It was recently rumored that director James Cameron has verbally closed the door on his future beyond the Avatar concept, vowing only to make movies about his far-flung Pandora from here on out. It was news that make me scoff more than a little bit.
I’m biased, of course. I’m not a fan of Avatar, finding the whole thing to be alternately too simplistic and overwrought to take beyond the fairy-tale realm. I was not impressed by the rubbery CGI, and I never saw the 3D version but suspect several audience members were more intoxicated with the wow-factor of that than what they were actually witnessing — which sometimes reeked of incredibly bad teenage fiction. But I’m not a fan so, of course, I would think that. The true fans, the ones so captivated by Pandora that they went to see the movie again, and again, and again, making it the all-time box office champion, probably want more and cannot wait for their next flight through fantasy.
Or can they?
Fandom creates a weird Doppler Effect where the most ardent admirers of a feature become enraptured and obsessed by it and say things they later regret. These things range from, “I wonder how Darth Vader became Darth Vader,” to “what if cloned dinosaurs found their way to Mainland U.S.,” and everything in-between. Cameron himself knows what happens when wish-fulfillment goes wrong. His Aliens got it right, but David Fincher’s subsequent Alien 3 did not. His Terminator franchise sputtered and spurted across Numbers Three and Four, met with limited interest via a TV series, and is once again coming around the bend in the theaters in a few years. Sometimes, denying the audience what they say they want is wiser than giving in.
There’s no better illustration of this than The Matrix. Even today, few could deny the mind-bending effect the story had on our culture, both pop-and-otherwise. The visuals became synonymous with what was cool and hot all at once, and Keanu Reeves, perpetually drifting between being “either Bill or Ted, I don’t remember” and “that guy in Speed,” was legitimately a star again. The regurgitation of the “bullet-time” effect in all media quickly identified the users of such as copycats who hadn’t yet received the memo — it was all over nearly as it began.
But the fans said, well, I can’t wait for more. Feed us more, until we burst. Fans always say that, but they don’t often mean it. They say they want all the secrets, the inner workings of Zion, the love story of Neo and Trinity, and whether he’ll accept his destiny as “The One” or not. What they really want is the version already written, shot, and running in their heads; a version the Wachowski Bros. never could have presented, and bro-ther, did they not present it. When it was implicit in the fan-fiction continuum, The Matrix still had cache. When offered as explicit on the screen (and yes, what is with that orgy/rave scene?) the fans had to put the torch to their own unique visions, accept this one, and swallow this whole nonsense about a “saga.”
A saga is something you invent after the fact to make people think you had a plan all along.
You can tell, too. The contrivances in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolution fling the mumbo and the jumbo with such heavy-handedness that one only needs to imagine the bull session where the concept went horribly off the rails. That concept was nothing less than mythologizing existential events like coincidence, deja vu, and that weird thing where you meet a stranger with a feeling so comfortable you’d swear you knew them all your life. It was about putting a fictitious scalpel to common occurrences, not about exploring archetypes. Up to the point of the first film’s end there weren’t many archetypes, so why did they need to build them?
The end effect was that Movies Two and Three, while not ruining Number One, certainly spoiled it. It is impossible to extricate the storylines now. We’re stuck with the hero-building and hero-killing arc, which I’m sure none of those hardcore fans were looking for. So this notion that fans want more Pandora may be very true, but it is nothing Cameron could provide them. If nothing else, he’s proven himself to be a stubborn individualist who is going to do whatever the hell he wants, and however the hell he wants. He hasn’t yet had to face concrete expectations like he will with Avatar 2, but he will.
Cameron committing so fully into this only intensifies the eventual Doppler Effect where the tone given, when paired with the speed in which it passes, warps the tone. He gets to wash his hands of the two latter Terminator flicks because he didn’t make them. That’s the bargain most movie-makers have to enter into: you can become synonymous with your creation but it is owned by the studio, producers, and money-men. If they want a sequel, they’ll get a sequel with or without you. Yet, if it sucks, it wasn’t your fault. Brush your shoulders off.
Cameron owns Pandora as part and parcel of his Lightstorm Entertainment imprint. He doesn’t have to go farther, and nobody is going to slip in through the side door to make inferior sequels — Big Momma’s Avatar or Avatar Four The Quest For Peace won’t happen without his say-so, so the concept is safe, provided he doesn’t muck it up himself. But considering the fans have already made their internal sequels, there aren’t many alternate directions to take that would please them. I’d warn him against such fixed proclamations as saying it is Avatar from here on out but, even if he heard them, he’d never pay them any mind. He’s already decided which colored pill he’s going to swallow.