Avatar's worldwide grosses will top a billion dollars by the end of the weekend -- after three weeks in release.
A billion dollars.
That will soon give James Cameron the #1 and #2 box office records -- Titanic and Avatar. It's become a cultural phenomenon -- something to talk about around the water cooler.
Doesn't surprise me at all.
Note: I've been taken -- gently -- to task for flacking this movie.
Let me explain why I liked it:
First, a few observations: "Original," "science fiction," "movie," and "successful" don't belong in the same sentence. If you can point to an SF movie with all four of those in the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years, please do. But speak carefully -- I've been reading and watching this stuff a long time and I will point out where I think we we part company on that view. Like Forbidden Planet? A direct steal from Billy Shakespeare's little play, The Tempest. The Matrix? H.G. Wells. Star Wars? Half the samurai movies ever made. Aliens? Half the monster movies ever made.
I could go on all day. Hit me with your best shot.
Second, while Cameron may have swiped the plot lock, stock, and barrel from Poul Anderson, it wasn't original with Poul, either. The uncover agent who goes native has been around a long time. They were using that term in Gunga Din, weren't they? (Rory mentions Kim, and that dates from 1901, and was a book that much influenced SF writers in the forties and fifties, when Poul was getting into the field. Not even to mention Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans Terribly-written books, these, but still.)
And we all of us who toil in the word mines of literature fantastique swipe stuff from those have gone before. Some of us are blatant about it. Some less so. Some even do it unconsciously, but do it, we certainly do.
If you want to point out a successful science fiction novel over the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years that is totally original, successful, etc. lay it on me. Did I mention there were only three plots? Good luck finding a new one.
Those of you who lament the dialog in Avatar, let me point out that Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, et al, aren't any better, and in some cases much worse. It doesn't matter. They ain't doing Ibsen.
You need to look at this in context, which is what I do, and why I liked Avatar.
It's a few things: Taste is one. Commercially helping the field is another. Being taken some place you've never been? Big plus.
You don't go to a Cameron movie to be surprised by the story. It's not his forte. Nor is it the strength of science fiction filmmakers in general. Never has been.
Who I am and what I do and what I know, I never expect to be surprised by a genre story by any moviemaker. Only three plots, remember?
Every SF&F movie you see today is old, old stuff. They were writing it before I was born and I grew up reading and watching it.
If they write to surprise me, they are going to leave most of the rest of the audience scratching their heads and wondering what the fuck just happened?
I take that into account.
I don't expect science fiction or fantasy on a screen to knock me down with a new twist. Since it always borrows ideas that are cliches in the literature, I don't carry that one into the theater. It's not a matter of setting the bar low, but recognizing that's where it must be set to get a viable audience. If only the hardcore fans go to see it, your movie tanks.
So I see SF&F movies for the ride, and if there is a good story, that's gravy. There was enough story in Avatar for me. No surprises, but I didn't expect any. Nor would it have been smart to make it a hardcore SF picture. If you want to reach a big audience -- and you need to reach it to make your money back -- you have to slow down for the stragglers. This is why the Matadors haven't made me rich -- I don't stop and explain stuff -- if you can't keep up, go read something else. This was a conscious choice and I knew when I made it that it was gonna limit my audience.
That so many non-SF&F fans are going to come out of the theater grinning is really good for our biz. Star Wars and Star Trek opened up big opportunities for writers because people who tried those were, some of them, willing to try something else. They weren't good SF, either. If a science fiction picture blows the doors off the theaters, if Cameron makes a shitload of money, then he helps lift us all, just like Harry Potter did for fantasy and Twilight did for vampires. (When the later Harry Potter books were published, people went out at midnight and stood in lines for hours waiting to get into bookstores. I couldn't even imagine such a thing happening.)
This kind of success slops over onto everybody, at least a little. If they'll go see Trek or Avatar, maybe some of them will move on to Phil Dick or Zelazny. Or me.
I was amazed by the EFX, and that is what this picture gives to an audience. People who say, "Oh, yeah, I like the box the movie came in." are completely missing the point. You can't get this ride in a book. And nobody else has come close to what Cameron put up on the screen. It was a Holy shit! experience visually, and for an audience who had no notion of what Gaia is, it presented a concept as novel as The Matrix did for Maya. I thought The Matrix sucked, storywise, but I'm a working writer in the field. They didn't write it for me.
They didn't write Avatar for me. Or the adult you, either. "Childlike" is not the same as "childish."
Reach back into your memory to find that sense of wonder you had as a kid. Go look at it as if you were twelve years old. That's who they wrote it for -- the youngster stoked on his or her sensawunda.