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Monday, May 20, 2024
The Observer

‘Avatar’ tops all-time box office once again. But who cares?


Some of the fondest memories of my youth are my friends’ birthday parties. They were always big sleepovers with 20 kids running around in the basement playing tag or football — that is, until everything changed. From 2009 on, every time a friend invited me to their birthday party, it was to go see James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 3D. I must have watched it in theaters four times before I realized I had no idea what happened in the actual film. After leaving the theater, I could never remember anything but the space jellyfish. Back then, I was too young to really appreciate how big the film was (or how much my parents had to pay for tickets every time we went).

Last Friday, “Avatar” was re-released in China — 12 years after its initial release — so that the film could reclaim its title as the highest-grossing film of all time. “Avatar” now looks and feels a bit like an old relic, bringing back the memories of bulky 3D glasses and endless popcorn, but I cannot for the life of me remember what made this film so special. Although the way it continues to break records is impressive, I have some questions: Namely, what is the point? Why “Avatar?” Why now?

The competition for the highest-grossing film of all time seems pointless when the top two contenders, “Avatar” and “Avengers: Endgame,” are both owned by Disney. This race to the highest number is artificial and arbitrary. There is no point having either of the two films at the top, apart from perpetuating some largely fabricated story of an underdog returning to reclaim its throne.

Most audience members have had a more recent experience of “Avengers: Endgame,” as well having felt more deeply the emotion and nostalgia that accompanied the 10-year build up to the film. But on the other hand, most theater-ready audiences might have recently seen it and still remember going to the theater to watch it. The only favorable aspect of “Avatar” is its status as the highest-grossing film of all time; without this distinction, the name “Avatar” would have slipped into obscurity with the rest of the early 2000s big-action films — and Disney cannot afford that, with the film’s sequels nearing the end of their production.

Honestly, “Avatar”’s largely forgettable, high-action nature might work perfectly to entice people to go to theater. It is popular, epic, unique, action-packed and old enough for audiences to not remember what happens. Announcing a re-release of what used to be the biggest film of all time back on the big screen to a mass of people starving for entertainment is a gold mine ready to be collected. “Avatar” is the perfect film for this situation, not because it is emotional or nostalgic, but precisely because it is forgettable and has the story behind its name. It is epic because we paid it to be epic.

So, choosing “Avatar” does make sense for an incentive to go to the theaters, but why China? And why now? Why does Disney care about saving Chinese theaters more than domestic theaters? The only reason I can see is that Disney wants to revive the "theater-going economy," so to speak, as soon as possible, and China is ready to have more mass gatherings than the United States. Maybe they were simply testing the waters to see what profits could be gained. Maybe they were gearing up to return to standard production. Either way, it looks like China might remain the center of Disney’s attention, with big screen releases in the near future. As long as we still pay $30 for premiere access on Disney+, Disney can afford to keep domestic theaters in the back of the production train. By the time the “Avatar” sequels are finished, China will be anticipating their release. And if the pandemic truly ends this year, we will be anticipating the sequels’ release along with them.