Hollywood Learned All the Wrong Lessons From Avatar

Thirteen years ago, James Cameron’s 3-D epic shook the industry—not necessarily for the better.

Na'vi in 'Avatar'
Twentieth Century Fox / Pictorial Press / Alamy

When the director James Cameron was working on Avatar, he was holding the biggest bargaining chip imaginable. His last major feature, 1997’s Titanic, was the most successful film in Hollywood history, overcoming its budgetary woes and behind-the-scenes drama to become a box-office phenomenon unlike any other. Avatar was another risky bet in theory, an original sci-fi epic about nine-foot-tall blue aliens called the Na’vi who’d be rendered through advanced CGI and motion-capture technology. But still, this would be a James Cameron film—a fact the director said he had to remind the honchos of during production.

“The studio felt that the film should be shorter and that there was too much flying around on the ikran,” he told The New York Times, referring to one of Avatar’s many exotic alien beasts. “I just drew a line in the sand and said, ‘You know what? I made Titanic. This building that we’re meeting in right now, this new half-billion-dollar complex on your lot? Titanic paid for that, so I get to do this.” He was right to put his ego on the line: Upon its release in 2009, Avatar outgrossed Titanic to become Hollywood’s new No. 1 movie of all time. And now, after another long wait, Cameron is back with a sequel, subtitled The Way of Water, due out in December. To prime the pump, the original Avatar was rereleased in theaters last week. On rewatch, it’s clear why the movie was such an extraordinary hit 13 years ago, but the starker truth is how Hollywood has learned so few lessons from that success.

Cameron’s movies usually tend to go over budget, and reports of his combative on-set behavior are widely known; when studio reps balked at Titanic’s swelling cost, he told them, “If you want to cut my film, you’ll have to fire me, and to fire me, you’ll have to kill me.” But his intensity was in service of a specific vision—the action sequences in his films are legible and inventive in ways that few other blockbusters can offer, and each one featured advances in visual effects that made them a must-see experience on the big screen. Avatar’s grandest selling point was its use of 3-D technology, then a largely defunct cinema gimmick that Cameron helped revamp. But it’s perhaps telling that the industry embraced 3-D not because of its visual appeal, but because it would allow theaters to up-charge ticket buyers to combat flagging sales.

Like the original and The Way of Water, Avatar’s three upcoming sequels will be filmed with 3-D cameras and generally use the technology to enhance the otherworldliness of their setting: the alien moon Pandora, populated by the Na’vi and many fantastical animals. Seeing Avatar again on the big screen only emphasizes Cameron’s skill with visual depth and texture. Compare it with most contemporary blockbusters, and the difference is striking. Any recent advances in CGI have been undercut by the intense schedules franchise movies must adhere to, which has led to visual-effects artists voicing complaints about their workload and fans noticing the increased shoddiness of the final results. Many Marvel and DC movies have flat and lifeless action sequences set in parking lots or airplane hangars—the furthest thing from the mystical Day-Glo wonders of Pandora.

Post-Avatar, Hollywood saw a boom of 3-D releases, but they were almost all “post-converted” pictures, meaning they weren’t actually filmed with 3-D cameras. Directors have griped about the aesthetic uselessness of the post-conversion process, which mostly existed to sell expensive tickets, and quickly turned audiences off of the technology entirely. Avatar: The Way of Water will be the first movie I see in 3-D in years, and I imagine the same will be true for much of its viewership. Cameron’s mastery of spectacle is backed up by his huge budgets, hefty gaps between projects, and long, painstaking production process. Those don’t fit as well with the assembly-line schedule demanded by a series as prolific as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Here’s a fun fact: All but two of the 30 Marvel movies will have come out in between Avatars one and two. The entire Despicable Me franchise, including Minions spin-offs, fits within that window, as does the DC Extended Universe. Sequels and multi-film sagas were not unusual before Avatar came out—indeed, Cameron has made two of the greatest sequels ever in Aliens and Terminator 2. But since 2009 they’ve become practically the sole pillar of the American film industry, the financial life raft that multiplexes cling to in order to sell tickets and fight the rise of at-home streaming.

That is a myopic reaction considering the fact that the biggest hit of all time was a wholly original film. Sure, Avatar’s story of a human interloper ingratiating himself with an alien tribe is reminiscent of earthbound epics like Dances With Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans, but Cameron’s movie isn’t directly adapted from any prior work. And yet Hollywood has mined every avenue of intellectual property imaginable over the past decade-plus, surely thinking that the better-known the title, the less risk there is sinking hundreds of millions into making and marketing it. I’ve always been amused at the ironic notion that Avatar had no cultural impact because nobody can name its main character; maybe that’s because the story hasn’t been crammed down viewers’ throats year after year since its release.

Now, Cameron is obviously not exempt from criticism about sequelizing, given that Avatar 2 is almost upon us and another three entries are planned. Still, he seems genuinely passionate about giving people a reason to buy a theater ticket beyond simply reuniting with Jake Sully (obviously a very memorable name) and company. “We authored it for the big-screen experience,” Cameron said to the Times. “You let people smell the roses. You let people go on the ride. If you’re doing a flying shot or a shot underwater in a beautiful coral reef, you hold the shot a little bit longer. I want people to really get in there and feel like they’re there, on a journey with these characters.” Letting audiences pause to savor the journey: It’s something big movies could stand to do more often.