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The cultural impact of Avatar’s ‘cultural impact’

Na’vi and me

Neytiri, a blue-skinned alien with big eyes and tight braids in her hair (Zoe Saldana), in Avatar. Image: 20th Century Fox
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

If you will indulge me for a moment, allow me to greet you with a traditional Na’vi salutation: oel ngati kameie, or I see you. There are lots of ways to learn how to say hello in Na’vi. First and most obviously, you can go to the source: James Cameron’s Avatar, the film that introduced us to the tall, blue cat-people that starred in the highest-grossing film of all time (briefly eclipsed by Avengers: Endgame before a rerelease). You can also easily do a quick Google search, which will lead you to countless wikis, fan sites, and videos documenting how to speak Na’vi. Or, if you’re the adventurous type, you can fly to Orlando, Florida, and visit Pandora - The World of Avatar in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

I could not tell you why it’s so easy to learn a bunch of phrases in a fake language that is only about 12 years old — Tolkien’s elvish and Star Trek’s Klingon have had considerably more time to marinate in fans’ brains — but if I had to hazard a guess, I would shrug and simply point at the film’s $2.9 billion box office gross, a number still staggering in an era where studios essentially expect at least one billion-dollar film every year.

That number has plagued a certain brand of cultural critic for much of the last decade, which has resulted in the memetic idea that Avatar has had a strange lack of “cultural impact.” It’s objectively the biggest movie ever made, the argument goes, but why can’t anyone remember the main character’s name? Or quote a line?

Neytiri, a blue-skinned alien with large eyes and tightly braided hair, in Avatar. She has glowing markings on her face and wears a choker necklace with a large pendant. Image: 20th Century Fox

This is an interesting question! And one wholly removed from whether or not the movie is, in the popular imagination, “good.” In fact, Avatar is, on paper, quite silly! The Na’vi are perhaps the strangest instance of cultural appropriation in a film, an amalgam of broad Indigenous tropes and colonial guilt assembled in a populace of gangly 9-foot-tall humanoid cats. The plot, about a human who switches sides to help defend the Indigenous group from a colonial power, is a shopworn story that’s been told over and over again in Hollywood since at least Dances With Wolves. And look at the MCU — that stuff is everywhere! Why not for Avatar?

The answer is both elusive and simple: There are many ways a work or event can impact a culture. This can be for good or ill, obvious or subtle. Unfortunately, the most easily parsed metric for “cultural impact,” at least on the social media spaces where this sort of thing is discussed, is also the bleakest one: buying shit. Toys, games, T-shirts, or most importantly, a ticket to another movie in the megafranchise.

But Avatar is first and foremost a movie, and it might just be the most movie-ass movie ever made. Each individual part is perhaps unremarkable — its dialogue, its cast, its plot — but together, on a giant screen, the collision of humanity and technology is dazzling enough to vault out of the uncanny valley and into something enthralling enough that throngs of people all over the world are just compelled to see it. And compelled to see it again, either in 2009 — because movies don’t make $2 billion without repeat viewings — or in 2022, when a rerelease grossed $75 million.

The main character in James Cameron’s Avatar, a blue-skinned alien with large eyes and hair that resembles locs. Stripes of war paint are on his face and shoulders, and he carries a bow. Image: 20th Century Fox

Another, casual guess at what Avatar might mean to The Culture: the dream of the singular blockbuster theatrical experience and movies that must be seen in a theater, with other people, in a world that is actively moving toward streaming IP onto a screen that you watch at home, alone.

Culture is a difficult thing to talk about in broad terms; engaging with it usually says more about the examiner than the examined. Social media platforms push us to adopt the language of the metrics and algorithms that fuel them, and so we measure culture the way an engineer measures “engagement” — with numbers. Money. Through a capitalist perspective, in other words.

Yet movies are commerce and art, and art is engaged with on a personal level, one that really isn’t processed in public in anything other than the broadest terms. Avatar is not a complex text, but it is a digestible one, a troublesome but big-hearted work that has very modern concerns. Ecological devastation and the military-industrial complex are its villains, and its heroes fight them simply because their superpower is empathy — seeing other people as people, and the planet as alive. So even if the name Jake Sully doesn’t linger in a viewer’s brain, maybe that does. Maybe the vistas of Pandora do, a place that only makes sense in a movie theater, one so audacious and indulgent that even a generous home theater setup sells it short.

One tends to remember singular experiences like that. Maybe they don’t quote it directly, but in the soon bygone absence of endless sequels to go see and otherwise signal their interest, they make jokes or memes or perhaps they start thinking about movies. Maybe they tool around on the internet, making fan sites for no one in particular, about the goofy words the cat people used and what they mean in English. They learn to speak a language they didn’t know before.