Monday 18 December 2017

Bolt Out of the Blue: The Legacy of the Biggest Film Ever

It's been eight years since the most successful film of all time took the world by storm – but why does no-one talk about Avatar anymore?

It's just a few sleeps until Christmas and a popular, charismatic director is on the cusp on releasing a landmark science-fiction property. The anticipation is palpable; every shred of information of the upcoming movie is endlessly poured over and dissected.

Even though this exact portrait can be applied to JJ Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens just two years ago, it could also be in reference to an earlier, even bigger film – James Cameron's Avatar. Back in 2009, Avatar was everywhere; its arrival on the silver screen wasn't just treated as a film, it was a landmark event. A milestone in cinema history. Not only was it a wholly original science-fiction property from the guy who brought us Terminator, Aliens and Titanic, it was the first modern blockbuster to employ 3D technology and seamlessly interweave motion capture.

Speaking to The New Yorker at the time, Dreamworks Animations' Jeffrey Katzenberg said Avatar would signal the "third great revolution" in the history of film, following on from the introduction of sound and colour. In the same article, RealD CEO Michael Lewis compared Avatar with Citizen Kane, commenting on how it may be a definitive work on par with Orson Welles' 1941 classic.

If they sounded hyperbolic then, they certainly do now – Avatar may have racked up $2.7 billion and nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director), but its lasting impact in the realm of fandom has been fairly muted to say the least.

When was the last time you saw someone cosplay as Neytiri? How often do you or your friends quote the film? How many of you can remember the name of Stephen Lang's admittedly terrifying villain? Why is it that, after eight years, the biggest Avatar property to emerge since the film left theatres is a Cirque du Soleil arena show?

In a media landscape dominated by the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Netflix and myriad other geeky IPs, Avatar has been somewhat crushed under foot. After making a huge splash and creating waves the world over, Cameron's all-conquering behemoth has subsided from everyday lingo.

Instead, its footprint on our cinematic landscape remains largely invisible. Out of the spotlight but no less influential, Avatar's imprint can't be measured in Pop Vinyls sold or ThinkGeek T-shirts worn. No, instead we see its influence woven throughout dozens of blockbusters every year; in the years following Avatar's release, every studio and its dog was scrambling to slap a 3D premium on top of the ticket price, with the results varying wildly – 2010's Clash of the Titans an example of one such harried copycat that failed to gel, while more recent efforts like Ant-Man or Transformers: The Last Knight enjoyed a more profoundly successful integration with the technology.

Not only that, but motion capture technology, experimented with by the likes of Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis and evolved further by Cameron, has played an increasingly pivotal role in mainstream cinema since Avatar's arrival.

Think Andy Serkis' ongoing monkey business in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series or Rogue One's uncanny revival of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. Avatar is a landmark film not because it invented this technology, but showed what was possible then and well into the future.

This outstanding technological prowess has led many critics to disregard Avatar as nothing more than a vapid showreel or tech demo in the intervening eight years, an argument which certainly holds water if you're feeling particularly picky. Its characters and narrative are broad; its themes and message feel overly familiar. Though it isn't based on an existing property, Avatar wears its influences on its sleeve, from Dances with Wolves and Tarzan to Pocahontas and FernGully. The large mechs are Cameron referencing his own work on Aliens. We've heard and recited them time and again.

But, in its defence, what original property doesn't proudly proclaim its influences? Star Wars is a hybrid of Akira Kurosawa, John Wayne and Flash Gordon. Two of the best original films this year – Get Out and Baby Driver – are heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone and Heat respectively, amongst many others.

Avatar, though heavily influenced by those that came before, is at the very least an original product helmed by an A-list director armed with a budget comparable to the GDP of a small African nation. That, if nothing else, should be applauded, especially when you consider the hard yards Cameron is putting into what comes next, and its here that the true scope of Avatar's lasting legacy starts to take shape.

December 18, 2017 marks three years until the first long-gestating sequel to Avatar arrives in theatres. Shrouded in secrecy and reportedly the first of four sequels (taking us up to 2025), Avatar 2 remains a complete mystery. What we do know is mind-boggling.

Originally scheduled for release in 2014, Avatar 2 and its sequels have been continually pushed back and delayed. Not because of drama or strife on set; this isn't a Star Wars spin-off. No, instead, Cameron simply isn't armed with the technology he needs to make it work. Much like his work on the first film, Cameron is waiting for science to catch up with his imagination. We're still living in 2017 while Cameron and his ambition are off living in 2037.

Avatar 2 and its sequels with feature an ensemble cast of children,
in addition to returning stars like Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana
and Sigourney Weaver.
From pruning the four scripts to crafting character and creature designs, Cameron hasn't been resting on his laurels – if anything, he's going further, harder and deeper than ever before.

It would have been all too easy for Cameron to hand off the Avatar IP to 20th Century Fox and let them churn out a couple of mediocre sequels; instead, he's steering a ship costing upward of half a billion dollars and powered by cutting-edge technology that simply hasn't been deployed on a film set before.

In addition to bumping up the frame rate, Cameron has reportedly been exploring ways of integrating "glasses-free" 3D technology into the four Avatar sequels. Not only that, but the film's dive into a more aquatic setting has also forced Cameron to find ways to effectively record motion capture whilst underwater. That, just at a first glance, sounds mightily impressive. The guy delivered the biggest film in cinema history and isn't just choosing to double down, but quadruple down.

By the time Avatar 5 hits cinemas in 2025, the franchise will have consumed over two decades of Cameron's life. If that doesn't show ambition, I don't know what does. It's a gamble that is Cameron through and through; unwilling to compromise and unafraid to risk it all. It's one of his most admirable and detestable traits, according to those who work with him. Love him or hate him, right now Cameron is out there fighting a fight that so few filmmakers do – he's staking his reputation on an original property that isn't adapted from a comic, helmed by an A-lister or centred on a 'cinematic universe'.

So, returning to Avatar's lasting legacy. Knowing all that we know about what the future of the series holds, doesn't it stand to reason that Avatar's legacy lies ahead of it? Rather than fading away, it's simply dozing. At this stage, the first Avatar was just a trial run – the real test of its resonance with audiences will unfold over the next decade. All we know is this – after directing the two biggest films of all time, is anyone really going to bet against James Cameron causing lightning to strike thrice?

This article was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.

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