A few weeks ago, you might have read my review of Avatar: The Way of Water in this paper. It’s safe to say I wasn’t a fan – I found the story dull, the dialogue inane, and the high frame rate 3D uncomfortable. Thirteen years ago, I wedged myself into a packed screening room in Soho Square to watch the first film and thought it was impressive. However, I didn’t leave my seat desperate to return to Pandora, much less wait over a decade to do so. For me, Avatar was an outlier in cinema history – the most successful film of all time that no-one talks about, quotes, or really remembers. It has none of the cultural capital of a Star Wars, Marvel, or Back To The Future, and for three hours last month it was confirmed to me why. James Cameron’s world is visually impressive, but not very interesting.
You are, of course, welcome to disagree with me. In fact, if this week’s figures are anything to go by, you’d be in the majority. While critics were torn, audiences seemed to embrace the mega-budget sequel. It earned a prized A grade on moviegoer website cinemascore, and a box office haul to match. This week, according to Deadline, the film passed $1.4bn in worldwide box office, closing in on Top Gun: Maverick as the most successful 2022 release and performing better than all but one of the most recent Marvel films. In short, as we have written about, Avatar has made cinematic history at the box office.
Twenty days in to its release, the film seems to have “legs”, with audiences returning week after week in a way that made Cameron’s previous blockbusters, Titanic and Avatar, the successes they were. While it may be some way off the $2.9bn its predecessor made, there’s no denying the follow up is an astounding success. Cameron and his big blue aliens overcame a storm in the US, lockdowns in China, and general indifference in the lead up to release to prove that he is still the man with the golden touch.
Good films will always exist and are available at the touch of a button, but that feeling of occasion that comes with a movie you just have to see in a crowd is unique and precious.
With all that in mind, you’d think I’d be tearing my hair out and making Jake Sully voodoo dolls. However, I’m delighted, as every cinema fan should be. It’s easily to look at cinema as a spectator sport, and only cheer on the films or franchises that you support (with box office counting score). However, a hit like Avatar is good for everyone who enjoys the communal experience of watching movies on the big screen.
The Way of Water is undoubtedly a visual spectacle that looks every penny of its nine-figure budget. It’s a film that feels like an event, and has been treated like one by audiences who turned up in their droves. Regardless of what they thought leaving the cinema, it was enough to lure millions around the world to make a trip to the movies, and bring in the kind of crowds many thought would disappear forever after 2020. Good films will always exist and are available at the touch of a button, but that feeling of occasion that comes with heading along to a movie you just have to see in a crowd is unique and precious.
Buy popcorn, put those massive 3D glasses on, and if you can work out which alien Kate Winslet is playing you’ll have done better than me.
Yes, it would be wonderful if the best film of the year were also the most successful. It’s likely that The Way of Water will stomp all over the hopes of many better awards movies, but that’s art for you. Not everyone goes to the cinema to be challenged by a film like The Banshees of Inisherin, or delve into the dark heart of Hollywood in Damien Chazelle’s forthcoming Babylon. Some people just want big, dumb entertainment, and while that may sound patronising it is as valid a reason for buying a ticket as any. I could sit at a screening of The Fast and Furious 8 and talk all night about its terrible storytelling, but you wouldn’t be able to hear me over all the people who just came to cheer Vin Diesel as he drives a car over another car. Different things appeal to different people, but a crowd-pleaser has a ripple effect that benefits an entire industry.
I’m not filled with anticipation for the many planned Avatar sequels, nor do I relish the idea of James Cameron crowning himself King of Hollywood (again). However, I am grateful for any movie that means cinemas are full after the last few years. Regardless of what us mean old critics think, go see Avatar. Buy popcorn, put those massive 3D glasses on, and if you can work out which alien Kate Winslet is playing you’ll have done better than me.
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Read our review of Avatar: The Way of Water
Read about how Avatar: The Way of Water has made cinematic history at the box office