Tony Black on James Cameron’s ever-expanding Avatar series…
James Cameron just won’t let this go, will he? Having spent the last decade almost in development and finally pre-production on a sequel to Avatar, his 2009 3D science-fiction epic which remains the most lucrative film ever made (only second even to Gone With the Wind, adjusted for inflation) what then expanded to three sequels making up a trilogy has now expanded to four, a quadrilogy, all of which presumably will shoot simultaneously and leave Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and co. effectively locked up for surely a couple of years reacting to green screen (to which Twitter reacted wonderfully, incidentally). Who’s to say Cameron will stop at four? Before now and the start of filming, this could spawn the Avatar Extended Universe the way the self-professed ‘King of the World’ is going. The strange thing about the Avatar sequels is that despite following up on the first film to truly utilise the 3D format, plus it’s towering command over the box office, almost nobody seems to be excited at more extended adventures in the world of Pandora. For a picture which changed the landscape of modern cinema to a degree, the anticipation for more is remarkably lacking, but why? Why aren’t we all chomping at the bit for more films from one of Hollywood’s greatest modern filmmakers?
You have to look at the first Avatar to answer this, and the journey Cameron has taken over the last twenty years. After indulging himself with the modern Bond-esque spy blockbuster True Lies in 1994, Cameron gave us one of the biggest movies ever–and broke the box office for the first time–with Titanic in 1997, which wasn’t just a movie but became a letter of love for a director who has grown increasingly devoted to world building and the consumption of all angles of the movies he makes. Following Titanic he threw himself into exploring everything he could about the wreck, making documentaries such as Ghosts of the Abyss and generally becoming quite obsessed. Cameron was never a highly prolific, ‘film a year’ director but this seemed to mark a seed change in him. He took his longest break ever between Titanic and Avatar for releasing a movie, twelve years, and one of the main reasons is that he decided Avatar wasn’t just going to be a film but rather a brand new mythology. Cameron effectively vanished after taking over the box office and Hollywood with Titanic, retreating into his digital media company Earthship Productions to develop documentaries, before constructing what would become the world of Pandora in Avatar, and the brand new 3D Fusion Camera System technology that would make Avatar a truly groundbreaking, revolutionary movie. Put aside the criticisms about the picture itself, there’s no question Cameron’s film will go down in cinematic history. What’s strange therefore is that the general film going population aren’t clambering for more, and that comes down to what Cameron took his eye off: the story and script.
If you look at Cameron’s career, he’s always been an innovator pushing the boundaries. Aliens was probably only the second major blockbuster sequel after The Empire Strikes Back to elevate the sequel of a great first movie to new heights (citation admittedly needed!), with The Abyss he immersed his crew in gigantic water tanks and almost killed a couple of them in his pursuit of the greater shot, and with Terminator 2: Judgment Day he pioneered the kind of CGI with the T-1000 without which landmark effects films such as Jurassic Park or Independence Day may not have been possible. If you look at all of those pictures however, they have those elements Avatar was sorely lacking: a great script and exciting story. Many have pointed out how the narrative of Avatar–which sees crippled soldier Jake Sully find a new lease of life among the under threat Na’vi aliens on the luscious world of Pandora–bore striking similarities to the classic story of Pocahontas, but that’s become all too easy a negative to stick on Cameron’s film. Plenty of films play as modern versions or reworking of classic stories–the Hulk, for instance, is basically Jekyll & Hyde reborn–but they’re not always worthy of rebuke for doing so. Cameron’s failings with Avatar were ultimately choosing to concentrate so much on the technology, the green screen, the 3D extravaganza (and it is an extravaganza, make no mistake – probably still the best use of the medium almost ten years on), that he lost command of the hackneyed, cheesy script and rote characterisation. That’s where Avatar fails and that’s where, hopefully, Cameron has spent almost another decade learning his lesson.
He may have. Then again, he may not. Evidence exists either way, frankly. He’s brought on writers to assist with the sequels, some of whom have strong pedigree – Josh Friedman (creator of the underrated The Sarah Connor Chronicles) to co-write Avatar 2, husband and wife team Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (who successfully wrote the Planet of the Apes revival movies recently) for Avatar 3, and Shane Salerno (who has been around penning blockbusters since Michael Bay’s Armageddon) for Avatar 4, and who knows who he might be hiring for the just announced Avatar 5. Bringing in external talent could be the key to deepening the characterisation and narrative, and can only be a good thing, especially as it seems Cameron has spent more time conceptualising new areas of Pandora to explore, such as the other moons of Polyphemus, or using submersibles to capture footage in the Mariana Trench (which he was the first person to descent to the bottom of solo, and only the third ever) for the underwater locations he plans to explore in the sequels. The scope and reach, the ambition, of Cameron to deliver more than just a piece of film is admirable, and unmatched; he is a genuine visionary and pioneer, but if Avatar proved anything it’s that you just wish sometimes he would be happy being simply a director, a writer, and concentrate on the elements most of us truly go to see a movie for: not how it looks, but what it says, and how it makes you feel.
What do you think about the now FOUR Avatar sequels James Cameron will deliver between 2018 and 2023? Is it a quadrilogy of sequels too far? Or will Cameron create a truly innovative, visually stunning cinematic universe all of his own? Unless he pushes it back again (as he’s done several times), it’s just 36 months until we begin to find out…
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.