It Might Just Be Me, But I’m Excited for the ‘Avatar’ Sequels

Production began last week on James Cameron’s very-long-in-gestation sequels to Avatar.  At the same time, Fox announced last week that the four (Four!) sequels to the biggest international hit of all time will cost $1 billion to produce.  The film world seemed to gasp a bit at the price tag, but $250 million per film isn’t all that unheard of when it comes to giant films like this, and Cameron will no doubt be doing what he always does and push the limitations of what’s possible on film.  Titanic cost $200 million to make, and that was 20 years ago.  Adjusted for inflation, Titanic would cost $305 million to make today.  Rumors at the time suggested the first Avatar cost $500 million to make because of all of the R & D that went into creating it.  These new Avatar films are a relative bargain by comparison.  The original Avatar made $2.7 billion worldwide.  Even if the interest for the sequels isn’t there and the four new films each make 50% less than the original, you’re still looking at a collective $5.4 billion gross against a $1 billion budget.  Greenlighting this project is the biggest possible no-brainer short of printing your own money.

This announcement has also met with some derision in the film geek community, as it's become popular sport to sneer at Avatar since the film’s release eight years ago.   Yes, people are right when they say Avatar never really seeped into the woodwork of popular culture like Star Wars did years ago.  Eight years later, there is no real foothold for Avatar fans.  There are no major Avatar conventions.  I’d be the first to agree with them that, in many ways, Avatar has dropped from the pop culture radar, even with a Pandora Land opening at Walt Disney World earlier this year.  I’m not suggesting some of their critiques aren’t valid, but are conventions and theme parks how we judge the impact of films now?

I also get that the movie tells a very familiar story.  It’s Pocahontas and John Smith.  It’s Dances with Wolves.  It’s Dennis Lehane’s great novel, The Given Day.  It’s A Man Called Horse.  It’s every story where the outsider comes to identify with the group he’s infiltrated and joins their cause.  But in this case, I would argue it’s the singer and not the song.  Cameron made a three-hour movie with routine plot points you could see coming a mile away into a vastly watchable and truly cinematic experience.  Avatar may have not caught on as strongly, because it was such an underwhelming experience when watched on TV verses viewing it on the big screen.

Maybe all it had was spectacle, but people seem to have forgotten how incredible the spectacle was.  At the time of Avatar’s release, Robert Zemeckis had also been fiddling around with motion capture and released three animated films that utilized the technology with The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol (because the public was just clamoring for another version of A Christmas Carol).  Zemeckis is no slouch himself when it comes to pushing the limits of film tech, but it was startling how much more advanced Cameron’s film was.  Unlike Zemeckis’ dead-eyed humanoids, the Na’vi aliens that populated Pandora had fully escaped the confines of the Uncanny Valley.  They were fully believable, emotive characters.  People seem to have forgotten there was serious talk about Zoe Saldana being nominated for an Oscar.  Avatar was the first of the new 3D films, and Cameron totally knew how to deliver with that technology, as well.  The movie business has pretty much killed the public’s interest in 3D movies by providing a subpar product, but Avatar used 3D with particularly thrilling effect.

Here’s why I’m hopeful:

Cameron is no doubt an incredibly inventive and creative filmmaker.  Very few people can do what he does.  If he’s not telling inventive stories, he’s creating innovative set pieces.  Nothing Cameron does is ever simple or routine.  For me, the Harrier jet sequence at the end of True Lies always comes to mind for its ingenuity, audacity, and sheer showmanship.  Technology has to catch up with his imagination.  Cameron literally made undersea documentaries for over a decade while waiting for the technology to catch up with what he wanted to do with Avatar.  I think it’s fair to say that all of Cameron’s creative energy went into world building Pandora.  Does anybody argue, even detractors of the film, that the world building wasn’t spectacular?  Well, now the world has been built.  The simple introductory story has been told, and James Cameron (James freaking Cameron!) has come up with a story idea that he believes will require four movies to complete.  Shouldn’t that be an exciting proposition?  What if he’s onto something really great?  And hasn’t he earned the benefit of the doubt until he hasn’t?

And what about the new spectacle?  By the time Avatar 2 or whatever it’s going to be called comes out, a decade in technological advances will have taken place.  Jon Favreau’s live-action (People will argue whether “live action” is the correct term for it, but hey, at least the kid was real.) remake of The Jungle Book is a demonstration of what the Avatar tech can do now.  That movie was shot in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, and the jungle environments look lifelike.  I didn’t go to D23 this summer, but Disney screened the opening of Favreau’s new (live-action?) version of The Lion King, and attendees said the footage was simply jaw-dropping; it was the “Circle of Life” opening scene from the cartoon populated by CG animals that looked utterly and completely authentic.  There’s every reason to believe the visual element of the film will be even more immersive.  As a bonus, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang will be back, even though I’m pretty sure they both died in the first movie.  

So, take heart, folks.  James Cameron has a new trick up his sleeve, and I think we’d be foolish to underestimate him.  Remember, people thought the first Avatar was going to be an expensive bomb.  We only have to wait three years to find out.  Avatar 2 (or whatever it’s going to be called) opens December 18, 2020.

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