This Day In History: December 16

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December 16, 2009 sees the U.S. premiere of the blockbuster science fiction film Avatar. One of the most expensive films ever made, it was also one of the most successful, holding the title of highest-grossing film of all time for nearly a decade.

Director James Cameron was no stranger to massive, ambitious projects, having achieved acclaim and enormous box office success with films like The Terminator and Titanic. A lifelong science fiction fan, he wrote a treatment for Avatar in 1994 but delayed the project because he felt the technology required did not yet exist. Finally, in 2006, the project began to take shape.

Avatar is the story of a human soldier who takes an alien form in order to explore and infiltrate the Na’vi race of the planet Pandora, which humans intend to exploit for its natural resources. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—one of its major influences—Avatar is an action-adventure movie with heavy environmentalist and anti-imperialist overtones. Cameron stated that, in addition to warning about environmental degradation, the film was also a critique of the Iraq War, then in its sixth year.

The film made use—in many cases, the first use—of a number of advances in motion-capture technology and computer-generated imagery. Over 900 people worked on the digital effects, and the film officially cost $237 million, although there is speculation that the actual budget ran as high as $310 million. Avatar was not the first major 3D movie, but it contributed greatly to the mainstream release of films in 3D.

Avatar, which opened widely in U.S. theaters on December 18, was an immediate hit, supplanting Titanic as the new highest-grossing film of all time. Reviews were largely positive, although some felt the film was heavy-handed or derivative of other stories, most obviously Pocahontas. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects. Though many of its innovations are commonplace or even outdated today, Avatar is remembered for ushering in a new age of CGI-heavy blockbusters. It was one such film, Avengers: Endgame, which finally surpassed Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time in April of 2019. A sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, set more than a decade after the events of the first film, was released in December 2022.