Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Messrs O’Toole and Boorman ponder the most successful picture of all time.

At the time of the 1987 British general election, I was living in London — in Mrs Thatcher‘s constituency, in fact — and, like many of my Guardian-reading friends, greatly appreciated a cartoon that appeared in that paper the day …

Tue, Jan 26, 2010, 23:25


At the time of the 1987 British general election, I was living in London — in Mrs Thatcher‘s constituency, in fact — and, like many of my Guardian-reading friends, greatly appreciated a cartoon that appeared in that paper the day after the apocalypse. A man with Guardian glasses and Guardian hair (you know what I mean) looks disconsolately out the window and says to his similarly attired wife: “We must live a very sheltered life. We don’t know anybody who voted for her.”


The Na’vi celebrate all that lolly with, erm, a lolly.

This gag came to my mind while enjoying a recent article by Fintan O’Toole and letter by distinguished director John Boorman on the subject of Avatar’s seemingly unstoppable advance. As it happened, Mr Boorman’s missive was published on the very day that James Cameron’s modestly diverting fantasy flick surpassed Jim’s own Titanic to become the most lucrative film ever at the world box office. (That’s today if you’ve accessed Screenwriter good and early.)

I have some minor quibbles with both the letter and the article. I can’t quite buy Fintan’s assertion that  ”It is the case that Hollywood can’t combine technological innovation, good storytelling and human beings.” The recent re-invention of Star Trek managed all those things. So did Coraline. Despite enjoying Pixar’s work, Fintan does not, it seems, feel that the studio’s animations check all three boxes. Yet Carl Fredricksen, hero of Up, is as convincing a “human being” — this appears to be the sticking point — as any character in a typical Restoration comedy or Evelyn Waugh novel.

In assessing the reasons for Avatar’s financial success, John (understandably) fails to mention one tedious economic consideration: tickets for 3-D movies cost about 15 percent more than those for flat films. Without that extra boost, Avatar would still be an enormously successful film, but it might be a mere Return of the King rather than an awe-inspiring Titanic. I also felt, given that another subject under discussion was The Wizard of Oz, he was too modest in not mentioning his own, extraordinary Zardoz. Of all the many takes on The Wizard of Oz, it could be the most delightfully strange and curiously undervalued.

Never mind that. We are all three largely in agreement. The technological innovations are unquestionably noteworthy, but the picture is narratively underpowered, desperately short on character and philosophically muddled. I also happen to think that the imagined universe often looks like it’s been vomited up by My Little Pony after scoffing too many licorice all-sorts, but I guess — to mangle Dolly Parton once more — it takes a lot of ingenuity too look this cheap.Meanwhile, visitors to this “blog” have consistently — indeed near-unanimously — declared that Avatar is, well, just about okay.  Indeed, I have received complaints that I was too kind to the thing in my review. We all must live very sheltered lives indeed.

So, what gives? How has Avatar achieved its success? Titanic appealed to so many demographics — Grandmothers saw it as a period piece, young boys as a disaster movie, teenage girls as a swoony romance — that it was almost guaranteed to vacuum up a spectacular amount of money. Yet Avatar is very much a genre piece. Mashing together the aesthetics of Yes album sleeves with those of 1950s science fiction paperback covers, the picture seems specifically designed to appeal solely to a solitary class of fantasy enthusiast. Well, no film makes $1.8 billion at the box-office by drawing on just one niche market.

A few things spring to mind. Firstly, don’t forget that, though the film got very guarded reviews on this side of the Atlantic, it received genuine raves in America, often from quite respectable critics. It seems that a belief in the virtues of uncomplicated wonder — something we rather sneer at — still throbs in the hearts of many American pundits. That swell of opinion has pulled in a lot of older viewers.

Secondly, after looking west, you may want to cast your eyes towards the rising sun. The very fact that the film has such an uncomplicated, oft-repeated central story is positively a boon in the area known to Hollywood as Rest of the World. Cultural and linguistic differences matter less when your film is set on another planet and based on a story that could spring from ancient myth. Keep in mind that, at time of writing, Avatar has some way to go to before it catches Titanic in America and a bit to go before passing out (ahem) Mamma Mia! in the United Kingdom. More interesting still, in Ireland it has, of yet, made only a little over three quarters of what Titanic eventually took. The real powerhouse behind the film’s success is the non-Anglophone market.

Thirdly, remember that people who like Avatar tend to like it a lot. I am fairly sure that the chap who emailed me saying I should be sacked for only giving it three stars went to see the flick again (and again). Repeat viewings are driven by the  knowledge that, whatever the advances in home entertainment, a 3-D, motion-captured picture is never going to be as visually bludgeoning on telly as it is when projected on a screen the size of a football pitch. If you do want to see it again now’s the time to do so.

And finally let me reiterate that (boring, but true) the tickets cost that bit more than those for your average flat film. Combine that with inflation and the film’s advance up the charts becomes a little bit more understandable. Meanwhile, with tedious predictability, Gone with the Wind still sits happily atop the inflation-adjusted box-office hit parade. I don’t think that will be beaten in my lifetime. Mind you, in my recent interview with Cameron, I indicated — with weasel words — that I felt the same about Titanic’s record in the unadjusted chart. Oh man. There’s egg on my stupid face.