Avatar became the biggest movie ever a decade ago this month, challenging the way Hollywood makes blockbusters but not really changing how they make them as pundits thought the movie would. Here's why.
Ten years ago this month, James Cameron's Avatar was unleashed on an unsuspecting world and soon became a sensation.
It was a Herculean accomplishment, with Cameron working on the project, off and on, since 1994 -- patiently waiting for the technology to catch up with his vision of a future where a disabled military vet (Sam Worthington) could transfer his mind into the body of an eight-foot-tall alien on the planet of Pandora, a kaleidoscopic landscape that could have just as easily been airbrushed on the side of a van. Upon its release on December 18, 2009, Avatar broke box office records and earned high praise from critics and audiences as well. Rarely is a movie's excellence as universally agreed upon and commercially validated. (Even Quentin Tarantino said that the sensation of watching Avatar was what he was going for with his Kill Bill movies but never achieved.)
Avatar was genuinely unlike anything anybody had seen before, and its next-level production pipeline and cutting edge visual effects threatened to change the way people produced and exhibited movies.
And then … nothing.
There were no movies in the wake of Avatar that were produced like it and little that felt aesthetically similar in the way that there were a bunch of movies after Lord of the Rings that were going for the same look and texture of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth epics.
And the 3D gold rush was over-mined so quickly that, earlier in 2019, Ang Lee's high-frame-rate action movie Gemini Man barely played in his desired format of 3D.
The question remains: Why? Avatar threatened to change the way we make and see movies, only that didn't happen. Here's our best guesses:
There's Only One James Cameron
Cameron is a filmmaker driven by pure determination. If the technology for something he wants to accomplish doesn't exist yet, he waits it out or pushes through his own ideas. (This is a man who has ventured to the bottom of the ocean multiple times.)
Can you imagine any other filmmaker who would have the guts to make a movie like this, where so much of it is crafted inside of a virtual world; where weeks or months would go by without knowing if it was going to work at all? Especially in the service of a new (and thus unproven) intellectual property?
Final figures were never released, but Avatar was widely assumed to be the most expensive movie ever made at that point (and wound up being the most successful). That's a big gamble. And there are only a handful of filmmakers who would have the intellectual intensity and creative forethought to even attempt something like this, much less pull it off with this degree of success. (It pulled down nine Oscar nominations and won three.) There have certainly been big creative swings, with unproven technology, in the years since (Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity comes to mind), but none overseen by a filmmaker who had envisioned a fantastical world and meticulously crafted it down to the smallest blade of grass the way Cameron did with Pandora.
It's still astounding to think about.
The Project's Complexity is Enormous
Just think about how much work this thing must have been.
There was the live action component of shooting, which included dozens of extras on highly detailed sets with props, costumes, and stunts, plus the motion-capture portion of production -- which included many of the same actors, but wearing all of the performance capture gear, interacting with actors who were being filmed traditionally.
Then you had all of the animation, taken largely from the performance capture sessions, that would then need to be heightened or finessed, taking exponentially longer than the filming ever did. The production pipeline alone is mind boggling, but the fact that Cameron and his team was dealing with unproven, undoubtedly buggy technology -- and pushing every artist and performer to their absolute limit -- the complexity therein is unheard of and has never been matched. Even Marvel movies, which seem like a giant headache for sure, are constructed inside the more traditional framework of filmmaking.
And keep in mind that the whole thing was being photographed natively in stereoscopic 3D. Can you even imagine?
There truly had never been something like Avatar before and there's certainly never been anything like it since.
Overzealous Studios Drank the 3D Well Dry
One of the reasons why nothing has quite captured the same spirit as Avatar has to do with the way that Cameron employed 3D.
It was immersive and overwhelming, with reports of people suffering from depression after leaving the theater because our real world was so comparatively drab. (The only solution? See it more times!)
But in the weeks, months, and years following Avatar's release, the overzealous studio system, keen to mimic the film's success (and hungry for those extra few dollars they charge for a 3D movie), would put anything out in 3D, oftentimes hastily converting them to 3D late in the post-production process.
Audiences looking for the next, wholly immersive 3D experience would by tickets to, say, Warner Bros' expensive (and creatively disappointing) Clash of the Titans remake, released a few months after Avatar. That movie was given dimensionality so late in the game it's a miracle they made it to theaters on time. As a result of such hastily-converted releases, audiences would walk away disappointed, not only in the movie but in the experience of watching a film in 3D. Three extra bucks for what?
Audiences became disillusioned and 3D became associated with second-rate gimmickry rather than cinematic artistry. Even if a movie wanted to approximate the enveloping feeling of Avatar, in the years since, it would never be exhibited that way.
Stories With Ecological Messages Scare People - and Studio Execs
Another, somewhat less remarked upon aspect of Avatar is its stringent environmental message and themes of ecological harmony and the dangers of industrialization.
Sometimes modern blockbusters pay lip service to some kind of social, cultural, or environmental issue, but most of the time large budget, visual effects-embroidered films play it fast and loose. They're not about much, besides the amount of bedsheets it can sell, and the global outlook of the movie industry means that these topics are mostly forbidden.
China is one of the biggest consumers of Hollywood product. They're also one of the world's leading polluters.
Having a straightforward environmental message could jeopardize a movie playing in that region. Avatar feels like an outlier now because of how upfront it was with its politics, something that most mainstream cinema since has been happy to pussyfoot around.