Avatar amnesia: how the world forgot about the biggest film of all time

It was hailed as cinema’s ‘third great revolution’, but a decade on, the sequels haven’t appeared. What happened to James Cameron’s dream?

James Cameron's Avatar, starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, was supposed to herald a cinematic revolution
James Cameron's Avatar, starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, was supposed to herald a cinematic revolution Credit: Reuters

It’s coming up to 11 years since the world was transfixed by the biggest movie of all time. A science-fiction fantasy with groundbreaking special-effects, a powerful environmental message and, at the helm, one of the last true mavericks in Hollywood. 

But the real miracle was how, at Christmas 2009, Avatar grabbed our eyeballs – and our wallets – and then mysteriously erased itself from our collective consciousness. Somehow it smashed the box office and then seemed to pack itself up and disappear into the ether, unmourned – and not even widely remembered. Never before or since has a cinematic goliath left so faint a footprint. 

Avatar 2 has still failed to materialise. It was supposed to swing into cinemas on December 17 2021, which was 12 months later than originally planned – and 12 years since the original. The Covid-19 pandemic has ruined even that plan; the sequel has now been postponed another year.

And, uniquely for a film franchise, Avatar 2 already has a further three follow-ups, Avatars 3 through 5. They’ve all been bumped the same way, and will arrive in alternating years, in between a batch of new Star Wars movies (assuming, presumably, that Avatar 2 doesn’t flop). The most distant is Avatar 5, to be released on December 22 2028, almost two decades after the original.

Excited? Of course you aren’t. Nobody seems to be. Every fresh piece of Avatar news has all the impact of a oddly-shaped tree falling in an empty off-world forest. That’s despite the fact that Avatar 2 is already far more than a pipe-dream: the original cast of Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver are reprising their roles for the performance-capture segment of the project, and began live-action filming in New Zealand last year.

When you recall how comprehensively Avatar flattened the competition in 2009 – its $2.7 billion worldwide gross was more than those of the next three biggest movies combined – it’s shocking that its stock plummeted, and so quickly. Consider that, in addition to firing the starting gun on a lucrative new movie IP – and how often does one of those come along? – it was among the first mainstream pictures to approach 3D as a serious creative tool.

In that respect, Avatar promised to do more than put bums on seats. It was hyped as a technological great leap forward. The force of nature director behind Terminator and Titanic was about to usher in an era of cinematic immersion never previously witnessed. Avatar, went the sales pitch, was not simply a barnstormer but a game-changer.

“When you look at the history of film, there have been to date two great revolutions — sound and colour,” Jeffrey Katzenberg exclaimed in The New Yorker. “This will be the third great revolution… the day after Jim Cameron’s movie comes out, it’s a new world.” Another Hollywood analyst told the magazine: “The industry is looking for its Citizen Kane, its definitive work of 3-D, and Avatar may be that film.”

By general consensus, then, Avatar was more than a movie. It was a cultural earthquake. August 21 2009 was designated “Avatar Day”, with 15 minutes of preview footage screened for free at IMAX cinemas around the world. The ensuing brouhaha threatened to break the internet, as did the rush, two days later, to view the first trailer, downloaded four million times in 24 hours from iTunes alone, a stampede the company’s servers struggled to handle (and shattering the previous record of 1.7 million set by JJ Abrams’s first Star Trek film). 

Released on December 17, the 161-minute and $237-million movie steamrollered the box office, earning $26.7 million in its first 24 hours (despite snowstorms of uncommon severity across America). Internationally, it breached the $1 billion threshold in a record-breaking 19 days. A full seven weeks in, Avatar remained the top grossing film in the United States. The pantheon of gold-plated fanboy franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek had, it seemed, welcomed its newest initiate.

But Avatar’s bloom would quickly fade. Far from taking up permanent residency in the affections of the fan community, Cameron’s rhapsody in blue has shrunk from the public consciousness. The opening in late 2016 of a Na’vi -themed Cirque du Soleil show in North America (“Toruk: The First Flight”) was the first Avatar-related activity in nearly a decade.

James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver on the set of Avatar Credit: Mark Fellman

The past several years have been untroubled by Avatar video games or novels. Cosplayers have shown little inclination to dress as Na’vi, the long-limbed natives of the lush and deadly moon Pandora. Cameron’s bestiary of exotic monsters – a blur of boggle-eyed nightmares such as “Leonopteryx”, “Stingbat”, “Direhorse” – has gained minimal traction in the fan community. Avatar, it seems, is a sandbox in which nobody wants to play.

Technologically, it’s true, Avatar’s influence can still be felt. In terms of 3D, the film can be regarded as representing the Great Reboot. Seventy per cent of Avatar’s gross was from 3D, creating aftershocks still being felt to this day. In 2014, five years on, 12 of the year’s 13 highest earning films were available in 3D, representing a $7.5 billion take at the box office.

One wonders whether legacies are something that unduly detain Cameron himself. He appears to regard movies as Everests to be conquered rather than franchises to be milked. In every aspect of Avatar, in particular, he was determined to go where no filmmaker had previously ventured. Only by bringing Pandora fully to life, he believed, could he convey its sweep and beauty – a virginal aura in the film jeopardised by rapacious humans hunting the fictional rare mineral, Unobtainium.

And so, Sigourney Weaver was required to study with a professor of plant physiology so that she was able to more fully comprehend Cameron’s concept of Na’vi communing with vegetative life, and a university linguist was hired to create a 1,000-word tribal vocabulary inspired by Ethiopian and Maori dialects.

Behind the cameras, Cameron pioneered his own “Reality Camera System”, by which two high-definition lenses operated side-by-side to conjure an uncanny sense of depth and realism. True, the results of this toil are eye-popping. Whatever else you might criticise Avatar for – the preachy tone and often desultory plotting, say – experienced on the big screen, it was a sensory feast.

A scene from Avatar

But in concentrating on the technical elements, it’s arguable that Cameron created the space-opera equivalent of a tin man without a heart. As movie rather than simple spectacle, Avatar lacked a crucial spark. Though serving up a stunning tableaux of dreamy and nightmarish alien landscapes, its detractors claimed that it pulsated with mediocrity. As was exhaustively pointed out in 2009, the outsider-goes-native storyline reads like a sci-fi reheating of Kevin Costner’s preachy American Indian epic, Dances with Wolves. 

Plenty of viewers also despaired of Avatar’s basic premise: a (white) outsider swoops in to rescue the noble savage race. In addition to the parallels with Dances With Wolves, Cameron was accused of borrowing from animated films Pocahontas (a Disney reimagining of the quasi-historical American Indian) and FernGully (an environmental fantasy about a pristine jungle threatened by invading lumberjacks).

In 2016, the director was even dragged into a legal tussle with an artist who asserted that, when working with Cameron 20 years ago, he had pitched the director a movie about an evil mining company squaring off against a native tribe. In response, Cameron filed a 45-page declaration insisting that Avatar’s central concepts were conceived much earlier, as far back as the 1960s, when he was a daydreaming nerd in high school. 

“Avatar was based on and flowed out of my fascination with and love of science, the environment, science fiction, history and philosophy,” he wrote. “Since childhood I have been extremely curious about the natural world. I dreamed of being a scientist, so that I could personally investigate the great mysteries.

“When other kids were playing sports or watching TV, I was out exploring the woods around my village in Canada, collection samples or staying up late to look at the moons of Jupiter through my telescope.”

Pandora: World of Avatar land attraction in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Florida Credit: AP

It is, of course, possible that Avatar’s present obscurity is just a lull. A 12-acre Avatar theme park opened in 2017 at Disney World in Florida. Pandora: The World of Avatar encompasses animatronics and holograms, with visitors invited to explore the fantastical moon by boat or soar high on a “Mountain Banshee” flying reptile.

As well as hinting that the new movies, with a combined $400 million budget, may be considerably darker than Avatar, Cameron decided to film the first sequel partly underwater, using submarine motion-capture technology. It’s set in the vast, monster-filled ocean covering most of Pandora, with lovers Jake Sully (Worthington) and native Neytiri (Saldana) forcibly separated as the humans return to plunder the natural resources they believe to be rightfully theirs.

When the resurrection of villainous Col Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) was confirmed – he was killed spectacularly in the original Avatar – it led to speculation that he might be reconstituted as a Darth Vader-style villain: a ruthless, relentless melding of man and machine. It would be familiar territory, at least for Cameron.

An Avatar with the visceral panache and high-concept relentlessness of his Terminator films? It’s the sort of blue-sky thinking that a cinematic audience might actually come back to see.