Avatar’s Accomplishments

Though the movie is not without its problems, “Avatar” continues a successful box office run that defies expectations. The movie is slowly slipping down the ranks in the North American box office, according to Box Office Mojo, but to date it has earned nearly $2.4 billion worldwide, placing it firmly at number 1 on the list of top-grossing movies of all time. How does it stack up in terms of actual attendance? After adjusting for inflation, Box Office Mojo indicates “Avatar” is currently number 16 on the domestic list. It is unclear, though, if this number accounts for the higher price of tickets for 3-D viewings.  Using Box Office Mojo’s average ticket price of $7.61 for 2010, the site estimates over 88 million tickets have been sold domestically. A more conservative estimate using $7.61 for the average ticket price for 2-D viewings, $15.00 for 3-D viewings, and an estimated split between 2-D and 3-D viewings of  22% and 78% respectively suggests “Avatar” has sold approximately 54 million tickets domestically and 202 million world-wide.

“Avatar” attendance actually lies somewhere between this very conservative estimate and Box Office Mojo’s estimate, meaning it is clearly a top-100 movie of all-time domestically. It is difficult to estimate where “Avatar” places in terms of attendance world-wide because that marketplace has changed significantly over the decades. However, “Avatar” has accomplished something few movies do anymore: it is a runaway success in a variety of different cultures and it is well-ranked globally among the biggest movies of all time. No movie will likely surpass the nearly half billion people who have seen “Gone with the Wind” in the theater over the decades (“Star Wars” is the only movie that has ever come close), yet in a world of more entertainment options than in any other time in history, any movie that brings so many millions of people out to the theater during a first run has accomplished an increasingly rare feat.

Only two movies now sit around the $2.0 billion grossing mark: “Avatar” and “Titanic”, both written and directed by James Cameron. It took 12 years for another movie to pass “Titanic” and the question now is whether or not this will happen again any time soon? That the bar has been set so high, and twice, suggests that many filmmakers will be pulling out all the stops now.  “Avatar” is currently unrivaled in special effects and photorealistic CGI. Cameron has also succeeded in demonstrating a particular approach to filmmaking that is expected to become wildly popular with filmmakers in coming years. The placement of actors, virtual characters, props, and virtual props within sets and virtual sets was available to Cameron from the very beginning of filming. While directing, he looked through a customized camera that served as a “window” into a blended reality. This allowed him to film as if he was really standing – or flying – there on Pandora. The actors benefited from this technology by being able to see what they were acting against prior to each take. This is a vast improvement over previous green-screen technology where it was difficult for actors to get a sense of their setting and interactions with virtual characters. In post-production (which actually coincided with production) all of this came together into a seamless whole, with an unprecedented level of gloss and realism driven by the experience of Weta Digital and other special effects companies along with  access to computing power that continues to grow exponentially over time.

“Avatar” has not just set a new bar for photorealistic blended reality in movies; it has set a new base. Upcoming genre films will be compared to “Avatar” as audiences begin to expect movies at least as seamless and full of wonder. “John Carter of Mars”, “Spider-Man 4“, and the new “Flash Gordon” movie are all rumored to use the same technology that Cameron and his team developed.  TV and web productions will likely follow as the price of this technology comes down further.

“Avatar” has also succeeded in making 3-D a viable marketing strategy. Movie studios are racing to update existing genre productions to 3-D while announcing new movies to be produced in 3-D from the start. They are also in the process of reformatting older movies to 3-D for rerelease. Manufacturers of 3-D televisions hope “Avatar” will increase consumer demand for these sets later this year. This coming holiday will likely indicate whether or not consumers are going to take the bait in order to own “Avatar” in 3-D and view it in this format at home.

Beyond these filmmaking and marketing accomplishements, the success of “Avatar” and other recent genre entertainment may have also widened the discourse for ideas like transhumanism, space travel, astrobiology, exoplanetary science, advanced consumer electronics, mind uploading, and other emerging technologies. Transhumanist commentators in particular may benefit from genre fiction that opens audience minds to new ideas that were until recently dismissed as fringe. When asked about whether or not genre fiction has had an impact on his “Sentient Developments” blog, transhumanist commentator, futurist, and author George Dvorsky responded:

“Absolutely. Other than life extension topics, genre entertainment (especially science fiction) is like porn for blogs. I make an effort to review popular films as much as possible, but they have to be contextually consistent with my blog. And lately that’s not been too difficult; as you noted, films like Avatar and Caprica have made it easy. Even superhero stories (like Watchmen and X-Men) offer food for thought.”

Dvorsky highlighted the virtual reality and uploading depicted in “Avatar” and how the movie helps to introduce these ideas to the public. However, he notes that the introduction of new ideas does not necessarily lead to public acceptance.  While Frontier Channel has benefited from increased traffic to articles related to genre fiction, there is little evidence to suggest that readers are sticking around to learn more about transhumanism and emerging technologies.

Michael Anissimov writes the “Accelerating Future” blog,  is a transhumanist commentator, and actively participates in the effort of Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence to describe and develop so-called “Friendly AI”. He suggests that movies like “Avatar” might open people’s mind a little bit more to unfamiliar concepts, but ultimately:

“[…] the best way to bring people into transhumanism is using news of real scientific advancements and analysis of sci-tech progress. […] it [“Avatar”] is more symptomatic of pro-transhumanist sentiment rather than causative of it.”

Roko Mijic, who writes the “Transhuman Goodness” blog and is also a proponent of “Friendly AI” research, seems to agree and points out how science fiction might actually be less interesting now:

“Personally, I find that the scenarios I consider in my “Day-to-Day” activities volunteering for the Singularity Institute are a lot more extreme than science fiction. Somehow having to consider ultra-extreme future scenarios as “work” has made me both less excited by and less interested in science fiction[…]”

The problem with “Avatar” is that while the technical details of the filmmaking and the astonishing photorealistic CGI are indeed evidence for the rapid progress of technology in the industry, many of the ideas explored in the movie are done so in a way that seems quaint when compared to real scientific breakthroughs and technological progress today. While “Avatar” may in a limited way help introduce people to new ideas that are already popular in transhumanist circles, it is by no means a “transhumanist” film. Mijic suggests that:

“[…] there is a fairly strong cultural trend for entertainment to pick up, amplify and distort good futurism, and it has both good and bad effects. Good in the sense that even a distorted message can be better than no message at all. Bad in the sense that people tend to enter a “fairytale” mode of thinking activated by the future-flavored entertainment when you try to present serious futurism to them.”

What “Avatar” has accomplished is to provide entertainment that seems to cut across cultures, while also promoting 3-D in general and a new approach to filmmaking that could very well be quite popular going forward. While the movie does not explore transhumanism and emerging technologies in any deep way, it may just have accomplished a kind of “priming” of the minds of its audience members to be a little bit more aware of them. With new audiences eager for the out-of-this-world vistas on display in movies like “Avatar”, there is no better time to introduce them to current accomplishments in science and technology that are leading to a future far more fantastic than fiction.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), his Micro.blog (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).