Earlier this week various news outlets reported that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the highest grossing film in history. (For a different take on its place in cinema box office see this article.) This tremendous response by viewing audiences might have gone the other direction. With all the pre-release hype coming from James Cameron, and mixed thoughts on websites and blogs prior to the film's release, Avatar might have gone down as a very costly failure for the studio and for Cameron's career. Instead, it has gone the other direction. In light of this it might be helpful to consider various factors that have contributed to Avatar's tremendous success.
A few of the elements are obvious. The special effects through motion and performance capture technology add new dimensions to the computer generated aliens and the world of Pandora. The story, through the film's title connected to the idea of experiencing reality through a surrogate self, taps into the experience of millions of people who assume multiple alternative identities in the digital realm through videogames, cyber worlds, and social networking sites. I have commented on some of this previously in another forum. But as important as these elements are I believe there are other more profound dynamics at work. Because Avatar was able to tap into these dynamics it has resonated with audiences accordingly. The first consideration is related to aspects of Roger Aden's thesis on fan cultures and symbolic pilgrimages that I have mentioned previously. Specifically, I think his discussion of romantic narratives adopted in lieu of the failures of technological paradise are significant. This consideration must then be connected to Bron Taylor's thesis concerning the growth of environmental and nature religions.
First, consider Aden's thesis on fan cultures and symbolic pilgrimages. In his book Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages (The University of Alabama Press, 1999), Aden discusses grand narratives in American culture that he describes as "dominant visions of sacred places." One of the narratives that under girds America is its self-conception as a promised land, and within that context it has put great hope in technology as a means of realizing this vision. However, Aden states that despite all the great things technology has done for us, it also has its negatives, including the decline of spirit and community. In this regard Aden says "[t]he promised land of technological paradise has not only failed to deliver on its vision of economic plenitude, it contributes to a growing sense of displacement as members of a social community." Due to the breakdown of grand narratives in the culture its citizens search the imagination for new narrative and mythic substitutes. Aden suggests that one of these is the narrative of romantic spirituality. He writes:
A second rhetorical response is a collection of romantic narratives in which we find a stable, communal place through spirit; the sacred garden community of others is the site of promised lands. These narratives are often cyclical in nature, promising a return to a natural, sacred home as one travels through life.
In this regard Aden mentions the significance of the "narratives of indigenous peoples." This specific narrative has clear connection to Cameron's sources of inspiration in the Polynesian/Maori and Native American peoples. In my view a romantic narrative of "sacred garden community" is a significant facet of the appeal of Avatar as the late modern technological promised land of America continues to erode in the thinking of many.
There is another facet that should be connected to the romantic narrative and that is the continued growth, appeal, and influence of the sacred, the spiritual, and even the religious in connection with the environment and ecological movements. Bron Taylor has discussed this in his book Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (UC Press, 2009). As he describes this phenomenon, Dark Green Religion "considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care.." The reference to "dark" in connection to the green is a dual referent, with application both to the depth of commitment of those to nature religion, and also to the possibility of a "shadow side" to the religion that "could even precipitate or exacerbate violence." Both aspects are evident in Cameron, including the latter as revealed in an interview in Entertainment Weekly. In response to the statement by a critic that "Avatar is the perfect eco-terrorism recruiting tool," Cameron said, "Good, good, I like that one. I consider that a positive review. I believe in ecoterrorism."
Returning to the presence of not only an increasingly influential environmental movement but also the popularity of nature as sacred, when this is connected to concerns related to environmental sustainability, as well as Avatar's underlying panentheism, the divine within all living things in Pandora, indeed within the moon Pandora itself, it becomes apparent that Dark Green Religion holds great explanatory power for Avatar's appeal with audiences.
Periodically certain films surface at just the right time, adding to their appeal. Star Wars surfaced when the appeal of the fantastic had been percolating under the surface of pop culture since the late 1960s. The film gave audiences an imaginative alternative to the cinematic offerings of the 1970s. Likewise, I suggest that Avatar has the right formula for our time in combining a narrative of romantic community with sacred nature. This formula will likely catapult Cameron into what may be the two top spots in box office history.