Greenlighting three Avatar sequels is a mistake

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James Cameron is now working on not two, but three new Avatar movies, to be filmed as one production and released once a year. But do enough people even want to see them?

Questioning the wisdom of sequels to the all-time biggest-grossing movie may seem naive, especially when sequels to far less successful films get made without hesitation. But I think Fox and Cameron are the naive ones here, because cultural cachet is the better indicator of how well these particular films will be received.

By the time the first sequel comes out in December 2016, seven years will have passed since Avatar. Kids who saw it as they were leaving primary school will be starting university, and adults would have needed to form a serious bond with the film to stay excited for seven years. We’ve formed such bonds with the Avengers series, the Dark Knight movies, the Daniel Craig Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and TV shows like Game of Thrones. They have all stayed in the cultural conversation more or less constantly, and all but Game of Thrones started before Avatar came out. Granted, they’ve maintained momentum with continuing installments, but they’ve all been more and more successful rather than strung along to comparable or middling returns.

Avatar has had no such test, but its complete absence in discussions of film and pop culture is more telling anyway, from film buff discussion to chats in the lunch room. I don’t think it’s rash to conclude that there’s hardly a groundswell of adoration for this movie. Our feelings for it have diminished rather than grown.

Trying to definitively pin down popular opinion is a mug’s game, of course, but if you pay attention to media you get a bead on how deeply a film has resonated. Fandoms are easy to spot, and the enthusiasm of the general public tends to be as well.  Avatar hasn’t mustered much of either in any enduring sense. The bland characters, derivative story, and beautifully rendered but not terribly distinctive world meant Avatar was a gorgeous flash-in-the-pan, a spectacular event film that we needed to see at the time to find out what the fuss was about. But once we had, a lot of us never thought to watch it again. Repeat viewings aren’t nearly as entertaining as mainstays like The Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones.

Do we speculate about what else might be on Pandora? Is there a single Jake Sully/Neytiri ‘shipper out there? Does it come up in off-hand references in the most unrelated of news stories, as Star Wars or Game of Thrones do? Even JJ Abrams’s Star Trek, whose sequel didn’t make much more than the first and still hasn’t broken even, has been talked about more than Avatar, and it also had to overcome the franchise’s nerdy, negative stigma. Such a massively successful movie is conspicious by its cultural absence.

But given that success, one sequel makes sense commercially. Test the waters to see whether Avatar can endure like Star Wars or the Tolkien films have, or whether it’s going to underperform like Wrath of the Titans and be promptly forgotten. But greenlighting three at once, even if it amortises costs, seems mad. It assumes that our level of interest in a property never changes, and that our desire to see Avatar in 2009 automatically generates a hunger for more that continues unabated for seven more years.

Fox have no doubt done market research into interest in a sequel, and Avatar‘s huge success internationally may mean there’s a much bigger fanbase out there that isn’t represented in English-speaking media. This may also be the rare science fiction film that’s more popular with the general public than geeks. Factor in the increasing importance of international box office – with talk that it may single-handedly give Pacific Rim a sequel – and this greenlight may be far more sensible than it appears.

And betting against James Cameron can be a mistake. Both Titanic and Avatar not only overcame underwhelming buzz, they each overperformed ridiculously to become the highest-grossing film of all time (not accounting for inflation – sigh) and either won or came close to winning the Oscar for Best Picture. (Interestingly, Titanic has also largely left the cultural conversation, but perhaps the only reason we haven’t seen a sequel is that we’d all reject it as insane.)

Compounding the problem is that the first film concluded the story so decisively. At the time, a blockbuster that didn’t scream ‘sequel’ at the end was refreshing. I figured Cameron was using his clout to make a one-and-done movie and then move on to Battle Angel. Although the evil corporation could return to mess with the Na’vi some more, the ending wasn’t the equivalent of Neo in the phone box at the end of The Matrix, warning the machines that their time was coming. That ending could have been sufficient as it completes Neo’s arc and his astounding capabilities may finally turn the tables. Nonetheless, a sequel was also logical and that ending implied a bigger scope. Avatar left no such avenues open for itself. The Na’vi not only won the battle, but booted the evil corporation off Pandora. Plus, Jake Sully’s arc was so complete that his journey of transformation ends with him literally discarding his body in favour of his avatar. Sure, we can resent blockbusters now habitually setting up a sequel, but reverse engineering one from a concluded story is even more dubious. Avatar 2 feels like The Hangover Part II of genre sequels.

What’s most sad about this is that Cameron has the resources and power to make any film he wants on any scale he wants. Although Avatar shook my faith somewhat, he’s still made enough fantastically entertaining and energetic movies that the prospect of him tackling a variety of projects is still enticing. He didn’t return with seemingly no clue how to write a script or direct actors, as George Lucas did in 1999.

But instead he’s spending many years on three more films in a universe that already feels played out. That’s not a diss on the universe itself – it just didn’t seem built for further exploration. Exploring Pandora’s oceans, as Cameron’s been saying? Sure, I guess. But if that just means more creatures and slightly different organic biotech, is it really worth the effort?

Cameron’s laudable environmental activism is one of the reasons Avatar means so much to him, and he may believe he can have greater influence as a filmmaker than as a public figure. Spending his time on multiple pro-environment films than several single films that don’t provide so apt a vehicle for pressing contemporary issues he’s passionate about may oddly feel more meaningful, particularly as he gets older. If that passion has only escalated and he sees a chance to present it even more prominently in the sequels, his decision makes more sense.

But regardless, I frankly don’t think enough people will want to see more of Avatar. I think Fox are going to have egg on their faces. Sure, with the R+D costs covered by the first film, the sequels may individually be less expensive (unheard of as that is in Hollywood) and won’t need to beat the previous film’s box office to turn a profit. But they’ll still be damn expensive, and there’s a real chance that by the time they come out they’ll be treated as a joke: the sequels no-one asked for. I can see Jon Stewart and a hundred webcomics mocking their ignorant hubris.

These films have an upward battle in getting the public to accept their existence, and that resolve may pay off creatively. But it’s hard to imagine that a three-film project from James Cameron and Fox would ever think of itself as an underdog. So come December 2016, they’re either going to get a rude awakening, or skeptics are going to be shocked at the silent majority of Avatar fans happily lining up to see it. They may not be in costume or have been blogging about Avatar, but they loved it more than we could have ever thought.

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2 thoughts on “Greenlighting three Avatar sequels is a mistake

  1. Jo says:

    I agree with this totally, Jack. I can’t remember the last time I even heard Avatar being mentioned and at the time of watching the movie, I remember being impressed by how visually beautiful it was, but I was left pretty cold by the story itself. In fact, I’d pretty much forgotten how it ended until I read your article.

    As you noted, James Cameron could make any film he wants at this point in his career. I’m not sure the Avatar franchise is the best way to promote his pro-environmental beliefs. As I type this, I have just recalled what I didn’t enjoy about Avatar……it was preachy. As a character on 30 Rock said, “I kind of found myself rooting for our boys in uniform, not those blue hippies.” I don’t think my reaction was quite that extreme, but there was some inner eye-rolling at the heavy handedness of the ‘message’.

    • remotewanderings says:

      It’s nice to have a blockbuster that’s so resolutely pro-nature, so I can forgive some of the preachiness. But of all the movies when James Cameron’s edge and visceral qualities were needed, it was this one, given he was tackling a somewhat controversial topic. His movies have become progressively more beautiful and less provocative.

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