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The cultural impact of Avatar’s ‘culture shock’

If you will allow me a moment, let me greet you with a traditional Na’vi greeting: oel ngati kameieeither I see you. There are many ways to learn to greet in Na’vi. First and most obvious, you can go to the source: James Cameron’s Avatarthe movie that introduced us to the tall blue cats who starred in the highest-grossing movie of all time (briefly eclipsed by Avengers Endgame before a relaunch). You can also easily do a quick Google search, which will take 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 at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

I couldn’t tell you why it’s so easy to pick up a bunch of phrases in a fake language that’s only about 12 years old – Tolkien’s Elvish and Star Trek’s Klingon have had much longer to marinate in fans’ minds, but if If I had to venture a guess, I’d shrug and just point to the film’s $2.9 billion box office gross, a still staggering number in an era where studios essentially expect at least one billion-dollar movie every year. .

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

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Neytiri, a blue-skinned alien with big eyes and tightly braided hair, in Avatar.  She has bright markings on her face and wears a choker necklace with a large pendant.

Image: 20th Century Fox

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This is an interesting question! And one totally removed from whether or not the movie is, in the popular imagination, “good.” In fact, Avatar is, on paper, pretty silly! The Na’vi are perhaps the strangest example of cultural appropriation on film, an amalgamation of sweeping indigenous tropes and colonial guilt brought together in a population of gangly 9-foot-tall humanoid cats. The plot, about a human being who switches sides to help defend an indigenous group from a colonial power, is a hackneyed story that has been told over and over again in Hollywood since at least Dancing with Wolves. And look at the MCU – those things are everywhere! why don’t you stop Avatar?

The answer is both evasive and simple: there is Many ways in which a work or event can impact a culture. This can be for better or worse, obvious or subtle. Unfortunately, the easiest metric for “culture impact” to parse, at least in social media spaces where this sort of thing is discussed, is also the bleakest: buy shit. Toys, games, t-shirts or, most importantly, a ticket to another movie in the mega-franchise.

But Avatar is above all a movie, and it might just be the most cinephile movie ever made. Each individual part may be unremarkable—its dialogue, its cast, its plot—but together, on a giant screen, the collision of humanity and technology is dazzling enough to rise out of the uncanny valley into something incredible. Fascinating enough that a multitude of people around the world are bound to see it. and forced to see it againeither in 2009, because movies don’t make $2 billion without seeing them repeatedly, or in 2022, when a re-release grossed $75 million.

The main character of James Cameron's Avatar, a blue-skinned alien with large eyes and hair resembling locomotives.  He has stripes of war paint on his face and shoulders, and carries a bow.

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Image: 20th Century Fox

Another casual guess of what Avatar could mean for The Culture: the dream of the singular blockbuster movie experience and movies that need to be seen in a theater, with other people, in a world that is actively moving towards streaming IP on a screen you see at home , only.

Culture is something that is difficult to talk about in broad terms; committing to it often says more about the examiner than the examinee. Social media platforms push us to embrace the language of metrics and the algorithms that power them, so we measure culture the same way an engineer measures “engagement”—with numbers. Money. Through a capitalist perspective, in other words.

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However, movies are trade Y art, and art engages on a personal level, one that doesn’t really get processed in public in anything other than the broadest terms. Avatar it is not a complex text, but it is digestible, a problematic but big-hearted work that has very modern concerns. Ecological devastation and the military-industrial complex are their villains, and their heroes fight them simply because their superpower is empathy: seeing other people as people and the planet as alive. So even if Jake Sully’s name doesn’t stick in the viewer’s brain, maybe it does. Perhaps the views of Pandora will, a place that only makes sense in a movie theater, one so bold and indulgent that even a generous home theater setup falls short.

One tends to remember unique experiences like that. Maybe they won’t quote you directly, but in the absence of endless sequels to go watch and signal your interest, they make jokes or memes or maybe start thinking about movies. Maybe they surf the internet, creating fan sites for no one in particular, about the silly words cats used and what they mean in English. They learn to speak a language they did not know before.

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