After Monday night's take, Avatar has officially passed The Titanic as the biggest money earner is history. Ignore the talk of ticket price inflation and the benefits of 3-D showings. The number that matters is two billion--which is the low-end of the estimates for how much the film is going to bring in during its run. I have little to say on the quality of Avatar. I enjoyed the film, but haven't felt compelled to write about it until now. It certainly was a technological marvel, but the script, much like that of The Titanic, was on the cheesy side and the film wears its trite messages on pretty broad sleeves leaving the whole experience feeling a bit hokey. Still, the film has some great moments and is highly entertaining. And, it is a science fiction. We hear it called Dances with Aliens (or, my favorite, Dances With Thundercats) and see it compared to Pochahontas and The Last Samurai regularly because of the common themes, but it is still definitely science fiction and it contains many of the elements that science fiction fans want in the genre—advanced technology, existential philosophy, speculation about alien society and biology among them.
Given the film's enormous financial success, we were bound to see lots of backlash. For fans of the genre, the worst part is the backlash not against the film but against Science Fiction and its fans. As I read the anti-Avatar articles across the Internet, I'm struck by how many of them decide to take jabs at men and women who enjoy Sci-fi and perpetuate the stereotype that Science Fiction fans are anti-social hermits who are afraid of the opposite sex and live in a fantasy world.
The most egregious, or at least the most visible, example comes from Michael Atkinson. His article “Why I won't see Avatar” details why he has no interest in seeing the film. Despite the fact that needing to tell people why you aren't going to see a popular film seems trivial, I have no problem with his main thesis. While the film is amazingly successful as a money maker, I'm not sure it has the depth of theme to allow it to be a topic of discussion among film enthusiasts after its box office run. What I do have problems with is Atkison's characterization of fans of the film and the genre. Here is the section in question:
I’ve seen Avatar already, frankly, because I spent my youth looking at Roger Dean album covers and sci-fi/fantasy paperback covers and the art of Frank Frazetta, Chris Foss, the Brothers Hildebrandt, etc. — and that was a good 30 years ago. But since then, something happened: I grew short hairs and read Hemingway and had sex. There’s no going back.
Granted, Atkinson's point is that now that he is older, he is no longer fascinated with pretty pictures. The problem is the last sentence. It echoes the stereotypes that all Science-Fiction fans are familiar with. If Avatar wasn't a Science-Fiction film, would he have tacked on the “grew short hairs...and had sex” line? I seriously doubt it. What we have here is another critic that thinks disliking something that other people like makes him superior. That position isn't uncommon (nor is thinking that liking something that is unpopular with the masses makes one superior) and we all are likely guilty of it at some point. If Atkinson hadn't felt the need to take a jab at genre fans, his argument would have just been petty elitism. With that jab, it joins a slew of similar opinions that are at least partially responsible for holding the genre back.
The issue isn't that Atkinson's depiction of fans of Sci-Fi/Fantasy is offensive (though it is). The issue is that that depiction is so commonly held. Producers hear this. Studios hear this. If we allow critics to perpetuate the idea that Avatar's success is due to sexless fanboys who go to the theater to look at pretty colors and escape their lonely existence, we are going to get more and more films that cater to the stereotype and not to the elements that really appeal to fans of the genre.