It feels like a whole generation ago that the eye-watering fuzzy spectacle of 3D was the most popular gimmick at every cinema around the world. Taking your clunky goggles or rudimentary aviators off at the end of a cinema experience was often a relieving experience, and as your eyes adjusted to the bright, vivid colour of the cinema foyer, you’d constantly wonder ‘why didn’t I just see that film in 2D’.
Though, of course, there was a period where everything from Toy Story 3 to U2 live in concert was shown in 3D, with this five-year phenomenon (from 2009-2014) largely being triggered by the astronomical success of James Cameron’s Avatar.
Selling the idea of an unprecedented cinematic event, James Cameron and 20th Century Fox ingeniously packaged the newly revolutionised 3D technology together with the director’s new fantasy spectacle, making it an ‘unmissable event’ for audiences. Avatar wasn’t just a film, it was an experience, and a novel one at that, as for many people in 2009, this would be their first taste of 3D filmmaking.
Buying into this industry ploy, many did indeed see Avatar in 3D, effectively doubling the returns of the film as a 3D ticket admission was often much more expensive, helping the film over the two billion mark for worldwide gross, becoming, as a result, the highest-grossing film of all time. James Cameron puts this down to the film’s fantasy plot, stating to the Los Angeles Times: “You’ve got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the Star Wars and the Star Treks. 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, was it really the bland cobalt world of Pandora that audiences really bought into, or was it the unique way of seeing this world, through the lenses of 3D goggles that really captivated crowds? With little but a stage adaptation, theme park attraction at Disneyland and upcoming video game to the films name over ten years since its initial release, one wonders quite how successful the planned sequels to the film will be, particularly without the allure of 3D.
With a sequel to the original film planned to be released in 2022, as well as Avatar 3 scheduled for 2024, along with a bevvy of other sequels dormant depending on the success of other films, it will be truly interesting to see where the franchise of the worlds highest-grossing film will lead. The success of the original 2009 film was, after all, lightning in a bottle, capturing a very specific transition in filmmaking where audiences were embracing newfound technology.
To reach the fantastical heights of its predecessor, Avatar 2 may have to seduce its audience with technological innovation, showing off a shiny new cinematic technique or even a brand new physical gimmick. Comparing the world of Pandora to Tolkein’s Middle Earth or indeed the sprawling galaxy of Star Wars as Cameron does, is a little flawed, however, with the world of Pandora having very little contextual weight other than its bright, creative exterior. There is no lore and no beloved iconography, with sheer existence one copied from several other creative sources from Disney’s Pocahontas to 1990s Dances with Wolves.
To truly find long-lasting success, the world of Avatar needs some rich substance to go along with its visual grandeur.