Blue cat people join the billion-dollar box-office blockbusters

Avatar becomes one of five films ever to have earned $1 billion at the box office.

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Surely there has never been as much hyperbole surrounding a film as there has been for James Cameron's science fiction epic Avatar. Apart from having the biggest opening weekend for an original film, it has been acclaimed as the movie that will change cinema forever and the best 3-D movie to date. Amid all the hype and headlines, the story has been all but forgotten. Yes, it might be a well-meaning parable of the wrongs of colonialism, the horrors of war and the destruction of our natural resources, but wow! Check out that explosion! Don't the Na'vi people look realistic? Aren't those helicopters incredible?

Cameron probably won't care that much, but this week his quest to have the story taken seriously was once again hammered into submission by statistics: Avatar has reached the magic $1 billion (Dh3.7bn) in box office takings in record time. It took just 17 days for the film to join The Dark Knight (2008, $1.001bn), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006, $1.066bn) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, $1.119bn) in the small list of films to achieve such incredible success. In fact, at $1.018bn and counting, Avatar has already surpassed The Dark Knight. And, by virtue of still being the must-see film at cinemas around the world, Avatar has a good chance of overtaking Pirates and Lord of the Rings. But it has a long way to go before being the undisputed biggest film of all time. That honour goes to Titanic: the 1997 film took a truly jaw-dropping $1.8bn.

But enough statistics. The director of Titanic was, of course, Cameron. Once again, although he turned the sinking of the ship into a perfectly serviceable love story with classic scenes (who can forget the defining image of Kate Winslet "flying" at the bow of the ship?), people went for the spectacle - the thrill, if you can call it that - of watching Cameron recreate a huge passenger liner sinking desperately into the Atlantic.

Avatar is much the same. It might be a bum-numbing epic (mercifully Avatar is shorter than Titanic, though it's still 162 minutes long), but its sheer escapism is the key to why people will always prefer the cinema to staying at home and waiting for the DVD release. Avatar really does look the part, in a way that few CGI-heavy, motion capture films have been able to match. One that did succeed was The Lord of the Rings, and it's interesting that Cameron only decided he could tell the Avatar story effectively after Peter Jackson turned Gollum into a fully believable CGI character.

Cynics point to all these films being triumphs of marketing over movie making. But, on the whole, this does them a disservice. The Dark Knight was a successful combination of a hotly anticipated follow-up to a tremendous first instalment in a re-imagined Batman series and the posthumous acclaim given to Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. Of the five films to have achieved such box-office success, this is the darkest and most unlikely. The Lord of the Rings was something of a banker but deserved to be so: it was the final part in what had become a magical trilogy. Titanic was the kind of historical, epic love story that many thought had disappeared from movies forever.

Only Pirates of the Caribbean struggles to make a case for itself in this company. It was a truly shocking film, a theme-park ride masquerading as a movie so confused the characters kept having to explain to each other what was happening. And while Titanic and The Lord of the Rings won Best Picture Oscars and Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, Pirates got a few minor technical awards. Just about says it all, doesn't it?

Happily, Avatar delivers on the hype despite essentially being a Dances With Wolves set in 2154. And although it's not the greatest story ever told, Cameron knows what makes box office gold, and he knows how to persuade studios to finance it. Let's not forget: it might be the fourth-highest grossing film of all time, but it was also the fourth most expensive film of all time to make. So perhaps Cameron won't be cursing the emphasis on the technological bombast of Avatar after all. He'll probably be breathing a sigh of relief that, after $250 million was spent to make it, Avatar wasn't a Waterworld-style flop.