Is James Cameron’s Vision for the ‘Avatar’ Franchise a Dream or a Delusion?

Unless you want to bury your head in an underwater sand dune, it’s clear that “Avatar: The Way of Water” underperformed at the box office this weekend — a fact that shouldn’t change anyone’s experience of the movie. The critics, or at least a whole lot of them, were rapturous (though not this one; I thought “The Way of Water” had the same blend of wowza visuals and just-okay story that made the first “Avatar” a movie I enjoyed but was never remotely tempted to visit again). And audiences, who gave the film a Cinemascore grade of A, may sustain and build with the coming weeks.

If “The Way of Water,” like “Avatar” before it, is indeed a precedent-setting, eyeball-tickling movie whose images are the popping embodiment of a story that’s good enough to sweep you along, one might well ask: Who cares if it took in $150 to $175 million at the box office ­(as it was expected to) or the far softer $134 million it did? Why lose yourself in bean counting when James Cameron is reinventing the future of movies?

But is he? Let’s not fool ourselves: The bean counting has always been a driving dimension of the “Avatar” brand. It’s been the measure of Cameron’s ambition for it — that this was going to be a franchise that transcended all others, that lived in in its own heightened realm, that had the kind of mythological hold on audiences that George Lucas did after the first three “Star Wars” movies.

The popularity of “Avatar” was always going to be integral to that. After the original film, when Cameron laid out his master plan to make four sequels to it, my honest thought was, “Has he lost his mind?” Not because I thought the plan was commercially unfeasible, but because I couldn’t wrap my own mind around why the director of “Titanic” — a timeless and awesome film, because it was one of the most moving experiences in the history of popular cinema — could be saying, with the power to do anything he wanted, “I’d like to spend the next 20 years making ‘Avatar’ films.”

In 2009, the year of “Avatar,” the whole world went on that iridescent, psychedelic, flying-griffin Journey to Pandora theme-park ride. Most of us found it to be a lushly pleasurable experience, but I’m not sure if anyone was really asking for more. The collective attitude was closer to, “Cool! So now we know what that feels like.” It was a little like the moon landing: something you do once and then the thrill is gone.

“Avatar,” however, set the stakes high. The 3D “revolution,” which was essentially a way for the film industry to artificially jack up revenues by giving movies the “added value” of an “extra” dimension, had turned out to be a mostly annoying quasi-sham that viewers were already growing tired of. “Avatar,” with its breathtaking technological advances, gave 3D a shot in the arm. Yet I think it soon became clear that the movie, for all its bravura, was a spectacular anomaly. After its release, the 3D “revolution” continued to fade.

So even though “Avatar” became the top-grossing film of all time, when Cameron unveiled his plan to do nothing but make more “Avatar” movies, forwarding the saga of those tall blue-skinned nobly one-dimensional amazon ciphers who no one cared all that much about, he wasn’t just building on his success. He was doubling down. He was saying, “Yes, the 3D revolution is here. I’m the one who planted the flag on its paradigm-shifting possibilities and I’m the one who’s going to make it happen. If I build ‘Avatar’ movies, you will come.”

And that’s where following the money has always been integral to this saga. It’s Cameron himself who pointed out that for “The Way of Water” to break even, it needs to become one of the three or four top-grossing movies of all time. Good of him to admit it, yet there’s still an undaunted hubris driving that observation. He was saying, implicitly, “I know it will be.” Profit, loss, investment, payoff: All of that matters. But Cameron’s swing-for-the-fences strategy also relates to whether the “Avatar” movies actually mean anything or whether they’re just glorified technological showreels.

We already have a movie culture that’s drowning in imagistic sensation and action overload. Cameron, in movies like “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” was one of the virtuoso architects of that blockbuster aesthetic. He’s now competing against the very cinema-as-sensation mystique that overpowered the rest of movie culture, even as he raises the ante on it. I felt a note of magic during the middle hour of “The Way of Water,” which plunges us into the ocean with a kind of virtual-reality immersion. But the film’s extended action climax? That felt like something out of “Die Hard VIII: Die Harder on a Boat,” only rendered in 3D. At a certain point I thought, “So what?”

And now we’re going to get more! More “Avatar” sequels and more of what The Future of Movies Will Look Like. But if “The Way of Water” winds up a commercial disappointment, where does that leave the dream of “Avatar”? Cameron may still have the power to make his sequels, but if the “Avatar” films cease to be regarded by the audience as special, it may feel as if he has already entered his version of the George Lucas-directing-the-prequels zone. The “Avatar” films could become just one more bombastic, dramatically thin thrill-ride franchise in an endless sea of them.

The dream, of course, was that the “Avatar” films were going to redefine movies. That’s why Cameron was going to devote his life to them. He would be the king of the future. But the dream may have been a delusion. Cameron is a great filmmaker, but if he really wants to keep making these movies over and over and over again, the future may already be leaving him behind.

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