Last week, it was reported (but not confirmed) that James Cameron has determined the titles of the four “Avatar” sequels he plans to release over the next 10 or 20 years, and, um, they’re pretty much what you might expect from a mad genius who intends to spend the rest of his time on Earth making epic sci-fi movies about giant blue cat people who have some kind of psychosexual connection with the trees on their imperiled alien planet.
In fact, the rumored titles are just insane enough to be real. It’s hard to believe that a studio would really allow the release of something called “Avatar: The Seed Bearer,” splashing Na’vi sperm across every movie theater marquee in the world, but there’s no doubt that Cameron has the balls to try it.
The A.V. Club proclaimed that “These Alleged ‘Avatar’ Sequel Titles Are Fucking Embarrassing,” while Vice suggested 50 snarky alternatives, such as “Avatar: Literally No One Is Asking for These Movies” and “Avatar: Show Me a Single Person Excited About This.” Whether or not the rumored titles are real, the reaction only reaffirms how little enthusiasm there seems to be for the next installments of Cameron’s nascent cinematic universe. For a guy building a franchise off the highest-grossing film of all time, the King of the World appears to be on some very shaky ground.
The Daily Beast may have been overstating the case when it referred to the “Avatar” sequels as “Pop Culture’s Biggest Joke” (that’s some pretty egregious Post Malone erasure), but the Na’vi didn’t penetrate the collective unconscious. Like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Avatar” became one of those things that everyone has seen but no one can remember.
The 2009 film’s transportive special effects and eye-popping 3D made it a spectacle that reaffirmed the primacy of the movie-going experience for another generation, but the magic faded as soon as people left Pandora. Sam Worthington was no Leonardo DiCaprio, Leona Lewis was no Celine Dion, and “I see you” was no “I’ll never let go, Jack.” By 2013, critics were already writing articles like “Does Anyone Remember ‘Avatar’ Anymore?”
Even in early 2010, when “Avatar” was setting box office records every weekend, Cameron’s grandiose sequel plans might have seemed delusional. By the time the first of those sequels hits theaters in December 2020 — a full 11 years after the original film was released — his agenda will seem downright self-destructive. Everyone (this critic included) is going to be convinced that Cameron’s hubris will finally blow up in his face. And everyone (this critic included) is probably going to be dead wrong.
Here’s the thing: No one ever lost money betting on James Cameron. Indeed, doubting him might be the single dumbest thing that a studio exec (or showbiz pundit) can do. Humans aren’t great at learning from history — don’t forget to reserve your spot on “Titanic II” — but when it comes to big Jim, the facts really speak for themselves. He’s responsible for the first and second-highest grossing films of all time, and made the most expensive movie in history on at least four separate occasions, and turned each and every one of them into massive profits for the studios brave enough to believe in him (or in so deep as to have no other choice).
Cameron is like a baseball player who only knows how to swing for the fences, and after more than 30 years in Hollywood he has six grand slam walk-off home runs to his name (along with “The Abyss,” a waterlogged foul-tip that still earned nearly double its budget). A blustery, egomaniacal white man who runs his sets like a drill sergeant and has a well-earned reputation for making his cast and crew miserable, Cameron isn’t the easiest auteur to cheer for in the 21st century. But rooting for him and recognizing his success are two different things, and his career makes an incontrovertible case: The more disastrous a James Cameron movie sounds, the more successful it becomes.
People doubted Cameron from the start, even (and especially) the people who were convinced to foot the bill for his films. It began when the upstart writer-director sweet-talked Orion Pictures into shelling out $6.4 million for a gruesome sci-fi story about a cyborg assassin traveling back in time to murder the woman from “Children of the Corn.” (According to Arnold Schwarzenegger biographer Nigel Andrews, the actor was working on “Conan the Barbarian” when he told a journalist that his next film would be “some shit movie I’m doing [that will just] take a couple weeks.”) Even when it was completed, Orion thought it was such a bomb that they refused to show it to critics until the actors’ agents convinced them to hold a single press screening. Adjusted for inflation, “The Terminator” earned more than $190 million.
“Aliens” put Cameron in the unenviable position of stepping in for Ridley Scott (a significant downgrade, as far as the reluctant British crew was concerned). Shot on a shoestring budget relative to its size, the film wasn’t finished until a week before its release, too late be test-screened before it unspooled in 1,437 theaters. In addition to becoming the seventh-highest-grossing movie of 1986, “Aliens” was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and is now regarded as one of the greatest sequels ever made.
It could be argued that “The Abyss” was Cameron’s first blank-check movie, but studio executives retained final cut and famously forced him to re-edit the ending and strip its environmental messaging. It remains Cameron’s greatest failure in that it only earned twice what it cost to make, pioneered new digital technologies, and earned four Oscar nominations. The director’s cut, which restores Cameron’s original vision, is a drastic improvement in every way.
1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” marked the first time that Cameron directed the most expensive movie ever made (not adjusted for inflation). Despite being afforded nearly $100 million to shoot the sequel, Cameron only had a year to get the thing from script to screen — this, despite VFX that required the equivalent of 25 years’ worth of manpower. “T2” was something of a sure thing, but nobody was prepared for it to earn 434 percent of the original, and become the third highest-grossing film in history (again, not adjusted for inflation).
It was so unfathomable that Cameron would top himself that most people assumed he wouldn’t even try. “True Lies,” a remake of a 1991 Claude Zidi action-comedy that few on this side of the Atlantic have seen, was supposed to be something of a downshift — like Michael Bay taking a break from “Transformers” to make “Pain & Gain.” Lawrence Kasanoff, president of Lightstorm Entertainment, went so far as to publicly insist that the budget for this story about a secret agent and his unassuming wife wasn’t in the same range of “T2.” In a way, he was right: The budget for “True Lies” wound up being significantly higher than “T2.” It became the first movie be budgeted over $100 million, a round number that sent all of Tinseltown into a tizzy (even if, in adjusted for 1994 dollars, that was still $119 million less than 20th Century Fox once sank into “Cleopatra”).
Between its general whiff of misogyny and its giddily Islamophobic depiction of the terrorist villains, “True Lies” has not aged well and maintains the lowest Metacritic rating of his career (a respectable 63 out of 100). Despite inspiring a generation of go-for-broke action cinema and inciting a veritable arms race between the studios (all of which began competing to see who could throw the most money on a movie screen), “True Lies” was only the third highest-grossing film of the year.
And of course there’s “Titanic,” which seemed doomed from the moment it began shooting. The most expensive movie ever made at the time (natch), “Titanic” went $100 million over its original $100 million budget, eventually costing more than the Titanic itself. Long before it came out, the film had already garnered a reputation as — yes — pop culture’s biggest joke.
In a May 1997 Washington Post story, “Down with the Ship,” an economics professor said the film would have to wait until the next millennium before it turned a profit: “Maybe some day in the year 2008 someone will buy that last ‘Titanic’ tape,” he said, “and then it will make money.” At a certain point, even its visionary writer-director began to lose faith: “I just realized I made a $200 million chick flick where everyone dies,” Cameron confided to a friend. “What the hell was I thinking? I’m going to have to rebuild my career from scratch.”
Spoiler alert: James Cameron was wrong (although he did have to forfeit his share of the profits to Fox in order to prevent the studio from cutting the film when it got skittish during post-production). “Titanic” became the first film to gross more than $1 billion at the box office, and later — upon rerelease — the second film to cross the $2 billion threshold. Adjusted for inflation, no film has earned more money at the domestic box office since. The movie won 11 Oscars, tying a record it still shares with “Ben-Hur” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Now a cornerstone of contemporary pop culture, “Titanic” hasn’t aged a day since December 19, 1997; it is, in this critic’s opinion, one of the great entertainments of the 20th century.
After that, people were ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, right? “Here Come the Cats with Human Boobs,” Slate wrote just before “Avatar” hit theaters. Deadspin theorized that it would be “the longest, biggest flop ever,” criticizing the film’s formulaic plot: “How can you change movies forever when I’ve seen this plot in roughly 4,000 other movies, from ‘Dances with Wolves’ to ‘Alien Nation?’”
For Cameron, that wasn’t a rhetorical question: It was one he’d been trying to answer for several years, even before he joined the exhibitors of America at Showest in 2005 to deliver a fire-and-brimstone speech about the future of 3D. With only 79 theaters in America that could project digital 3D, he preached that theaters needed to upgrade or die. When “Avatar” premiered four years later, more than 3,000 screens were ready to show it the way Cameron intended.
How many art-house theaters were forced to shutter because they couldn’t afford to keep pace with Cameron’s vision? How many hideous 3D post-conversions have audiences suffered through because he convinced Hollywood to put the cart before the horse? We don’t know, and he doesn’t care. Cameron wanted to create a cinematic experience that couldn’t be enjoyed at home, and he was willing to move heaven and earth if that’s what it took to get us to Pandora. “True Lies” cinematographer Russell Carpenter once said ”Jim likes to set the bar so high that he’s wondering, ‘Can I get over it?’ He’s a gambler.” With “Avatar,” Cameron became the house, and the house always wins.
“Avatar” opened in 106 markets, and was number one in all of them; it grossed almost $3 billion worldwide, allowing Cameron to break his own box-office record. Nine years later, that record still stands; no other movie has come within $700 million of touching it. Some people speculated that “The Force Awakens” might get there, but those people severely underestimated Cameron’s ability to excite casual viewers — to motivate the non-voters to the polls — and galvanize the public around the promise of something new.
That will surely be more difficult with these upcoming “Avatar” sequels. Underwater motion-capture might be a mind-blowing technical achievement, but it’s not one that packs the multiplexes. Likewise, 3D is now regarded as a pricey inconvenience; if the technology for no-glasses 3D is ready by December 2020, that could be enough to move the needle. But then what would Cameron still have up his sleeve for “Avatar: The Seed Bearer?” And for the two additional sequels after that?
“Let them speculate,” Cameron once told a reporter when questioned about the profit and potential of his films. “I’m not afraid of taking a risk with an awful lot of money.” Stepping up to the plate once again, Cameron is winding up for the biggest at-bat of his career, and he’s going to swing for the fences no matter how wild the pitch might look from the bleachers. This all seems like a recipe for disaster — but those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and history tells us that Cameron is in for the home run of his life. It’s hard to see how, but at this point you’d be crazy to expect anything else.