There’s a reason why James Cameron’s Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all time, and in all likelihood always will be, with the $2 billion success coming as a result of being at the right place at the right time. In selling the experience as a 3D spectacle for the 21st century, Fox saw unprecedented success, with the clunky goggles or rudimentary aviators of 2009 technology transporting audiences to the azure universe of Pandora.
Indeed, unlike Toy Story 3, Green Lantern or the U2 3D concert movie that each incorporated the technology as a mere gimmick, the promise of the glitzy third dimension was packaged alongside Cameron’s Avatar to make it a truly unmissable event.
Buying into this industry ploy, many did indeed see Avatar donning weighty goggles, effectively doubling the returns of the film, with the pricey 3D tickets helping the film over the $2 billion mark. James Cameron puts this down to the film’s fantasy plot, stating to the Los Angeles Times: “People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora,” though time suggests that this simple evaluation may not be the case.
With little but a stage adaptation, theme park attraction and upcoming video game to the film’s name a decade since its initial release, it’s hard to see who, if anyone at all, is excited for the release of the long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, later in 2022.
Our first gauge of audience excitement came last week (May 9th), when the trailer for the new film was released, first ahead of the new Marvel movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, before it was released to fans on YouTube. Amassing 148.6 million views on its first day online, media outlets were quick to come to the film’s praise, exclaiming the feat of such an achievement, though when compared to other recent movies and its $2 billion reputation, there is little to celebrate.
The record for the most views for a trailer in 24 hours was recently broken by Spider-Man: No Way Home at the end of 2021, when the video brought in 355.5 million views, over double the results for Avatar: The Way of Water. In fact, the trailer for James Cameron’s fantasy adventure doesn’t even get into the top ten, with the new Thor: Love and Thunder trailer beating it out, as well as Mulan, The Lion King and It.
From this evidence, it seems as though cinema has (quite predictably) moved on since the release of Avatar in 2009, with audiences eager for something more than mere spectacle.
Quite ingeniously, however, James Cameron is once again planning to seduce his audience with more technological innovation, lining up a brand new form of 3D that doesn’t involve glasses. Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron’s production company, has collaborated with Christie Digital to produce a ‘pure laser’ technology, a system that involves 60,000 lumens, producing bright visuals with a high frame rate, resulting in pure cinematic innovation.
Where 3D was quite a widespread phenomenon in late 2009, 20th Century Fox undoubtedly has a harder time on its hands with the distribution of the new film, with many theatres having to swap their projector system to screen this new 3D technology in their cinemas.
Grasping the potential of the undoubtedly impressive new 3D innovation may be the only way the film can hope to achieve the success of its predecessor, as comparing the world of Pandora to Tolkein’s Middle Earth or indeed the sprawling galaxy of Star Wars shows off its glaring flaws. With no lore, no beloved iconography and little contextual weight to its central narrative, to truly find long-lasting success, the world of Avatar may need to rely on more than simple gimmicks to feed its lacking substance.