It’s been nearly seven years since James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar was released in theaters, going on to not only become the highest grossing movie of all time but a polarizing film as well. While the visuals were astounding and world of Pandora interesting, the story was no more than a modern take on Dances With Wolves and the shallow characters and hard line morals caused many to declare Avatar an exercise in style over substance.
Nonetheless, it was a powerhouse technical achievement with pioneering special effects and motion-capture technology. Cameron had said from the get-go he would make two sequels if Avatar was successful and sure enough it was. According to Cameron in an interview with the Montreal Gazette (via Collider), Avatar 2 is currently in pre-production.
“Christmas of ’17 is the target…At least, that’s what we’ve announced. But I don’t consider that to be as important as the fact that when we get all three films done, we drop them a year apart. I call it a meta-narrative that runs across the three movies. Each film stands alone, but it also tells one much larger story.”
“We have design more or less finished, which is an enormous task. It’s been about a two-year task. [We’ve finished] all the creatures and the landscapes, and the new worlds within the world of Pandora that you see. The writing is ongoing, but almost finished. Technical development is done. Stages are done. Infrastructure. So we’re really poised to start after the first of the year,”
For fans of Avatar, the confirmation is welcoming news. Sure, we’ve all known the sequels were going to happen but again, that was seven years ago and updates and insights into development have been few and far between. It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten about the highest-grossing movie of all time. That target release date means it’ll be nearly a decade since we first saw the world of Pandora.
Time gone by between a movie and its sequel usually doesn’t matter much though. For instance, three of the biggest hits of this past year (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Jurassic World) all arrived over a decade after their predecessors and were successful. The Force Awakens and Jurassic World are kind of a given, but Mad Max was an artifact series of the 70s and 80s with one great installment and two okay ones. Yet Mad Max: Fury Road, 20 years later, was a box-office champ and is also getting nominated for every award under the sun this season. Who would’ve thought?
But with time, trends change and veneers wear off. Much of the success of Avatar hinged on its ground-breaking special effects. There was a ton of hype around what new things Cameron accomplished during production and how much of a spectacle the final product would be. No movie before Avatar featured such realistic motion capture technology and the CGI and 3-D were unparalleled. In the time gone by in regards to its technical achievements though, we’ve more or less caught up to what was seen as so new seven years ago, therefore Cameron can’t rely on the same things used in Avatar. Today’s CGI won’t be enough either and trends have changed.
Motion-capture is being used as well as it was in Avatar left and right, the appeal of 3-D fizzled out, and audiences are beginning to appreciate practical effects and story over large amounts of CGI because they’ve been so inundated with it for years. A computer generated spectacle isn’t as appealing as it once was. Unfortunately for Cameron, it could induce more eye-rolls than jaw-drops.
Which means it’d be best for Cameron to rely on what makes most great movies prevail: solid story and characters. Pandora was an interesting, gorgeous world that deserves to be fleshed out more ‐ its lore and inhabitants as well. The plot should be more complex as well as the characters…independent from the special effects. When Avatar was seen in theaters and at home on a big screen, it was a technically towering enough to distract from its shallow leads and plot. But the jump from big screen to small screen reduced the spectacle and seven years later Avatar may still be a great visual experience but there’s always a “but the story was…” caveat to it. It just doesn’t hold up as well anymore.
Avatar 2 is a chance to correct those story woes, especially since movie culture and trends have changed. Audiences want strong characters, moral ambiguity, and depth. Sure, they want to see shit get blown up too and admittedly, as long as a movie has the latter, it will probably do well. But a weak story always keeps a movie down as far as longevity. Avatar isn’t the crowning achievement it was in 2009 because we now remember it’s weak foundation more than its groundbreaking visuals. For as much of an iconic director James Cameron is, we should hope he uses Avatar 2 to improve on things and make sure it’s legacy is more dependent on story and characters than visual effects.