Now that it's been essentially confirmed there will be at least one sequel (though in all honesty I'd go as far as to say calling a trilogy is safe), the situation to me begs the question: Can Avatar knock Star Wars off its throne?
(Just a friendly notice: these things are, in fact, my opinion only, and should not be treated as anything more, so if anyone feels the need to fly off the handle, stop, think, and respond rationally, please)
Star Wars has been the de-facto sci-fi trilogy since before I was born ('88). I grew up with it being re-released, and then the prequels came out. "The Matrix" had a possible shot but it completely missed the boat in my eyes. It didn't spawn a whole culture (not just a fan base) the way Star Wars did--not even close.
Given that there is only one "Avatar" so far, I'm hesitant to even suggest the answer might be yes, but here's what I think would have to happen for Avatar to displace Star Wars.
1. Sheer Size
People complaining about "Avatar" being ranked so highly in terms of worldwide gross do have somewhat of a point. I don't have figures, but I'd guess that in terms of seats filled, Avatar is behind some other films such as Star Wars and LOTR. The gross is inflated by 3D ticket prices. I'd like to see seats sold, for the sake of this discussion (not to detract from how well Avatar has done). However, if Avatar is to displace Star Wars, it must be competitive in the number of unique viewers it puts in the theater.
Are We There Yet?
No. But I'd say Avatar is well on the way, it has a strong word-of-mouth advertising campaign that most marketers only dream of. If this keeps up with the sequels, that's one shot across the ISD George Lucas.
2. Staying Power
Star Wars was a lot of fancy effects for its day. People said it would flop at the box office, and I'm guessing the same accusations were leveled against Star Wars (all flash, no bang) as are being directed at Avatar. If the "Avatar Trilogy" wants to knock down Star Wars, then it will have to prove that people will keep coming back to see more, since by then the "new shiny fancy" from CGI/3D will have worn off (from Avatar itself introducing them).
Are We There Yet?
No way to tell until Avatar II & III come out. So long as Cameron avoids any epic plot fails (since that was already the "weak point") people should come back, but as soon as there's an impression that "Avatar II is even more cliche than Avatar" the game's over.
3. Spawning a Culture
Star Wars reached into society in a way few movies have done. Just look at all the spin-offs, most of them (from the original trilogy at any rate) were very popular. Star Wars toys are classics (I have a few of my own), there have been umpteen zillion video games produced (some good, some bad, but they appeared on almost every platform), there is practically a "Star Wars" version of everything for heaven's sake.
Are We There Yet?
Definitely not, but looking from the same vantage point right after "A New Hope" was released, you'd see the same level of uncertainty.
Other Similarities I've Noticed
- Criticism of Star Wars IV is similar to the reaction to Avatar. Key points include calling the film an "out of body experience" (comparable to the immersion in Avatar) and being noted for "action and special effects [that] are first rate." Star Wars was panned for being less inventive than previous Lucas works, having cardboard characters and being a bunch of "cinematic gimmicks." Star Wars was even accused of taking Hollywood away from the "sophisticated" diet of New Hollywood and European films it had been on in the '70s and steering it toward big-budget special-effects laden films. It's interesting to note that every time some major advance in SFX is made, someone inevitably claims this new effect will ruin cinema.
- Whether the film was supposed to become a set of three was not set in stone and was really shaped afterward. I'm sure Cameron had a trilogy in mind, but he did say something to the effect of "We'll make more if this doesn't bomb."
- The film was a massive bet with odds against. Star Wars was supposed to be an expensive embarrassment too.
- Lack of known star power: Lucas caught heat from his studio for "his refusal to cast big-name stars" (Star Wars on Wikipedia). Cameron didn't face heat, I'm sure, since he's James Cameron, but he didn't put any big names in the pot (though I'm aware of the Matt-Damon-as-Jake-Sully that never was).
- Inspired by (or ripped off of) many previous film and literary works. Star Wars borrowed from (or stole, again all depends on opinion) so many other items that there is a Wikipedia article solely for Star Wars sources and analogues. I don't see that many with Avatar yet, but Star Wars has had 30 years to be picked apart--Avatar just happened.
There are some aspects of Avatar that are unique to it, at least compared to Star Wars. This sort of internet community in which fans gather couldn't exist then. Star Wars also lacked (for its time) much political punch. Although Lucas himself stated he modeled some aspects of the film off of history, there wasn't a huge political firestorm. Nor did the "all-powerful Force" cause the Vatican to pitch a fit (that I'm aware of), though it must be conceded that Eywa and the Force aren't directly comparable since the Force is not a single entity which can be treated as a goddess while Eywa is.
Thoughts? Feel free to add, call me a "skxawng" or whatever...