (i.e. it did not have a pre-sold identity), nor did it have a marketable A-list star such as Christian Bale or Brad Pitt whose political economy could have been tapped to drive audiences in waves to the multiplexes.

Instead, Cameron has opted for Sam Worthington, a largely unknown English-born Australian actor, whose stock has risen after his lead appearance in Avatar and in subsequent Hollywood blockbusters such as Terminator Salvation (2009) and Clash of the Titans (2010). In fact, the closest Cameron had come to have a star in his film was the ageing Sigourney Weaver, a female action star known for her gutsy portrayal of heroine Ellen Ripley in the Alien quadrology in the 1980s and 1990s. However, she has been relegated to a mere supporting role here.

This raises an interesting point: Stars rise and fade away. What then drives directors or producers of popular action films to decide between an unknown actor and an ex-action star to lead their films? After all and despite her waning popularity, Weaver is more well-known than Worthington and a stronger reason to lead Avatar. However, I find Cameron’s film to be a special case, because in all honesty, it does not need a star to put a recognizable face to the film. The true star here is the man with the vision himself: James Cameron.

Spectacularity as Attraction in Avatar

Avatar promises spectacularity, the other distinctive feature of blockbusters mentioned by Cucco (2009). While the film’s spectacularity is a direct result of its heavy investment in state-of-the-art 3-D and performance capture technology, it is Cameron’s reputation as a popular director of spectacular films that promises the experience of spectacularity in the first place.

As the writer-director of Hollywood hits such as Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) , True Lies (1994), and of course Titanic, Cameron has amassed a huge global following because of his commitment to delivering well-told narratives that are punctuated with unforgettable action set-pieces or moments of special effects wizardry. Recall how the mighty ship spectacularly broke into half as it sank in Titanic, or the iconic sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger with a machine gun slung over his wide shoulders spraying bullets at the police in Terminator 2. Even in a less popular film like The Abyss (1989), the attraction comes from the fact that Cameron shot almost the entire film in difficult underwater conditions.

Cameron’s films then become an attraction in itself. In the words of Gunning (1986), the ability to show something makes a film exhibitionistic, and consequently, a cinema of attraction. In Avatar, the attraction comes from its stunning rendition of photorealistic imagery, enhanced by 3-D effects as the camera explores the sights and sounds of the Pandora jungle and its tall, blue-skinned inhabitants called the Na’vis. Despite the curious peculiarities of Pandora’s environment, clearly this is no carnival ride, “in what might be called the Spielberg-Lucas-Coppola cinema of effects” (Gunning, 1986, p. 70). Rather, it is something more.

Bukatman (2002) argues that special effects sequences presenting a massive environment are designed to integrate the virtual space of the spectacle with the physical space of the cinema theater. In other words, the sheer scope and magnitude of these spectacular vistas are designed to create an immersive experience for cinema spectators. Avatar’s lush cinematography in 3-D provides audiences with an “I am in Pandora” feeling, and this is exemplified especially in the magical scene of floating, translucent jellyfish-like organisms.

James Cameron as Graffiti Artist

While it is easy to see Cameron as a technically-adept filmmaker who always tries to push the boundaries in terms of delivering spectacle and attraction to audiences with each film, one must also look at how effortlessly he brings in elements of popular culture as propagated by popular films and integrates them in most of his narratives. I argue this point more so for Avatar than any of his previous works.

In his article on Return of the Jedi (1983), Sammons (1987) mentions that “(George) Lucas fabricates his movies out of graffiti, out of bits and pieces of this and that, found in various places and given unity by his own artistic vision.” (p.365). In Avatar, Cameron is no different from Lucas in this respect. In fact, Wedderburn (2011) asserts that Avatar is a piece of pop-culture and the story is littered with familiarities. Hence, my stance on Cameron as a graffiti artist.

Influences on Avatar include popular American films such as Dances With Wolves (1990), The Last Samurai (2003), and even Japanese animated features like Castle in the Sky (1986) and Princess Mononoke (1997). Reducing Avatar into its simplest form, we can see that it is a story of war and peace, freedom versus colonization, modernity versus tribalism. Some scholars have read the film in terms of its racist overtones (i.e. white superiority), such as Wedderburn, while others like Olivier (2011) have underlined its ecological crisis subtext. Whatever the case, Avatar is a coherent mash-up of ideas and ideals that influence and affect humanity at a global scale, presented in a way that promises spectacularity and attraction.

Notice I use the phrase “coherent mash-up” because there is no point in the film I felt it to be incoherent despite its graffiti-like nature. There is no sense of counter-unity or counter-narrative – key attributes that result in cinematic excess as described by Thompson (1977). Whatever instance of suspected excess, be it the use of 3-D effects, or intensified continuity editing techniques such as the slow-motion as mentioned by Bordwell (2002), not only becomes integral to the narrative context of the film, but also in meeting audiences’ expectations of experiencing spectacle and attraction in a Cameron film.

Avatar as Commodity and Popular Cinema

In conclusion, I would like to point to Wasko’s (1981) article on the political economy of the American film industry. She mentioned that “film in a capitalist economy is a commodity – a rather special commodity because it is also an art form, a communications medium, and an ideological tool.” (p. 135). This, I argue for Avatar: the film is indeed an art form when viewed from a technological lens, a digital painting of sorts that has been rewarded with three Oscars for best art direction, cinematography, and visual effects. As a communications medium, Avatar delivers Cameron’s message of promised spectacularity to his audiences who since Titanic have waited for more than a decade for a new spectacular film from him. Finally, as an ideological tool, Avatar explores themes of racism, ecological crisis, and even taking an anti-militarist stance in light of America’s controversial involvement in the Iraq war.

Last, I wish to cite Hampp (2010), who has reported a statement from an unnamed marketing chief of a rival studio to 20th Century Fox (which produced and distributed Avatar): “As jealous as any of us are, and everyone in the movie industry should admit that, (Avatar is) a fantastic thing for this business. The fact that such a broad audience has connected with it is exciting for the industry, the possibilities of stories we’ll all be able to tell have opened up, but also the pure excitement of moviegoing has all been reinforced.” If Avatar is not popular cinema, then what else is?


Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified continuity: Visual style in contemporary american film. Film Quarterly, 55(3), 16-28.

Bukatman, S. (2002). The artificial infinite: On special effects and the sublime. In A. Kuhn (Ed.), Alien Zone II: The spaces of science fiction cinema (pp. 249-275). London and New York: Verso.

Cameron, J. & Landau, J. (Producers). Cameron, J. (Director). (2009, December 18). Avatar

[Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

Cucco, M. (2009). The promise is great: The blockbuster and the hollywood economy. Media, Culture & Society, 31(2), 215-230.

Gunning, T. (1986). The cinema of attraction: Early film, its spectator, and the avant-garde. Wide Angle, 8(3-4), 63-70.

Hampp, A. (2010). Avatar soars on fat ad spending, mass marketing. Advertising Age, 81(1), 1-20.

Olivier, B. (2011). Film as communicational mediation of the ecological crisis: Avatar and the road. Communicare: Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, 30(1), 66-85.

Sammons, T. H. (1987). Return of the jedi: Epic graffiti. Science Fiction Studies, 14(3), 355-371.

Stanley, T. L. (2010, July 6). Avatar era raises stakes for movie marketing. MediaWeek, 20(23), 13-16.

Thompson, K. (1977). The concept of cinematic excess. Cine-Tracts, 1(2), 54-63.

Wasko, J. (1981). The political economy of the american film industry. Media, Culture & Society, 3, 135-153.

Wedderburn, P. (2011). Avatar-racism reinforced: They know what they are doing, yet they are still doing it. Retrieved September 29, 2011 from http://files3.peopleperhour.com/uploads/portfolioItems/Portfolio-219926-Racism_Reinforced.pdf


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