Avatar and The Disappearance of James Cameron

It’s six years since the release of Avatar, and still no sequel. Ryan considers the disappearance of a great mainstream filmmaker.

This story originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

James Cameron was just 24 years old when he borrowed a small sum of money from a bunch of dentists and made his first film, Xenogenesis. Just 12 minutes long, the 1978 movie was a humble yet significant beginning for the young filmmaker.

The sci-fi short landed Cameron’s first job in the film industry: devising practical effects for Roger Corman. Xenogenesis was the first proper collaboration between Cameron and Willliam Wisher, who’d later write the screenplay for Terminator 2. About a battle between man and giant killing machine, Xenogenesis contained numerous elements that Cameron would revisit in his subsequent movies. The giant killer robot looks uncannily like a Hunter Killer from The Terminator. Xenogenesis’s tough heroine bears more than a passing resemblance to one Ellen Ripley, whose fate Cameron would later shape in Aliens.

Six years of apprenticeships, set-backs and due-paying followed Xenogenesis. Yet even when Cameron’s chances looked bleak – like the moment in the early ’80s when he was fired from his first gig as a director on Piranha 2: The Spawning – he managed to turn the situation into a surprise victory. Out of the ignominy of the dank Piranha sequel came the first seeds of The Terminator’s unstoppable cyborg assassin – the image of it crawling from a curtain of fire legendarily appearing to Cameron in the midst of a fever dream. 

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The cult success of The Terminator switched Cameron into high gear, projecting him on a course through the Hollywood ranks to a position few would have predicted at the start of the 1980s or even the ’90s: to date, he’s directed the two biggest films of all time at the worldwide box-office – Avatar and Titanic. When Cameron was still in his early 20s, he’d watched Star Wars and been both inspired and mildly panicked that another young filmmaker had made a hit sci-fi fantasy effects film before him. In 2015, even the marketing might of Star Wars: The Force Awakens couldn’t dislodge his own sci-fi fantasy, Avatar, from its $2.78 million perch. When adjusted for inflation, Avatars gross is higher even than the original 1977 Star Wars.

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An homage to the sci-fi romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Avatar fused Cameron’s fascination with futuristic hardware with the fluffier side he displayed in The Abyss and Titanic. Indeed, from The Abyss onwards, Cameron’s seemed fix on pushing his filmmaking to the limit – whether that meant spending months on end in freezing water tanks or introducing groundbreaking digital effects.

In the case of Avatar, Cameron spent years developing the motion capture technology used to bring its exotic flora and fauna to life. Not for the first time, word began to spread that costs were overrunning and that Avatar was going to be an almighty flop. Once again, Cameron got the last laugh. 

Since the release of Avatar in late 2009, however, James Cameron has effectively disappeared. Before the film was even released, he’d stated his intention to make two sequels if the movie was a success. When the extent of Avatar’s profits became clear, Cameron began talking a bit more about what the first sequel would entail: further adventures of the central pairing, Sully and Neytiri, with sequences taking place in the planet Pandora’s ocean and returning appearances from Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.

The original plan, as announced by Cameron himself, was to have Avatar 2 completed and released by 2014, with the second film following on one year later. Yet as 2014 came and went, all we really knew about the Avatar franchise was that it was growing. The release of Avatar 2 was pushed back to 2016, but Cameron then announced that two further sequels would come out in 2017 and 2018.

There’s a pattern forming here. At the 2016 CinemaCon in Las Vegas, Cameron announced that Avatar 2 is being pushed back yet again – its release date is now scheduled for Christmas 2018. But there’s more: three sequels are now planned, to be released, with Avatar 3 set for Christmas 2020, Avatar 4 due in 2022 and Avatar 5 readied for 2023.

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“We began to bump up against the limitations of our art form,” Cameron said of the sequels’ development. “I’ve been working the last couple of years with a team of four top screenwriters to design the world of Avatar going forward: the characters, the creatures, the environment, the new cultures. So far, the art I’m seeing is, in pure imagination, really far beyond the first film. It’s going to be a true epic saga.” 

If nothing else, the Avatar sequels’ already huge gestation period speaks to Cameron’s huge clout in the jostling world of Hollywood filmmaking. Where most movie makers would be pressured to get a sequel out within a year or two, Cameron’s evidently been given the luxury of spreading out and creating the sprawling Avatar sci-fi universe as he sees fit.

From a personal, creative perspective, there must be something wonderfully freeing about this: Cameron is in the position to create a multimedia fantasy landscape on the scale that only one or two other filmmakers have ever found possible.

Yet from a film fan’s point of view, there’s an obvious downside: Cameron has effectively vanished from the movie making landscape since the end of the last decade. By the time Avatar 2 comes out 2018 (that is, if it isn’t delayed again) Cameron will have been away from the big screen for nine years. Sure, there was a gap between Titanic and Avatar, but he was working on other projects then, whether they were documentaries or the short-lived Dark Angel TV series. Since 2009, Cameron’s effectively disappeared into a universe of his own devising, like the doomed lovers in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Brian De Palma once said something to the effect that, when George Lucas created Star Wars, the world lost a truly great filmmaker. This isn’t to say that Star Wars isn’t a great contribution to pop culture in its own right; but all the same, we can only wonder what strange and experimental bits of filmmaking Lucas might have made had he not wound up at the head of a vast movie and merchandising empire. 

Likewise James Cameron. Avatar was undeniably a mesmerising visual onslaught. That he’s far from rushing the follow-ups should mean he has something equally sumptuous in store. But what about all those other projects he’s talked about over the years but keeps putting off? The adaptation of a thriller called The Informationist, for example, or his World War II drama Last Train From Hiroshima? Or, for the sci-fi fanatics among us, there’s his proposed manga adaptation Battle Angel, a production which now seems to be in the hands of Robert Rodriguez.

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Assuming he has no time to make these in between sequels, Cameron will be fully ensconsced in the Avatar universe for the next seven and a half years. That’s an astonishing amount of time to spend on what is effectively one sprawling saga.

But let’s end on the best-case scenario.

It’s the year 2023, and the final Avatar movie has appeared to huge acclaim. It’s emotional, thrilling, and looks beautiful. The series as a whole is hailed a masterpiece in fantasy storytelling. James Cameron, meanwhile, is still in his 60s and flush with energy. Citing Ridley Scott and Cecil Be De Mille, who both continued to direct well into their 70s, Cameron vows to make all the films he’s had on the back-burner since the start of the century.

Decades on, the filmmaker who made Xenogenesis with a rented camera and a few thousand dollars of dentists’ money is back, his creative spark still shining as brightly as ever.