Film discussion

Looking back at… James Cameron’s Avatar

Sometimes the realisation that Avatar is nearly 10 years of age seems unreal. Upon its premiere in Christmas of 2009, the hype and expectations were high, but the knives were also out; James Cameron was making his return to science fiction after a 12-year hiatus from big budget blockbusters.

Not that he hadn’t been busy in those intervening years. There had been documentaries such as Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens to the Deep that were produced using state of the art IMAX cameras, while on television there had been Dark Angel, a science fiction series that launched the career of Jessica Alba; and was a solid hit for its first season before ratings took a nosedive in the second. Cameron himself had directed its finale, but it wasn’t enough to save it from the axe at the Fox Network.

He had been linked to bringing Spider-Man to the big screen, going so far as to write a treatment for a potential film that had been received enthusiastically by all, as well as the possibility of Terminator 3 which would push ahead without him under the eyes producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and director Jonathan Mostow.

READ MORE: Alita: Battle Angel – Review

For a director who had wowed blockbuster-sized audiences with his visions and storytelling – not to mention having us cry into our popcorn over a Terminator learning why humans cry and having us debate heavily for two decades if Leonardo DiCaprio could have fitted onto that large piece of wood with Kate Winslet – the decade-long gap between Titanic and Avatar felt depressingly long.

Having just had the greatest success of his career, joining the pantheon of directors such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in crafting not only great entertainment but rewriting the rules on how to craft big budget entertainment, it appeared that the auteur behind the biggest film of all time had run out of things to say.

Come the mid-2000s and the word started to circulate that Cameron was preparing a new film, waiting until technology had caught up with what it was he wanted to achieve. Of the the two films he had been eyeing up, one was a live action Manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel, and the other a creation of his own, Avatar.

In the end, it would be Avatar that would signal the return of Cameron. As with Titanic, the rules were about to change, budgets would rise, the knives would be out and disaster was expected. With Cameron being Cameron and Avatar being his first film during the height of the internet age (Titanic had come out in 1997 just when Hollywood was really starting to use the world-wide-web as a promotional tool), many were excited and hyped for the director’s return to science fiction filmmaking, his first since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

READ MORE: James Cameron retrospectives

Filmed in 3D and utilising motion capture technology the likes of which had been instrumental in bringing Andy Serkis’ performances in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong to life, Avatar arrived on screens as an incredibly modern film. But with its world being that of Pandora and its characters being the 10-foot tall, blue-skinned aliens called the Navi, and a storyline involving Sam Worthington’s character, Jake Sully, joining their ranks to save them from the onslaught of a US Marine invasion, unflattering comparisons were instantly made to The Smurfs, Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves. The term ‘Dances with Smurfs’ was frequently bandied about prior to its release.

Admittedly Avatar is Cameron’s most derivative film with a narrative that is somewhat old-fashioned. Its story utilises the tropes that could fall into the trap of ‘White Saviour Complex’; the white man who joins an indigenous tribe (in this case using an avatar, as of the title) to turn himself into one of them, initially to be against them, but falling in love with one of them and their culture and fighting with them come to the end of the story.

Except, it was hard not to be swept along by the film’s grand world building, Cameron’s vision, the visuals of the film, James Horner‘s sweeping gorgeous score (sadly the last score he would compose for a Cameron film), not to mention that the film is effectively a mini-Aliens reunion as Sigourney Weaver was a part of the cast.

It would be how the story was produced that would make it incredibly modern; the use of motion capture technology to bring characters such as Jake’s avatar and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, putting in the film’s best performance) to life, to the creation of Pandora itself, not to mention the use of 3D.

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The film’s debut at Christmas 2009 would see the backlash give way to the biggest box office success in movie history, in a repeat of Christmas 1997; a James Cameron film, expected to a disastrous folly, became a success the likes of which critics and box office analysts would study for the next few months, before going on to achieve a plethora of award nominations. It seemed the only person in Hollywood capable of besting James Cameron was, in fact, James Cameron.

Even the use of 3D appeared to mark a game changer. Many films about to go into production opted to use the filmmaking technology that Cameron utilised; there were a few films that used the format prior to Avatar, but it appeared as if Cameron’s film was about to give the format a sense of legitimacy that would make it an actual filmmaking tool. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Ridley Scott’s semi-Alien prequel Prometheus would all be filmed in the format, although others would convert to the format in post-production, like Wrath of the Titans, and look awful as a result causing somewhat of a backlash almost instantly.

However, during the Christmas season of 2009, audiences couldn’t get enough of the immersive 3D format and would, like with Titanic, go and see the film again and again; only this time not for the love story but because of the world.

Then, the backlash struck again.

Ten years is a lifetime in Hollywood. Despite the film’s success, the first to break the billion-dollar barrier after Titanic and then subsequently the first to break the two billion dollar mark, ten years after its release, with Cameron constantly talking up sequels that have taken forever to make and aren’t going to see the light of day until eleven years after the release of the first film, Avatar and Cameron have become pariahs yet again as Hollywood has turned ever more to comic book movies and universe building mega franchises with little or no consideration to originality.

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Avatar came out in a world that had seen only two instalments of something that was set to be referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not to mention the incredible success of The Dark Knight. Comic book movies were seen more as a side genre and usually slid into the category of either science fiction or action film. They weren’t considered a fully fledged genre in their own right yet, but that change of perception was about to happen in a very big way.

The sequels had been originally marked for release in 2014 and 2015, completing a trilogy and giving Cameron his own franchise and ongoing story arc that had been denied him from not having the rights to the Terminator franchise, which had just released its fourth instalment that year to mixed box office and reviews. Ironically it had given audiences their first experience of Avatar’s lead actor, Sam Worthington, with no input from Cameron himself, as had been the case with the 2003’s Rise of the Machines.

Of course, those Avatar sequels never arrived, and it seemed with each passing interview Cameron gave about the in-development sequels, they gained another entry and before we knew it there was the talk of a fourth film and then a fifth, with the release date being pushed back another year and then another year.

Any news of the sequels themselves are usually greeted with antagonist and negativity, no doubt spurned on and not helped by Cameron’s criticisms of the current state of blockbuster cinema, the plethora of comic book movies, and targeted criticism of The Avengers movies and Wonder Woman.

READ MORE: Ring – 20th Anniversary Review

Although Cameron’s criticism of Wonder Woman did seem a little bitter and unfair, especially his targeted critique of how she was, in his words, “an objectified icon”, the knives being out for the Avatar sequels has the feeling of deja-vu and while Cameron has been discounted and written off now for the last two films he has done, there is the notion that he may prove everyone wrong yet again, and yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Avatar sequels are arriving in a different commercial climate than the first film had been released to.

Sequels and comic book movies were around in 2009, make no mistake of that, but now constant reboots and a film with a character who is a superhero or wears a cape, dominate the box offices of the world. While Avatar 2 and 3 aren’t original and fall into the remit of “sequel to a box office smash” there is the danger that Cameron has waited too long to take those audiences who clamoured to live in the world of Pandora back to the world they fell in love with.

Talk of the second film being set in Pandora’s oceans are exciting, as is the idea of Cameron giving audiences an underwater alien world on a par with that of the final act of The Abyss, and while nobody should ever write him off, and both his last two films were expected to be greeted with hostility before changing the entire rulebook, one cannot help but be a little concerned for the world that the Avatar sequels are arriving in, not to mention that the 3-D format that helped the movie feel as immersive as it did has slowly died away and is nowhere near as dominant in our multiplexes as they were for several years after Avatar’s release.

In the last decade, we’ve seen Iron Man, of all films, paving the way for a twenty-two film franchise that is showing no signs of losing steam, the return of Star Wars, and its first film back very nearly taking Avatar down from the top of the box office pack, and Aquaman, a film that Cameron directed in a running joke on Entourage, break over a billion dollars without breaking a sweat.

As for Avatar, while it has become fashionable to knock the film a decade on, the truth is, for this reviewer at least, the film is still an incredibly enjoyable one. While Cameron’s return to science fiction filmmaking was a more family-friendly one, with little of the brutality of The Terminator, Terminator 2 or Aliens, or even some of the grit of his previous PG-13 genre entry The Abyss, and owed a heavy debt to things like Dances with Wolves with a narrative that was more derivative than original, the film, unlike a lot of others that relied on 3-D at the time, still works on a entertainment level.

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There is still care to the world-building, storytelling and characters here that are the hallmarks of a Cameron crafted film, and when the film unleashes its final set piece, it’s hard not to be wowed or engaged by the onslaught of the visuals or care for the characters.

It’s best never to write Cameron off, that is clear after the success of this and Titanic, and it will be interesting to see if audiences will flock to Pandora again in an era where Marvel, Star Wars and DC Comics dominate our box office charts and multiplexes. Regardless of what happens, it will be interesting to see and there’s a part of me, the part that loves The Terminator, T2 and The Abyss, the one who watches Titanic once a year and who actually really likes Avatar, that would love to see Cameron prove everyone wrong yet again. Even if he was wrong about Wonder Woman.

It’s just hard to shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the odds are more stacked against him than ever.

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