What the hell happened to James Cameron’s avatar sequels?

The most-successful movie of all time is about to be eclipsed by Star Wars.

Zo‘e Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar
Do we still care? Avatar's Na'vi will (finally) be back in 2017. Image Picture 20th Century Fox

Star Wars: The Force Awakens hasn’t even been in cinemas for a month, but it’s just overtaken Avatar as the most successful movie of all time in the US.

Worldwide box office domination will likely follow (watch for when the film hits China), but as Star Wars leaves another epic in the dust, what’s happening with the future of James Cameron’s Naʼvi franchise?

The sci-fi flick is seven years old and is that rare Hollywood commodity: a mammoth that doesn’t have a sequel yet.

That’ll change when Avatar 2 finally arrives in December 2017. The follow-up is the first of three sequels on the horizon, with Cameron planning to shoot them all back-to-back and release one every year up to 2019.

But could this end up being one big folly? Avatar arrived on a wave of hype surrounding its then-cutting edge 3D – a novelty that dazzled audiences at the time, before swiftly annoying them thanks to the ticket price hike to fund those annoying glasses.

Avatar 2 faces an uphill battle to win back audiences. If the first’s tech breakthrough made it a must-see, then Cameron’s insistence on shooting the sequels in HFR (high frame rate) could be his undoing. Peter Jackson tried out HFR for The Hobbit, only for audiences to throw it right back at him complaining about its cheap home video look.

Avatar director James Cameron at a screening for Terminator
Image Picture Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Avatar 2 needs to offer audiences something new in terms of eye-popping big screen spectacle, because if the first movie was proof of anything, it’s that Cameron’s storytelling instincts aren’t particularly innovative. Who’d have thought Dances With Wolves meets FernGully would’ve been such a mammoth success?

Another issue facing the new Avatar is the fact that its predecessor left no recognisable pop culture footprint. There’s no TV series off-shoot, comic book series, Lego tie-in or major merchandising spinoffs of note. Consequently, Avatar has faded from memory amid a blitz of Marvel and DC Comics movies. Nobody particularly references it, least of all other films or directors.

It feels like the odds are stacked against Avatar, but Cameron has a history of being an unlikely Hollywood underdog. It’s easy to forget how Titanic was a notoriously difficult movie to make and was tipped to sink faster than the ship before it won 11 Oscars and turned Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into household names.

Avatar, too, wasn’t a sure thing. Its astronomical budget and unknown stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana made it a gamble. In the end, Cameron’s digital dream world Pandora kept cinemagoers coming back again and again.

Write James Cameron off at your peril, even if he really should get a shift on.

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