5 years later, has 'Avatar' made a lasting cultural impact?

The seventh installation of the "Star Wars" saga officially hits theatres Friday, more than 38 years after "A New Hope" blasted its way into Hollywood history in 1977.

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But also on this very day -- not so long ago and in a galaxy not very far away -- space marines stormed the forested moon of Pandora in James Cameron’s "Avatar". On December 18, 2010, the world was introduced to the nature-loving Na’vi and the greedy humans who invaded their space.

"Avatar" would go on to become the highest grossing film of all time by a long shot. It took in almost $2.8 billion by the time it left theatres, beating out another James Cameron gargantuan, "Titanic," which earned about $2.2 billion 12 years earlier.

Even adjusting for inflation, Avatar’s worldwide gross places it only behind "Gone with the Wind" on the all-time list, and among classics like "E.T.," "The Lion King," "Jurassic Park" and "The Exorcist."

But in terms of cultural impact, it’s hard to argue that "Avatar" has earned a permanent place in cinematic history. Most of these mega-profitable movies have at least one mega-memorable line:

“Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”

“E.T. phone home.”

“I’ll never let go, Jack.”

“No, I am your father.”

But even just five years later, most would probably struggle to quote even a few words from the film, or even recall the main characters’ names. There are no "Avatar" equivalents of Luke Skywalker, Simba or Harry Potter.

Even the plot of the movie has been criticized as being a rehash of "Pocahontas," or "Dances with Wolves," or "Fern Gully," or The "Last Samurai." So what exactly did "Avatar" do to warrant such an incredible intake at the box office? What kept audiences coming back to theatres week after week, earning "Avatar" the records for largest-grossing third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth weekends?

Well, the film is undoubtedly a visual masterpiece. It showed the world what could be done with extensive motion-capture, and probably still sets the bar for use of 3D effects. That eye candy, though, apparently failed to spawn any sort of lasting effects on the industry, as Scott Mendelson writes in Forbes.

“But considering how big a deal it was for a brief period in time,” he writes, “it is all the more odd that exists solely as ‘that 3D movie that made a bunch of money.’”

Today, Star Wars’ return has drummed up a frenzy of excitement due to the original trilogy’s story and characters. Even with a less-than-excellent follow-up trilogy, fans are still foaming at the mouth for more of a franchise that is almost forty years old.

Meanwhile, "Avatar" itself is set to become a trilogy, with "Avatar 2" and "Avatar 3" planned for release in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Two years from now, we’ll see if masterful visuals will be enough to get people to dress up in blue, line up all night and book tickets months in advance to explore Pandora.


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