d. James Cameron / USA / 2009 / 162 mins
Viewed at: Screen 6 @ Vue (Norwich, UK)
Okay, now that the storm has died down (somewhat), it’s time for my two cents worth regarding the highest grossing film of all time, ever.
And rather than adding yet another middling review to an internet already awash with them (well, that and Avatar fan fiction/art/psychosis), I thought I’d highlight a couple of things which seem to have gone largely unnoticed in most assessments of James Cameron’s overlong, overrated, depression-inducing presentation of a non-existent confrontation with a non-existent race, concerning access to a non-existent fuel source on a non-existent planet.
I don’t – for one cotton-pickin’ second – dispute the fact that Avatar is a massive, massive, massive blockbuster (or that millions of people believe it to be some kind of cinematic masterpiece, and therefore think that the box office is a reflection only of its brilliance), but any right thinking person would have to question the validity of how it has arrived at such astounding box office figures in just two months.
For starters, there is the curious virtue of releasing a mega box office hit at a time of worldwide economic crisis, whilst the US dollar languishes in the lower reaches of the global exchange market. With box office figures measured purely in US dollars, big overseas grosses + lower dollar = heavily skewed totals when compared with films released in more prosperous times for the US economy.
Indeed, money makes the movie world go ’round, and much of the debate surrounding Avatar‘s box office over the last few months has involved the relative merit of reporting actual monetary figures as opposed to the vastly more accurate ‘inflation adjusted’ box office figures. (And just in case you’re wondering, Avatar currently sits 17th on Box Office Mojo’s inflation adjusted domestic box office table.)
All sorts of arguments have been put forward on both sides of the debate, from the unfeasibly sublime (the suggestion that monetary values should be replaced with a much more indicative ‘bums on seats’ measurement system) to the utterly ridiculous (‘Gone with the Wind only made so much money because there simply wasn’t anything better to do, back in 1939′).
What seems to have been missed by many (but certainly not all) is the all-important surcharge factor. With very few exceptions, audiences pay an additional admission charge every time they cough up for an Avatar session which involves either 3D projection and/or an IMAX screen. The BBC’s resident film curmudgeon, Mark Kermode, has more than adequately questioned the whole 3D surcharge system (as have some industry analysts) but how does it all affect Avatar‘s box office standing?
On January 26, when Avatar surpassed the good ship Titanic as Planet Earth’s highest grossing film since 1895 (or ‘all-time’ if you’re that way inclined), Box Office Mojo reported that 72% of its worldwide gross came from 3D presentations, with the figure closer to 80% on the domestic market. Now, if you consider that 3D screenings typically attract a surcharge in the region of 30% (where $10 tickets suddenly cost $13), and then multiply that by tens of millions of tickets, it equals one rather hefty chunk of coin.
Taking Avatar‘s current total of $2.35bn worldwide, Box Office Mojo’s suggestion of 72% of admissions being 3D would mean that $1.76bn of Avatar‘s gross has come from 3D screens. And if you remove the 30% surcharge on top of the original ticket price, you end up wiping a rather massive $400m off Avatar‘s box office bottom line. Sure, that figure would still see Avatar sitting above Titanic on the non-adjusted box-office charts, but it seems a significant factor to me.
And surely, if the surcharge exists to cover costs associated with glasses and/or specialised equipment, it really shouldn’t be factored into the box office figures of individual films anyway. Although, such an argument would disregard the commonly held belief that 3D is being heralded as a ‘revolution’ purely because it allows studios to milk even more money out of the consumer whilst providing an ‘experience’ which is, as yet, unable to be replicated in the home.
I know what you’re thinking, but before you shoot me down with your witty internet speak, hear me out. A big part of me wonders whether James Cameron has essentially remade Titanic, albeit in outer space and with space ships and big guns.
Both films feature a pair of individuals who emerge from vastly different backgrounds or cultures who, having encountered each others wonderfulness, are forced to choose between the norms imposed by their society, and an act of transgression which might see them ostracised forever.
On an action level, both films contain a central set-piece in which a key zone of inhabitation is destroyed in epic, grandiose detail. In Avatar, the destruction of the Home Tree is presented in a way which is more than a little reminiscent of the sinking ship in Titanic.
And then there is James Horner’s score, which seems eerily familiar throughout Avatar until he reaches the recurring refrain, smeared across the last half hour of Avatar in all its hideous, My Heart Will Go On-esque glory. But don’t take my word for it, even Cameron recognises the similarities between the two films.
And the Academy Award for Best Picture goes to…
Many people out there will have you believe that if a film has the highest grosses of all time, it must therefore be the best film of all time. And if it’s the best film of all time, then it is only right that it should win the Best Picture Oscar, surely? Well, I am not one of those people. In fact, I am firmly of the belief that anyone who holds this view has a fundamental misunderstanding of not just the film industry, but just about every element of the capitalist system.
So whilst many were up in arms last year because The Dark Knight didn’t pick up a Best Picture nomination (let alone a statuette), I felt that the Academy were reasonably justified. And whilst I would contend that The Dark Knight is a vastly superior film to Avatar, I will not be even the least bit surprised if James Cameron’s sci-fi epic walks away with Best Picture this year.
First of all, there has been a lot of pressure on the Academy over the last few years to be more inclusive of popular cinema, with many critics noting the number of Best Picture winners over the last few years with relatively low box offices grosses (particularly Crash, winner of Best Picture in 2006 with a gross of less than $55m in North America).
More importantly, Avatar stands a good chance simply because there isn’t any real ‘Oscar bait’ this year. There are no sweeping, historical epics, and no top-billing stars going feral or picking up a debilitating handicap or a fatal disease. There is little in the way of ‘mans inhumanity to man’, and no critically praised (yet depressingly torturous) films about social/racial/religious oppression. Hell, there aren’t even any films about the Holocaust this year.
In terms of Avatar‘s fellow Best Picture nominees, what does exist in the way of ‘Oscar bait’ is either too obscure (An Education, Precious), too wayward (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man), too close to the bone (The Hurt Locker), too cheesy (Up In The Air, The Blind Side), too likely to win Best Animated Feature (Up), or just not Avatar (District 9).
For what its worth, I’d love to see Precious take home Best Picture, but I can’t see how Avatar could lose. After all, it was the film that reminded everyone in Hollywood just how much money can be milked from every slack-jawed filmgoer from Beijing, China to Boise, Idaho.
James Cameron is NOT an artist!
Sorry to disappoint all you Avatards, but James Cameron is not an artist. In fact, more than any Hollywood director, he exists as a kind of master-craftsman, an overseer on a plantation of ideas. He might come up with the concepts, but he is merely an illusionist, pinching things from here and there, drawing elements together and synthesising these epic event-pictures for global consumption.
Which begs the quesion, is it any wonder he’s created what he has with so much time and so much money? Years in development and a literal army of minions hand-picked from the greatest effects houses around the world has resulted in a genuine movie phenomenon. And regardless of your opinion of Cameron, his gamble has paid off once again. Big time.