It can be exhilarating to watch a filmmaker in the grip of an obsession, but what happens when the obsession threatens to devour the filmmaker? The question occurred to me this week when, for the seventh time — yes, seventh — James Cameron announced that the release of Avatar 2, the very-very-long-awaited sequel to his 2009 blockbuster, would be delayed.
The wait for more Avatar has become something of a running joke, so much so that a Twitter thread I started when it was already a running joke is now well into its sixth year. The first sequel was originally announced almost a decade ago, in October 2010, with a projected release date of December 2014. Since then, its opening date has, at regular intervals, been moved back one year at a time — except once, in 2017, when it moved back two years. But the film has also morphed from a two-sequel series into a four-sequel series, with a lingering sense that the mountain was being made bigger as a way of justifying the length of the climb. On July 23, Cameron offered another update: The second film, which actually began production almost three years ago and was most recently scheduled for release in December 2021, has now been pushed back to December 2022 — two and a half years from now. The remaining sequels will (feel free to insert very large air quotes around that word) follow at two-year intervals, culminating with Avatar 5 in 2028, when its leading man, Sam Worthington, will be 52, and Sigourney Weaver will be 79.
Sigh. Cameron blamed this latest delay on the coronavirus, which might be, of all things, unfair to the coronavirus. In a statement posted on Instagram, he said that the four-month shutdown is “preventing us from being allowed to recommence most of our virtual production work on stages in Los Angeles.” The live-action main-cast filming of both Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, much of which was done in New Zealand, is presumably long finished. I don’t know nearly enough about Cameron’s process to refute that, but I’m going to cock a slightly skeptical eyebrow nonetheless. In the movie business, historically, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And with other films cautiously resuming production over the last week or making plans to do so over the next month — including some that hope to be before audiences by the end of this year — it’s hard to imagine a movie that got underway in the fall of 2017 not being finish-able in the next eighteen months.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine oneself inside the head of James Cameron, who surely cannot have imagined, when Avatar supplanted his own film Titanic as the highest-grossing film in U.S. history in 2010, that he would spend the next 20 years of his life working on a brand extension. So why is he doing it? Maybe it’s important to him to reclaim his position in the record books (remember his “I’m the king of the world!” acceptance speech when he won the Oscar for directing Titanic?) If so, it has to sting a little that, in the decade-plus since he finished his last movie, Avatar’s take has now been surpassed by a Star Wars film (in the U.S.) and an Avengers installment (both here and worldwide).
But I suspect something else is at play, and it may be Cameron’s need to be a game-changer. Because what looks unprecedented today may look dated and run-of-the-mill five years from now, it’s easy to forget what a shock Avatar was when it opened — it’s the movie that ushered in ten years (and counting) of 3D and was, arguably, the first Hollywood film to use that technology to create a world that felt truly immersive. Whatever you thought of the movie’s screenplay (writing has never been Cameron’s strong suit, and notably, he’s not writing the sequels on his own), it looked like no film ever had before.
It was, in short, a hard act to follow. And thinking “How do I top this?” is probably the single worst question a filmmaker can snag on after a giant success. Yet all those delays, coupled with Cameron’s statement thanking Disney for its support “not just of the sequels, but also the rest of the franchise content” (ugh, content, that sad, hope-deflating, frozen-yogurt blob of a word) suggests that what he’s going for is size, scale, and monumentality.
And it’s hard not to see that as a trap. Technological innovations in the movie business move swiftly — as Cameron, one of the people who has made them move swiftly, knows better than almost anyone — and moviemaking does not; there is simply no way to guarantee that, between the time you commit to a particular visual/technological palette for a film and the time that film reaches audiences, somebody else won’t have come up with something better. Whatever the version of Avatar 2 we eventually see looks like, it probably won’t bear much resemblance to the one Cameron had in mind in 2010 — before the Marvelization of movies happened, before 20th Century Fox was engulfed by Disney, before the first episode of Game of Thrones ever aired. But we won’t see it at all until he can bring himself to say something I doubt he wants to say: This is it. This is as far as I can take this one. At some point in any creative enterprise, all of the things you imagine your work could be have to give way to the thing it actually is. Consenting to that, and to the private disappointment that accompanies it, is the only way you can finish anything. But that’s something Cameron has not had to face with regard to the Avatar movies — they are perpetually going to be great, and they are now beginning their second decade living on a horizon that one never reaches because it’s the horizon.
I enjoyed Avatar, which I thought was simultaneously one small step for movies and one giant leap for moviekind, and I will eagerly see the sequels — actuarial tables permitting. Nobody can do precisely what Cameron does, and not every filmmaker has to pop out a new work every year or two. We need a few obsessives, and outside of politics, even a god complex or two is okay. But at the same time, I admit that I kind of mourn the loss of the James Cameron who directed five movies between 1984 and 1994 — probably a slightly more heedless man than the one who has made only two features in the 25 years since, but also a director who was more interested in making movies than milestones — or content. Maybe between all the Avatars to come, he can take a vacation from Pandora and sneak one of those in.