When James Cameron delivered Avatar in 2009, none of us quite grasped that this was not a movie but a constellation of movies – one that will represent a multibillion-dollar investment in the coming years. One iteration is even booked for 2028.
Lesser filmmakers may think from film to film, but Cameron thinks cross-generational. Not since 1928 when Mickey Rooney committed to 34 Andy Hardy movies and shorts has anyone contemplated this sort of longevity (OK, a dubious analogy).
In 1972, Francis Coppola famously announced that, from a filmmaker’s standpoint, sequels suggest a creative void. Even Cameron himself once agreed, pointing out, ”Spielberg didn’t make ET Returns.”
It was a million-dollar deal that changed Coppola’s mind — hence Godfather II. And Cameron’s pricey sequels already have sub-sequels; he’s already shot Avatar 3 and finished the script for Avatar 5.
Flashing his imperial smile, Cameron would argue the Avatar series represents a cultural force and a prophecy on climate change, not a Marvel-like game plan. Indeed, this week’s opening of Avatar: The Way of Water has a surreal backstory colored by Cameron’s other movie — the one titled Titanic.
Hollywood circa 2022 finds itself in a confused and defeatist mood after suffering through a dismal autumn. Precisely 25 years ago, Titanic came ashore in an astonishingly similar set of circumstances, with Hollywood also cowering from a succession of bombs.
Cameron didn’t have time to notice. Titanic was the most expensive movie of all time and became the industry’s first to gross $1 billion. As captain of the boat, he instantly proclaimed himself King of the World.
Not without trauma: Cameron’s production represented the biggest budget overrun on record, compelling its backer, Fox, to beg other studios to cover unanticipated costs (Paramount grumpily agreed, and was later grateful).
Along the way, Cameron’s encounters with studio chieftains set decibel levels unequalled to this day.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens domestically this week in a blaze of promotion akin to Tom Cruise’s brilliant theatrics for Top Gun: Maverick. Cameron has mobilized everything except a fleet of jets. “We have a lot to live up to,” he declared, sounding like General George Patton in 1943.
Prior to his Covid delay, Cameron even plunged into a chain of media interviews, an activity he admittedly disdains. Encountering reporters, the 61-year-old director often pretended in the past not to hear questions, nimbly responding instead to issues that he favors.
But the facts of his enterprise are news enough: He has completed four scripts encompassing appropriate technological breakthroughs for future Avatars, and Disney has set release dates a decade into the future. Post-Iger CEOs won’t have to worry about dates or much of their future film budgets.
To be sure, some Titanic loyalists seem confused: They are still arguing whether Jack should have squeezed onto that bit of debris with Rose, and still complain that Titanic really was two movies cramped into one berth.
Titanic’s release in 1997, like that of the the new Avatar, was awkwardly scheduled right after the disappointing openings of several expensive sequels – Speed 2 and even a new Batman (Batman and Robin). It also followed on the heels of two $100 million-plus disaster movies, Armageddon and Deep Impact, offering almost identical plots.
Studio czars at that moment seemed mesmerized by the “big spend.” Only blockbusters were welcome — yet a few low-budget movies ended up saving the day, including There’s Something About Mary and The Horse Whisperer.
Some wags even proposed a low-budget sequel to Titanic, which would tell the secret saga of the S.S. California. That ship was anchored near Titanic as it went down, but its wireless operator, and surrounding crew, were asleep and no one else even noticed.
Given all this, some critics loftily view Titanic as a metaphor for the climate change crisis, with the S.S. California standing as a poignant symbol. Its message: In a fast-warming world, outside help will always be missing.