This piece originally ran in April of 2016; it’s been republished following the news that the releases of the Avatar sequels have been pushed significantly.
James Cameron was 42 when he started shooting Titanic, and he will be 71 years old once his unshakable commitment to the Avatar franchise is done. That was my biggest takeaway from this week’s news that Cameron has commenced shooting four sequels to his 2009 sci-fi megahit, which are currently slated to premiere in 2020, 2021, 2024, and 2025. For the nearly three-decade chunk of Cameron’s career since Titanic — three decades where this man ought to still be at the peak of his filmmaking powers, mind you — the only narrative films he will have to show for himself are installments in the Avatar series. That bums me out.
It might sound foolish to ask for more original movies from James Cameron, since he hasn’t made all that many: The Oscar-winning director has only released eight non-documentary movies since 1981, and four of those were franchise films. (Two of them, Terminator 2 and Aliens, are among the best sequels ever made.) And I’m all too aware that the current trend in tentpole filmmaking is to eschew trilogies and demand much longer franchise commitments from directors, tying them to the same series for a sizable chunk of their careers. It might seem absurd at first that Cameron plans to direct five Avatar movies, but Michael Bay just made his fifth Transformers movie, and Steven Spielberg is readying Indiana Jones 5, too. This is the new normal.
Still, I’m not ready to lose Cameron to the wilds of Pandora for the back half of his career. This man is one of a handful of live-action filmmakers left who know how to conceive, shoot, and edit a coherent action sequence that will leave you breathless. Think of the Terminator 2 chase in the aqueduct, Ripley’s final fight against the Queen in Aliens, or the perversely exciting escapes from rising water in Titanic. What would Cameron be able to produce on par with those classic sequences if he put his energy towards creating new product? The Avatar movies will no doubt have their fair share of action sequences, but I’m not as invested in CG-created fights and chases: Without any sort of grounding in the real world, they too often feel weightless to me.
I’ll still see the films — they’ve got Sigourney Weaver in them, after all — but a five-time trip to the world of Avatar feels like an awfully long adventure. I’d follow a virtuoso action filmmaker like James Cameron just about anywhere. I just wish that given his talent, we were going someplace new.