Before I do anything else here, I want to state for the record that I think James Cameron is a genius. I think he is unquestionably one of the most innovative and important filmmakers in cinematic history, and his influence is clear to anyone who has paid attention to cinema over the last four decades. Also, while he might not be the world’s best writer, his understanding of storytelling, his work as a director and producer, and the way he brings out the best in those who work with him, cement his status as one of the all-time greats.
The man is simply a remarkable talent and even if you are not a fan of his two most recent films, to suggest that he isn’t brilliant is a personal thing that has no basis in reality.
I say all this because of what Cameron said last week about how he might not direct the next couple of Avatar movies. I think he was expecting the news to be met with a bit more fanfare rather than with the universal yawn that it garnered. The thing is, despite Cameron’s particular brand of acumen, I fear he has lost his grip on the current cinematic reality that faces him.
I understand the notion of becoming obsessed with a story and a world you’ve created. Establishing something that is so much fun to inhabit, with characters you love like your own children and more and more stories you want to tell there? Sure, that makes all kinds of sense. But to essentially put your career on hold while you chase this obsession, thus losing the connection to the audience you have established better than perhaps any other filmmaker ever? That seems excessive.
You think I’m being hyperbolic about his connection to audiences? I will remind you that Cameron’s last two movies, 1997’s Titanic and 2009’s Avatar, were each the highest-grossing movies of all time upon their respective release. Avatar, with more than $2.8 billion in worldwide grosses, is still number one, while Titanic’s $2.2 billion is number three, though if you extrapolate 1997 dollars to 2009, its numbers actually beat Avatar’s, and the movie about the sinking ship floats to the top of the list. Either way, Cameron is an unrivaled showman, and though he has only made eight films compared to Steven Spielberg‘s 37 films, which have collectively grossed more money, it’s Cameron who can hit the ball further, so to speak.
His ninth movie, Avatar: The Way of Water, finally hits theaters in December, and it’s the next step of that obsession I mentioned two paragraphs above. The sequel was originally supposed to be in theaters eight years ago, and then five years ago, then two years ago, and now, at last, it will be on screens in just a few more months, Disney assures. That’s great, and I’m sure the Avatar sequel will be a glorious spectacle that utilizes brand new technology that showcases underwater filming and will blow us all away with how it looks, even if the story itself is a bit pedestrian and straightforward.
And while The Way of Water is certain to make an enormous amount of money, soaring past a billion dollars worldwide and maybe even a half-billion domestically, I think it’s a bit foolhardy to believe that audiences are going to respond to this film the way they did the first one 13 years ago. For starters, as spectacular as the sequel’s underwater scenes might be, the theatergoing audience is just far savvier than it was then, and we’ve seen so much in the way of computer-generated visuals and technological advances that we’re just not as knocked out by this kind of thing anymore.
Recall, if you will, that at the time of Avatar’s initial release in December 2009, there had been exactly two Marvel movies and we were more than a decade past the last visit anyone had made to Jurassic Park. Whereas Cameron used to be on the vanguard of such advances — The Terminator, The Abyss, T2: Judgment Day, and Titanic were all groundbreaking in their uses of technology to tell their stories — his time spent on Pandora has allowed the rest of the cinematic world to catch up to him, if not leave him behind. Even if we are amazed by what he shows us in Way of Water, it won’t have quite the same impact that the visuals of the first film did, because we’ve seen too much technical wizardry in the years since.
So while I am interested in seeing the new Avatar film, I can tell you that the collective yawn that greeted the grand release of the movie’s trailer — which did garner 150 million views in its first 24 hours online, according to my editor — does not bode well for the notion of any more box office records being broken. It’s also why I think people are not terribly worked up about the concept of someone else helming any further Pandoran adventures — not just because they’re lukewarm at best about the prospects of spending more time on that planet, but also because, well… we’re not 100 percent sure that Disney is going to give us any more of them beyond Cameron’s trilogy.
Don’t forget that 20th Century Fox was Cameron’s home studio for years, and was behind each of his last two mega hits, but then Disney bought that studio a few years ago, meaning he’s under the auspices of the Mouse House now, and there’s a genuine question about whether or not Disney is going to want to spend the several hundred million dollars it will cost to make two more of these suckers. The new movie might actually have to break two billion to guarantee that will happen.
The fact of the matter is that Cameron has been gone too long. Yes, I know that it’s only a year longer than he spent between Titanic and the first Avatar, but the difference is a pretty big one. With the first Avatar movie, spectacle was part of the appeal. It was long before we had become collectively inured to it all.
I know there’s also the question of Tom Cruise and how Top Gun: Maverick has become the star’s biggest hit of his career even though it came out more than 35 years after the first film, but that’s a completely different kind of fruit. Cruise had spent the intervening years building himself into the biggest movie star in the world — and arguably the only real one left — while wowing audiences with actual physical stunts and death-defying acts that wowed us in a way that the computer-generated kind just cannot do anymore. Seriously, what I saw him do in the last two Mission: Impossible flicks surpasses just about any CGI of any kind I’ve ever seen. On top of that, one could argue that the best movies of his career are the ones he’s given us over the last dozen or so years.
In that time, where has Cameron been? After 12 years of articles, we certainly know, and in a few months we’ll finally find out if that time investment was worth it. I’m excited about a new James Cameron film. I really, truly am. But I’d be a lot more excited if he told a story that took place here on Earth. Judging by how people are talking about the new Avatar flick, I think that goes for most of us, too.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for nearly 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.