Some Thoughts on Avatar and Star Wars

Avatar SW

First of all, I haven’t seen the movie.  The statements I will be making are based purely on the aggregate of what I’ve read online.  But I don’t even need to see Avatar in order to make my next statement: Avatar will never reach the popularity and success of Star Wars.  It simply never will.

Now let’s look at why.

First, while Avatar may be on par with Star Wars in terms of special effects, that’s just about all it has going for it.  The story of Avatar is pretty flimsy; indeed, almost all of the praise for Avatar has been for its outstanding 3D imagery.  So even if the eventual Star Wars 3D re-releases don’t blow Avatar out of the water (as I expect them to), Lucasfilm has nothing to worry about.  3D imagery can bring in crowds like nothing else, but only because it’s new.  There’s nothing inherently better about the content of Avatar just because it’s in 3D (and therefore garners monumental interest).

Next, the mythology.  I’ve heard some people say that there’s a lot of mythology in Avatar.  Well, actually, I don’t buy that.  At least, not in the traditional sense of the word.  Yes, the Hindu god Vishnu is depicted as being a blue deity, and yes, the Sanskrit epic Ramayana focuses a whole lot on monkey-beings.  But that’s small stuff.  Sure, that stuff’s a big deal to the Indian people, and I’m not diminishing those mythological elements as they relate to Indian lore.  But I’d argue that Star Wars presents a much broader sense of mythology.  There is a great message behind Avatar – overthrowing oppressive, discriminatory enemies in the name of freedom and equality – and indeed that message seems to be present in Star Wars as well.  But in Avatar, this message is presented in a smaller way.

No matter what your faith or nationality, the elements of mythology that George Lucas incorporated into Star Wars will appeal to you.  There’s Luke Skywalker, the young nobody-turned-hero who rises out of dark times to bring light to everyone; there’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise old mentor who eventually must leave his student behind and sacrifice himself; and there’s Han Solo, the harsh realist who serves as the foil to Luke’s naive optimism.  There are many other people in Star Wars who represent epic, timeless archetypes, and that is what makes the mythology in Star Wars much grander than that of Avatar.

Another thing I need to address is the numbers game.  In the past few days, Avatar passed Star Wars’s total domestic gross, a feat that meant instant press coverage across the blogosphere.  But there’s a problem with this achievement: the numbers are unadjusted for inflation.  Personally, I don’t see why anyone uses unadjusted gross numbers.  They don’t reflect the skyrocketing of ticket prices at all, so how can you use them to compare movies with significant release year gaps?  All of the news reports I saw about Avatar passing Star Wars used these unadjusted numbers, thereby further promoting the myth that Avatar has been more successful than Star Wars.

According to Box Office Mojo, as of this writing Avatar has made $511,782,300 at the box office.  That’s pretty good.  But now let’s look at Star Wars.  Remember, this number has been adjusted for the 30+ years that have passed and all the ticket price fluctuation that has occurred.  So here’s the deal: as of right now, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has made … $1,309,179,000.  That means A New Hope occupies the number two spot on the list of the highest-grossing films in the country, right behind Gone with the WindAvatar, for what it’s worth, sits at #34.

Before you write in to complain, I’ll say this: yes, I realize that Avatar has been out for less than a year.  Less than six months, in fact.  But even with just a few months of ticket sales on record, some people are already saying that Avatar is a better film than Star Wars.  But how do you define “better”?  Does “better” mean “more profitable”?  I doubt it, because Star Wars still has a much higher domestic gross.  So does “better” mean “more epic”?  No, because, as I already explained, Avatar had a weak story and a pretty thin layer of mythology.  So if we’re not talking about money or message, what else can we use to define “better”?  To me, at least, there’s nothing else.

Avatar is generating a lot of buzz, but that’s the nature of our modern world.  People jump on the greatest film of the year as if it’s the greatest film of the century, and then they move on to the next great film as soon as it’s released.  We saw this with The Dark Knight, and now we’re seeing it with Avatar.  The film may be temporarily popular, but I believe it will soon go the way of The Dark Knight.  When the dust settles, Star Wars has monumental staying power; it’s been in the public spotlight for thirty years, and it doesn’t appear to be vanishing anytime soon.  Avatar, on the other hand, is just another 3D effects masterpiece.  It may be a great film, but it doesn’t offer nearly as much as Star Wars in the way of timeless values and essential mythological themes.