Nearly every single time I saw the news story regarding the Avatar sequels retweeted onto my feed last week, it was accompanied by the exact same message: ‘Who asked for this?’ The most successful film of all time, one that helped pave the path for Hollywood to embrace 3D and the advancement of motion-capture CGI, has left a curiously small cultural footprint in its aftermath. Despite grossing over $2bn, being the first film to ever manage this feat, Avatar didn’t inspire much in the way of fan enthusiasm following its undoubtedly major but shockingly brief moment in the zeitgeist. There’s no Avatar fandom waiting with bated breath for more from this universe, there aren’t thousands of pages of fanfiction developing the world further, and there was little in the way of cross media exploration - no TV spin-off, no array of video games, and so on. Now, you can see a Cirque du Soleil show inspired by the film, and there’s a world of Pandora for Disneyworld fans to check out at Animal Kingdom, including a bar with luminous green beer, but it’s still a movie that feels like a relic of a different era. Even Titanic, James Cameron’s previous billion dollar grossing phenomenon, stuck around longer in people’s minds thanks to a potent mix of Leo Mania, a dedicated female fanbase, and the inescapable Celine Dion earworm. Avatar was a flash in the pan that just so happened to make more money than all the other flashes in the pan.
Obviously, sequels were inevitable, but usually studios rush to capitalise on that first flush of success and get the new films out within the first couple of years. It’s been eight years since the film came out and news of the rest of the franchise has been thin on the ground. Production was supposed to start several times over the years before being pushed back for various reasons. Now, release dates have been set for the next four films in the series, and 21st Century Fox’s Lachlan Murdoch - yes, one of those Murdochs - revealed that the company has allotted more than a billion dollars for this saga. That means they’ll easily become not only the most expensive films ever made but the most costly back-to-back shoot, flying past the $623m budget for Peter Jackson’s overblown Hobbit trilogy.
The film is caught between two strange states of being - the abstract business side that ensures such practices will be a sound financial investment, and the cultural reality where audiences wrestle with their demand, or lack thereof, for what Hollywood is supplying. Looking at how much money Avatar made - over $2.7bn! - it makes total sense that Fox would throw these kinds of resources at Cameron. Remember, this is a man with a scarily good habit of making vast quantities of cash. Before its release, Titanic was written off in the trades as a vanity project, mired in scandal and a troubled production that would sink Cameron’s career according to industry insiders. It seemed like an utterly ridiculous idea to make an epic romance to the backdrop of a major tragedy where hundreds of people died. In retrospect, it’s still kind of barmy that such a thing was ever made, and yet its current box office gross comes in at $2.18bn, helped along by a recent 3D anniversary re-release. People loved Titanic and Cameron proved the doubters wrong again.
Betting against Cameron has always seemed like a loser’s folly, given his impressive box office receipts. He’s also arguably the only major director working today who has the freedom to experiment with evolving cinematic technology on such a scale. It’s one of his greatest calling cards too. Think of the moment in Terminator 2: Judgment Day where the T-1000 emerges from the floor, moulding from liquid metal to human form; or the alien water tentacle in The Abyss; or the sheer shocking grandeur of the Titanic splitting in two. Cameron is a brilliant director of spectacle, and he doesn’t mind waiting for the technology to catch up to him. That’s one of the major things delaying these Avatar sequels.
Cameron’s aims for the sequels are as ambitious as you can imagine - higher frame rates, 3D projection that doesn’t desaturate the colours on-screen, and taking special effects further than ever before. He’s even talked of one day making a 3D film that can be viewed without the need for 3D glasses. All of this would certainly create a must-see spectacle, and that’s probably more important for Cameron and Fox than whether or not people will care about the characters or plot of Avatar. Those elements of storytelling were always intended to be the mere foundation on which Cameron and his effects team could project their marvels. Avatar was less a movie than an event, one that audiences hadn’t experienced before so of course they were going to pay out for the full 3D IMAX experience. Nothing like it had been done before.
But now, amazing effects are the norm, and audiences have less patience for gimmicks. Film fans have grown tired of cheap 3D transfers and increased tickets costs, to the point where IMAX themselves admitted that they planned to cut back on the number of 3D screening due to lack of demand. The issue of higher frame rates is one that’s struggled to translate to an enjoyable viewing experience. It made The Hobbit trilogy an oddly underwhelming visual experience, and the much hyped 120 frames per second rate of Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was criticised by the few people who saw it in its intended form for being nearly impossible to watch. Cameron is the master of cinematic technology but the rest of the industry’s done a pretty good job of keeping up with him since Avatar was released, so getting ahead of the herd once again may prove more difficult than ever.
Ultimately, it probably won’t matter whether or not people actually want a whopping four sequels to Avatar. If James Cameron can make them must-see visual experiences, story or character investment will be redundant, and audiences will flock to see first-hand just how far Cameron can take the technology. They may not revisit the movie on DVD or spend hours talking about it on the internet, but by then the money will already be in the bank, and that doesn’t even include the immense power of the international box office in its current form (want to talk about who wants those sequels? There’s a film that did exceptionally well in China). We may not have asked for Avatar sequels but Cameron knows another thing very well - morbid curiosity will always win the day.