Apologies to James Cameron: ‘Avatar’ a Sign of Changing Cinema

Conservative red-staters beware: The world has become overwhelmingly blue. Of course, the blue fever has less to do with politics and everything to do with Na’vi, the alien race from James Cameron’s Avatar which seized the globe like a cerulean strain of H1N1 since planet Pandora’s box office reign when it opened 18 December.

And I never saw it coming.

As I write this – hours after Avatar nabbed the Best Director and Best Motion Picture -Drama awards at the Golden Globes — the human-alien adventure (or sci-fi epic to use the parlance of these times) is poised to overtake the $1.24 billion international gross benchmark of top-earning movie of all time, James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic. For sure, ticket prices for a movie have gone up since 1997 and the numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation, but regardless, Avatar is kind of a big deal.

The movie has led to fan obsession (fan fiction and learn the Na’vi language sites) and fan depression as a result of existing on boring Earth and not living la vida Pandora. The film may even be so good as to be fatal, as it was to a Taiwanese man who died from a stroke due to “over-excitement” during a screening. “Man with high blood pressure dies of stroke after watching ‘Avatar'” USA Today.com, 19 January 2010).

Of course, as with anything this big, controversy and haterade drinkers have also emerged to call the 3-D flick racist, blatantly politically liberal and — in the case of the Vatican — as encouraging religious nature worship. Still others level charges of plagiarism against Cameron for ripping off Noon Universe a series of Russian science fiction novels. On the upside, Quentin Tarantino is a fan of the movie and the adult film industry has deigned it pop-culturally significant enough to warrant a porn parody.

Aside from the poor guy who died from a stroke, I am loving every bit of this. Like many colleagues, after following the film’s development for four years, I was underwhelmed by the sci-fi Pocahontas story before I laid eyes on it.

I predicted all hype and no payout, and didn’t expect it to be very successful. I enjoy big, blockbuster, popcorn movies as much (if not slightly more) as I appreciate small “films”. Yet I didn’t think it would connect with me, or that audiences would be ready for something of this size and scope. Moreover, I frankly didn’t think Cameron could do it. Again.

Now, I’ve developed an avarice for Avatar because the film is pop culture at its most popular. It captured the world almost immediately and instead of being born, the Avatar movement burst onto the scene — not unlike the alien from another franchise Cameron was involved with. And for me, the best part about all this is how much I underestimated it.

I got it wrong when sizing up Avatar. Way wrong.

When color came to cinema in the early 20th century, or when silent film gave way to talkies in the ’20s, I was a few decades shy of making my entrance. Nor was I alive for the golden era of 3-D films in the ’50s. I also barely made it in time to catch the beginning of the blockbuster film era in the late ’70s. But I’m clearly here for the beginning of the next movement of film, and it is Avatar. It’s too bad I didn’t get that a little earlier, but I’m nevertheless happy to be part of the blue wave.

I don’t know if Avatar should clean house at the Academy Awards, although I’m certain it will be nominated several times. There are other films from 2009 that I care for more, and I contend there are more original stories told in great movies like The Hurt Locker I will also take the flesh-and-blood offerings of actors such as Gabourey Sidibe from Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire who can show real pain in a performance over a computer-generated character.

Still, Avatar has surprised me more than any other movie in a while. It reminded me that the size of a movie is far greater than the screen it’s shown on, and it provided a well-deserved slap to not underestimate the audience’s willingness to embrace a new kind of cinema.

And so, I apologize both to James Cameron and to the audiences out there for underestimating the power of Pandora. To borrow and butcher Norma Desmond’s sentiment in Sunset Boulevard, Avatar is huge. It’s this critic that got small.