reason for Avatar's success

Australia is burning. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of the disaster: a blaze covering an area that would stretch around the borders of the contiguous United States, leaving a billion animals dead, likely rendering numerous species extinct, and creating smoke plumes that cloud even New Zealand’s skies, two thousand kilometres away. It is, along with the climate crisis that helps fuel it, an ecological genocide of a scale that inspires almost religious levels of awe and terror. The inferno is much larger than the ongoing Amazon rainforest fires that made headlines in mid-2019, and there are many differences between them. But both bring attention to unsettling trends – in climate change certainly, but surprisingly also (more relevantly to this website) in entertainment.

Ten years ago, a movie called Avatar made billions of dollars, scored multiple Academy Awards, and heralded a new generation of 3D and performance-capture technology. It also, perhaps inevitably, suffered a backlash. Many criticisms were valid, but one has always rankled me: that of James Cameron’s environmental themes being too obvious, too blatant, too didactic. Another load of overwrought, tree-hugging “save the rainforest” FernGully bullshit, thought many audiences. Hadn’t we all agreed on that stuff years ago? Audiences rolled their eyes as IMAX screens played out images of ancient forests burned by industry seeking to profit off the land, displacing indigenous peoples in the process.

Then, ten years later, the news played out images of ancient forests being burned by industry seeking to profit off the land, displacing indigenous peoples in the process.

The reaction to Avatar’s themes reflects disturbingly upon the moviegoing population, and by extension the population at large. In today’s culture, audiences don’t respond to earnestness, other than to make fun of it lest they seem too emotionally involved. Caring is something that uncool people do. Films that wear their hearts on their sleeves, or make big social statements, are often panned for doing so. Critics tend to see subtler or more cynical approaches as more sophisticated, and therefore better; thus, films that exhibit heartfelt viewpoints or directly call audiences to action are seen as cringeworthy jokes.

To trace the origins of this phenomenon, we turn back to the cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s. A reaction to decades of credulous, status-quo-upholding entertainment, New Hollywood birthed movies like Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, Network, Apocalypse Now, All The President’s Men, and more. These movies were – improbably, by today’s standards – smash hits, representing the final era where the box office aligned reliably with critics and awards ceremonies. Importantly, they also questioned everything around them: war, politics, inequality, gender, the media, and more. In a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world, the powers that be weren’t to be trusted, and pop culture reflected that.

The ‘80s turned everything upside-down again, in favour of the new, hyper-bullish consumerism that helped drive the Reagan era. Expensive, effects-filled blockbusters were the order of the decade, along with feel-good comedies about “aspirational” rich people. Though the latter faded slightly, along with ‘80s’ cocaine-fuelled overconfidence, the former continue to this day, now cemented into monolithic studio franchises. The ‘90s saw box office records broken by ever more-bombastic films, while films with something to say started to wane. These two decades saw critical and awards darlings diverge greatly from box office hits. The public didn’t want to be challenged anymore. They just wanted to be comfortable.

Through this time, the environmentalist movement flourished, as the science of global warming became firmly entrenched and hungry economic growth gobbled up more and more resources. The rainforest was a cause célèbre in the ‘90s, from entertainment to politics to supermarket pledge drives. But as the ‘90s drew to a close, a backlash inevitably arose against the green movement – really, against caring at all. So comfortable and prosperous were the West’s ‘90s that any earnest concern for things was pilloried. South Park, with its mock-everything sense of humour, proved an accurate predictor (and perhaps cause) of things to come. In the social media age, people give even fewer fucks; discourse has become a cynical, meme-heavy culture of competitive dunking.

In Episode 10 of his Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell discusses an issue called the Satire Paradox. The key idea is that for satire to work properly, it needs to pack a clear and incisive punch; toothless satire is either buried by broader, unchallenging jokes, or worse, taken up as positive material by those it’s satirising. When audiences are deaf to subtlety, and make fun of material that deals earnestly with its subject matter, how do activist storytellers engage with and activate the public? When making an impact with satire, or with allegory or metaphor, sometimes a blunt and brutal approach is called for. 

Entertainment has a profound ability to shape public opinion. In 1971, The China Syndrome became instrumental in curbing the proliferation of nuclear power, and was even cited internally by Soviet government officials during the Chernobyl crisis. (Ironically, that reduction in nuclear power has helped create the fossil-fueled horror we’re living now.) Nicholas Meyer’s extraordinarily bleak, made-for-TV post-nuke disaster film The Day After traumatised a 62% broadcast share in 1983, becoming a talking point for an entire nation. Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia began the normalisation of homosexuality (followed later by Brokeback Mountain) and foregrounded discussion of an AIDS epidemic previously pushed under the rug. More recently, Blackfish raised immense ire against Sea World’s inhumane animal-handling. Importantly, all of these films accomplished these things through, in one way or another, horrifying their audiences.

In light of those films, Avatar may not have been blunt enough; traumatic enough; didactic enough. Audiences emerged wanting to visit Pandora, even expressing depression about it being a fictional place, but Cameron’s more direct messaging was only taken on board as a joke. Likewise, fictional post-apocalyptic wastelands have been reduced to aesthetic fetishism, as opposed to a warning – a particularly galling realisation as Mad Max’s country of origin becomes genuinely apocalyptic. Even climate documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth aren’t emphatic enough, ending on hopeful platitudes that encourage action but also make it seem like things are well in hand. We often call these kinds of films “prophetic in hindsight.” We should consider the possibility that they’re actually prophetic.

When the public refuses to engage with the news (or receives it from ideologically compromised sources), blockbusters are one of the few ways to reach truly broad audiences. Most of the time, their purpose is to distract – to be a bright, colourful mechanism for coping with the horrors of real life. But even blockbusters with a message, if not focused correctly, can form a different kind of coping mechanism: a way of shunting responsibility away from the self, placing real-life issues into a fictional context that can be shrugged off as easily as a fairy tale. It’s not enough to “smuggle ideas into” popular entertainment, as we critics are so fond of pointing out. Audiences, as a hive mind, are too sleepy to notice or take on board those ideas. The time has come to shock, to horrify, and to startle into action.

Many people avoid films with blunt, bleak messages, because they’re too depressing. And it’s true: they are, and not everyone can deal with that. Pre-emptively mourning the life our egoistic desire for growth has already killed, that simply hasn’t died yet, is incredibly upsetting. But we should be upset – and guilty, and frightened, and angry – and we must harness that to galvanise our wills and drive change. Fear doesn’t have to cause fatalism; it can be a motivator, too, and even work in conjunction with hope. We need motivation for the battle to come.

Some truly activistic films have emerged recently. First Reformed told a bleak and crushing human story about climate depression and environmental grief. Okja pulled heartstrings with a sci-fi fantasy about factory farming. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and mother! presented heavy environmentalist themes through Biblical parables of varying opacity. And BlackKklansman went the furthest with its statements, directly linking its 1970s-set Klan crime drama to present-day United States through an incandescently angry concluding montage. None of these, though, were box office smashes. One of them got some Oscar nominations – but lost to the movie that implied fried chicken had solved all our problems.

On making the climate-change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, executive producer Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out to The Globe And Mail that “the environmental movement can only be successful if we are simple and clear,” and he’s right. His co-producer James Cameron later told Variety that “people need to wake the fuck up” about climate change; that “we’re [Thelma and Louise] driving straight toward the canyon at 90 miles per hour with the radio cranked up and the top down.” In that scenario, the messages coming from the radio may be our most powerful motivator. Cameron has promised his three Avatar sequels will be just as environmentalist as the original. Perhaps they need to be more so. 

Am I calling for propaganda? More or less. Propaganda by itself is not an inherent wrong; it only matters how it is used. The existential threat we’re blithely facing at present are far deeper and more terrifying than any horror films could give us. There is no more profound existential horror than the one Avatar fictionally represents: a humanity 150 years into the future that exhausts and kills its own planet, then merely moves on to other worlds to kill them, too. We need activist storytelling, now more than ever. Can anyone wake us up?

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