It's the strangest thing. Usually, when a movie gets to be as big as Avatar, it's because it's infused itself into the American stream of consciousness. But it seems like this time around, the only thing Avatar's moving is James Cameron's bank balance. What's going on? Or not going on?
Avatar has beaten Cameron's own Titanic to become the highest grossing motion picture ever in worldwide gross, having taken in an astounding $2,039,222,000. And it's poised to crush Titanic's $601 million U.S. receipts to become the top domestic grosser as well. It's only a couple million dollars away as of this weekend.
Unlike the dine-and-dash movies revolving through multiplexes in recent years, Avatar also has staying power: this weekend marked its seventh straight domestic box office victory, with a $30 million take.
Avatar is earning some of its success off simply being a good popcorn movie in January, a time when we're normally choosing between Oscar bait released at midnight on Dec. 31, and movies the studios have given up on. The number one movie a year ago was Taken, the instantly forgettable Liam Neeson action flick. The week before that? The champ in January 2009 was -- wait for it -- Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which was easily trumping the delightful fantasy Inkheart, New Line's January offering to the wolves.
Avatar's competition has been invisible. Sherlock Holmes quickly bowed itself offstage after a respectable run, leaving us with froth like Tooth Fairy. Potential challengers turned out to have feet of clay: The Lovely Bones is flawed, Legion is at heart a basic thriller, and Edge of Darkness is undermined by the public's dithering over whether we're still angry at Mel Gibson.
That said, nobody makes $600 million U.S. gross just because there's nothing else at the multiplex.
And yet you'd never know just from looking around. American pop culture remains undented by Avatar, either online or in real life. When Titanic was in cinemas there was a palpable sense that a phenomenon was under way: people talked about it, talked about going to see it, talked about everyone else going to see it. Even fictional characters became obsessed with it. Not only dialog but scenes from the movie became instantly recognizable, from the "king of the world!"/"I'm flying!" imagery to the scene where Jack sketches Rose, since continuously referenced and parodied.
Well, Titanic was a fluke. But Avatar looks disconnected even compared with the lower rungs of the movie success ladder. The third film on the all-time world gross list is Return of the King, the culmination of three years of intense excitement about a project whose most basic mechanics of creation inspired fascination of its fans. The Dark Knight was fodder for both fanboy adulation/haterdom and mainstream awe at Heath Ledger's startling performance. Even Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the other billion-plus world grosser, was anchored by a mellifluously enjoyable performance by Johnny Depp and some arresting imagery that spawned internet memes and Youtube mash-ups.
When I was a kid, Star Wars was sweeping the country, and it seemed like everybody was talking about nothing else for weeks. I wasn't all that into sci-fi at the time, but the movie seeped into my world. The music was everywhere. The dialog was constantly being quoted. The imagery, the toys, the presence of the film was in the stores, the streets, the schools. I went to see it with my brother and felt giddy just from the electric feeling of the audience members, many seeing it for the second of tenth time. The theater was buzzing. People speculated on everything, from the mechanics of the film-making to someone's claim they'd spotted flies wafting around Darth Vader's head.
Is It Really That Huge?
Avatar, however, is hardly setting society on fire at Star Wars level, or even at Pirates of the Caribbean level. The dialog is not all that memorable ("There's no such thing as an ex-marine!"). Even the excellence of the soundtrack (with its score by James Horner) is praised as a repeat performance of Titanic's, but Leona Lewis's "I See You" isn't doing a Celine Dion in terms of being a constant companion (welcome or not) in everyday life.
So where are those Titanic-sized bales of money coming from?
Millions of people are going to see Avatar, but they're also paying today's obnoxious ticket prices to do so. If you flatten out the dollar values accounting for inflation, we start to get a list of movies that make more sense as genuine society-stirrers: Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T., The Ten Commandments -- films that are part of the furniture of American culture. Everybody can picture Scarlet and Rhett. Julie Andrews running over that field. If you mention Moses to most people, one of the images that will flash in their minds is an enraged and bearded Charlton Heston.
By that reckoning, Avatar has done well enough, but it's ranked 21st at the moment, behind The Graduate, behind Fantasia, behind The Sting. It's still got legs, so it may move into the top 20. But in terms of actual people seeing the film, about one-third fewer people have seen Avatar than the film it just bested in world gross, Titanic.
There is buzz out there. For a science-fiction picture it's gotten good reviews (its freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes is 82%), and my colleague Rebecca Murray, who says she hates dealing with 3D movies, gave it five stars.
And there is some controversy, most notably over the racial undertow some people ascribe to the storyline.
Even a great film doesn't automatically do business, and the debates are not engaging mainstream America. What's really impressive about Avatar, ultimately, is the fact that it's drawing in scads of people around the world, without setting the world on fire. It's the ultimate eye candy, "a sumptuous feast for the eyes" in the words of Christopher Goodwin, a journey that wraps us up and takes us somewhere. It's the most profound of dreams. James Cameron has created a film in which moviegoers share the same desire as the characters: to live a different life. And through his craft, that dream is fulfilled.
And then, we wake up, and go on with our lives.