Over the past couple of weeks, director James Cameron has been out on the publicity trail, promoting the remastered 3-D blu-ray release of his classic 1998 film Titanic, and unsurprisingly talk has turned to his progress regarding the development of his two, possibly three, Avatar sequels. While it’s true that a significant backlash has built up over the past 15 years, the legacy of Titanic endures in the hearts of many; however the same could seemingly not be said for Avatar, the most financially successful film of all time.
Despite a respectable reception from critics (as well as its unprecedented box-office success), Cameron’s environmental opus quickly fell victim to the vitriolic blogosphere, dismissed by many as little more than a didactic and derivative spectacle. Given Cameron’s recent appearances, the ire of the internet has been raised again as many have jumped on the anti-Avatar bandwagon, lobbing complaints at the sequels before writing has even been completed.
This type of early judgement is nothing new in the online world, however it is reaching obscene levels. The films are two years away at the absolute earliest, yet anonymous pundits are already decrying their inevitable failure. While I personally wouldn’t consider Avatar to be amongst Cameron’s best work, I simply refuse to put any stock in what faceless haters may claim about films they cannot possibly have any knowledge of, but instead offer up a more optimistic viewpoint.
Nothing I might write here is based on any kind of knowledge of what Cameron is cooking up for the world of Pandora. I know nothing more than anyone else at this point. This is purely theoretical musing, taking what I know of Avatar, and, more importantly, Cameron’s career as a whole. And that’s the whole point. I hadn’t read anything hopeful about the prospects for Avatar 2 & 3, so I figured I should come up with something myself.
So why should I (or anyone) be optimistic about the future of Avatar? After recently sitting down and taking another look at some of Cameron’s work, I was reminded of something that many seem to have forgotten: the man gave us two of the finest sequels ever made. Whether continuing a series started by another film-maker (Aliens), or a story of his own (the Terminator films), Cameron managed to take hold of what made the first entries great and expand everything, adding more depth and thematic richness to characters and story years before he would try to do the same with visuals. This is why I’m excited for Avatar: once he has an established idea, Cameron is uniquely unafraid to take it to the absolute limit.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Cameron’s Aliens is better than Ridley Scott’s Alien, although it is a close one. The two films are about as different as any consecutive sequels that I can think of, so much so that the debate over which is superior is more or less redundant. What Cameron was able to do however was take the bones of Scott’s moody and pensive original and reanimate them as an action-packed juggernaut, and by seeing the potential in the Ellen Ripley character, develop her into the tough-as-nails heroine that we all remember. Some may see it as a controversial claim, but Cameron is unquestionably more responsible for the Ripley that audiences love than Scott.
In Alien, Ripley is an evolved version of the final girl trope seen in many horror films, certainly more independent and strong-willed than most, but still a narrative device as much as a fully fleshed-out character. With Aliens, Cameron maintained the strength and determination, yet introduced so much more. Ripley, emotionally wounded after learning her own daughter has grown to old-age and passed away during the 57 years she drifted in space, has a reason to fight beyond her own survival instinct, as Newt becomes a surrogate for the child she lost. While arguably a manipulative move, the introduction of a Newt upped the stakes from the basic haunted house structure of Scott’s original film, showing a powerful maternal side to Ripley’s character and adding much more weight than might be expected from an action-heavy film such as this.
Never claiming to be anything other than a populist film-maker, the director also deftly tapped into audience fears and sympathies, showing a rare understanding of his audience. At a time when multiplexes were filled with testosterone-fueled action fare (some of which Cameron himself had a hand in) and repetitive slasher movies, Aliens gave pumped-up, macho male audience members something to truly fear in the terrifying alien queen, a symbol of unrestrained feminine maternalism. If Ripley embodies the acceptable, culturally validated version of motherhood, the queen is a purely primal animal monstrosity, spawning wave after wave of enslaved offspring, all powerful and unencumbered by any semblance of patriarchal oppression. The significance of the final battle, in which the two poles of motherhood clash in brutal hand-to-hand fashion, allows Ripley to defeat the monstrous side of maternity, returning equilibrium for audiences yet still maintaining a potent feminist individualism. For Cameron and Sigourney Weaver to craft such a layered and unique character went against the Hollywood grain, and Ripley remains the film’s greatest asset, something we can thank Cameron for.
The Terminator, Cameron’s break-out picture, doesn’t really hold up as well as many people seem to think. Famously conceived following a nightmare involving a robot walking out of an inferno, the film works best when embracing its exploitation core, but gets bogged down about two-thirds of the way in, only to salvage a tense and memorable conclusion. This is clearly the work of a man who, confident in his idea, saw a chance to announce himself in a big way. Exploding out of the gate, Cameron moves the film at breakneck pace, so much so that the later, tender moments between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese don’t deliver the emotional hit they should, but grind the film to an unnecessary halt. However, the central conceit of a cyborg assassin sent back through time remains powerful, aided by the inspired casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ground-breaking effects work of Stan Winston (a collaboration that would continue right up until Avatar).
If Aliens is Cameron’s motherhood film, then Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an interesting companion piece about fathers. Taking another early idea ripe with potential and expanding it, T2 saw the film-maker raise the bar on visual effects once again, with revolutionary use of CGI which to this day looks as good as or better than many modern blockbusters. The effects, excellent as they are, are essentially audience bait however, with the real rewards from the film coming from the story, most notably the relationship between John Connor and the terminator. John, having grown up in numerous foster homes and never experiencing the feeling of security a father can offer, latches on to the machine’s ceaseless protective nature, whilst taking on an oddly paternal role himself, teaching the T-800 the value of human compassion and empathy. Schwarzenegger excels in the role he was born to play, yet it is Cameron who masterfully interweaves the thoughtful and philosophical themes with the complex special effects. Allowing audiences to not only distance their feelings from the terrifying T-800 of The Terminator, but to cheer for, even cry over, the tragic story of a machine (over a decade before Pixar’s Wall-E did the same), is a Herculean task that Cameron pulled off with panache.
So where does Avatar fit into all of this? I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that once he has an established idea to work with, history would suggest that Cameron delivers his best. Alien and The Terminator introduced us to concepts and characters, allowing Cameron’s sequels to branch out beyond their predecessors’ comparatively limited scope. Even with Titanic he was working with a story audiences were already familiar with, and simply placed a highly relatable Romeo and Juliet story on top. With Avatar, for better or worse the story perhaps wasn’t the most important part of the film, which seems to be the biggest complaint.
I’ll agree that the narrative of Avatar isn’t the most original writing of Cameron’s career. We’ve seen the same type of story countless times, with some of the most common comparisons being to films like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Re-watching the film as I thought about writing this however led me to the belief that Cameron very deliberately gave us the most familiar story he could in order to ease the acceptance of the many other unfamiliar aspects of the film. Avatar‘s stunning technical achievements, most notably the huge volume of performance capture/CG character content coupled with the heavy promotion of 3-D, were for the majority of audiences unknown territory. Therefore, in order for audiences to be able to process the state-of-the-art visuals fully, the story unfortunately suffered. I’m not sure that this approach worked all that well in terms of artistic value (as I said earlier, the film didn’t really work for me), but it seems to me that this was the approach Cameron decided to take, and the massive success of the film is clear evidence that the man knows how to please a mainstream audience.
Think of Avatar as a hugely elaborate and expensive test reel. In 2009, 3-D and performance capture were still relatively new, at least in their current incarnations. In 2012, they are a much more common and widely accepted facet of blockbuster film-making. With the proposed Avatar sequels, Cameron doesn’t have to concern himself with how audiences will respond to the technological advancements he was largely responsible for introducing.
And (finally!), this is why I’m choosing to be hopeful about the future of this film series. Cameron’s track record with sequels is stellar, and now that the world of Avatar is established, not to mention the method of presentation, nothing would make me happier than to see him dive deep into the mythology of Pandora and the Na’vi, and show the world that he hasn’t lost his knack for creating thoughtful and thematically rich blockbuster entertainment. Will he do it? Obviously I’m in no position to say, but at this stage no-one else is either. All I’m saying is that the potential is there. Whatever your thoughts on the first film, it’s far too early to give up on Avatar.