Thirteen years ago, the original Avatar hit theatre screens alongside a tsunami of media hype about its budget and groundbreaking special effects. James Cameron’s previous blockbusters, Terminator 2, True Lies, and Titanic, all had required studio executives to strap in for white-knuckle financial adventures. But Avatar’s$237 million budget ($479 million when adjusted for inflation, with marketing and promotion included; all figures US) set a new record. The cost was so steep, in fact, that Fox, Cameron’s longtime collaborator, initially passed on the movie. (By the director’s account, a studio executive also asked Cameron, evidently without success, to “get the kind of tree-hugging hippie bullshit out of it.”)
The high price tag reflected the fact that the technology required to shoot the first Avatar the way Cameron imagined it didn’t yet exist. And so he wasn’t just out to make a new movie; he was out to make a new way to make movies. With New Zealand-based digital-effects company Weta Digital, Cameron developed head rigs that added facial realism to computer-generated imagery (CGI). He created stereoscopic 3D images by integrating different kinds of cameras into what came to be called a “fusion” camera system. And he built a virtual production studio (which was christened, “the volume”) that allowed him to co-ordinate actors and CGI in real time. If you wanted to see the future of immersive film making—not to mention the most expensive big-budget blockbuster in history—you had to see Avatar. It was more than a movie. It was a historic event.
Cut to December 16th, 2022, and Avatar: The Way of Water brought with it the same kind of media hype. For this film, Cameron used an innovative underwater camera rig known as “DeepX3D”; upgraded his fusion camera system with new technology developed by Sony; and shot his action sequences at 48 frames per second (fps), twice the standard 24 fps. He also used a 900,000-gallon tank in the studio—more than a third larger than an Olympic pool—and had his actors trained to hold their breath underwater. (Kate Winslet managed to hold out for seven minutes, breaking the record for underwater acting that Tom Cruise had set for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation in 2015.)
Those technical advancements didn’t come cheap. At over $560 million ($460 million in production and $100 million-plus in marketing), Avatar: TWOW is the (new) most expensive movie ever made. Back in November, Cameron predicted that the film would have to make $2 billion at the box office just to break even. (Studios typically receive slightly less than half of all US box-office receipts, and much less than that in most foreign markets.) Which is to say that to avoid red ink, Avatar: TWOW would have to become one of the top-five grossing films of all time (a list on which Cameron already occupies two spots, with the original Avatar at number one, and Titanic at number three).
And it looks like that will happen: As of this writing, the movie stands at number six all-time, with a global box office of more than $1.9 billion. By the time this week is over, Cameron will likely occupy three of the top-five all-time box-office spots.
Putting money and technical innovations to one side, however, the excitement over Avatar’s sequel highlights our curious collective amnesia about the original. Most people who saw the first movie will remember that Pandora was blue, and that the plot had something to do with the environment. But nothing else stuck. There wasn’t a single scene—a T-Rex chasing a Jeep, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back,” discovering the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father—that became any kind of pop-culture meme. Nor did Avatar provoke much in the way of heated discussion, as Joker did a decade later (or, indeed, as did the best Batman flicks featuring Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan).
That may explain why the marketing of the Avatar franchise has focused so consistently on film technology, special effects, budgets, and box office—the only areas in which it compares favourably to other blockbuster films. When it comes to plot, dialogue, and storytelling—the ingredients that moviegoers are supposed to crave—well, read on (though I should warn readers that plot spoilers do follow).
Both Avatar movies are set on Pandora, an otherworldly paradise inhabited by the Na’vi, a race of mindful blue humanoids more eco-aware than Greta Thunberg. They not only care about the planet, they communicate with it, by means of making neural connections with sacred trees.
Enter human military colonizers (the “Sky People”—they’re American, of course), who target Pandora in the first Avatar movie with a scheme to plunder the planet’s natural resources (including the hilariously named “unobtanium”). Owing to the planet’s inhospitable environment, these interlopers decided to engineer their operation on a remote-control basis, by downloading their minds into avatars designed to look like the locals. One such colonizer is Jake Sully who gets lost in Pandora’s dense forest, but then is rescued by Neytiri, a Na’vi princess. Her people take Sully in, whereupon he changes teams, and leads the natives into battle against the Sky People. After he prays to a Na’vi god, Pandora’s wildlife pitches in and sends the colonizers packing—except for Jake, of course, who (naturally) renounces his human body so that he can be with Neytiri.
The plot of Avatar: TWOW is virtually identical. The Sky People have returned; but by this time, Jake and Neytiri have children. (Avatars can apparently have reproductive sex.) The family hightails it to a cluster of far-off islands, whereupon they are taken in by the Metkayina clan, and learn to communicate with the whale-like tulkun. Alas, their hiding place is discovered, following which the children are captured, escape, get captured again, and then escape. (At one point, the littlest wails, “I can’t believe I’m tied up again!”) Eventually, the Sky People are sent packing once again, this time thanks to help from rideable flying fish, and Jake and his family remain happily with the Metkayina.
All fantasy worlds come with an underlying moral vision—a basis from which their creators may implicitly critique or exalt our real-world values. The Star Trek franchise, for instance, (approvingly) presumes the existence of a cosmos that’s (mostly) amenable to sunny, liberal ideals; whereas DC Studios imagines a Hobbesian hellhole in need of retributive justice.
No matter the underlying worldview, the best franchises are grounded by characters we care about. The battle between good and evil in Star Wars is manifest in the complex father/son relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; in last-year’s neo-Western sci-fi horror fantasy Nope, the fight for one’s place in a hostile universe is represented in a sympathetic family’s struggle to save its ranch. The more we care about the characters, the more we invest in their story: The greater their stakes, the greater our fascination with the artificial world they inhabit.
The Avatar franchise appears to follow the playbook by promoting a progressive take on the environment and the evils of colonialism. The Sky People’s “pacification” of Pandora’s Indigenous populations has visual analogues to Vietnam and Iraq. And the whale-like tulkun are killed solely for the anti-aging elixir in their brains, which connects in a somewhat obvious way with the real-life harvest of tusks from elephants and rhinos. (I’d be interested to know why anyone in this fictional world needs an anti-aging elixir at all, since the contents of one’s brains can apparently be downloaded into new flesh avatars. Answers on a postcard, please.)
Cameron also includes archetypal relationships: a forbidden love affair; sibling rivalries; a child raised by his father’s enemy; and parents who struggle to protect disobedient children. But no sooner are these elements introduced than they are subsumed into a paint-by-numbers plot device that’s plainly been devised as a showcase for CGI technology. Indeed, Cameron devotes over 40 minutes to Jake’s kids swimming with fish—more than twice the time it took for Luke Skywalker to launch his X-wing fighter, evade Imperial interceptors, and destroy the Death Star. One expects to hear Jacques Cousteau in voiceover. Cameron is primarily interested in showing us what he can do, but not why he needs to do it.
This is a shame, because Cameron understands the power of connection. His best work, Aliens and Terminator 2, was elevated by two of the strongest feminist icons in film: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Each fights to the death to protect a child: Ripley, her surrogate daughter Newt; Sarah, her young son, John. (In a magnificent twist, Ripley discovers that her arch enemy is also a mother—an alien who is also prepared to die to protect her young.)
By contrast, the only characters that arouse more than baseline levels of sympathy in Avatar: TWOW are Roa, a tulkun hunted down while swimming with her young, and Payakan, an outcast tulkun who’d been exiled after he attacked the ship that had killed his mother. Is it a coincidence that, unlike the humanoids, both are CGI creations? Cameron doesn’t seem to care about his humanoids, but he cares very much about his special effects.
And yet, save for the truly magnificent CGI marine life, these vaunted effects are disappointing. At many points in the movie, it’s fairly obvious that we’re watching actors in motion-capture suits working in a sound studio. The various ships, boats, helicopters, and tanks are clearly models. Many of the birds’ wings flap straight up and down. And the unweathered Metkayina set looks less like an open-air housing complex than the theme-park ride it’s destined to become.
Under most other cinematic circumstances, one might give such unrealistic special effects a pass. Sam Raimi has been delivering smart effects cheese since Evil Dead, and it’s hard to beat the animatronic warrior bug in Starship Troopers (a must-see cult classic). But when a movie is presented as offering a ground-breaking state-of-the-art immersion experience, it better be immersive.
Still, in a year when so many “must see” releases have flatlined, the fact of Avatar: TWOW’s sheer bigness—in hype, ambition, and global box-office receipts—at least helps reassure us that a blockbuster film can still help serve our primal need for community and shared, crowd-based public entertainment. Through his genius, Cameron has done more than almost anyone to turn modern film into a dazzling spectacle that’s worth leaving our homes to see. Next time, one hopes, he’ll focus as much on the story he tells as the means he uses to tell it.