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Filmism.net Dispatch June 9, 2020

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In case you missed the news a year or so back, Avatar's ten year reign as the biggest movie of all time ended under the box office onslaught of Avengers: Endgame.

Interestingly, you couldn't find two more different movies on top of the theatrical takings tree. What? I hear you ask. Are you nuts? They're both huge visual effects-driven sci-fi juggernauts, how can they be different?

The difference is that anything remotely connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has spent the last ten years whipping movie fans, the media, studio heads all over Hollywood and everybody with an opinion into an ever-increasing frenzy. If we haven't been talking about the box office big enough to get several developing world countries out of debt, we've been talking about the audacity of such a grand experiment to make a decade-long story so closely intertwined it's essentially a TV series where every episode cost hundreds of millions of dollars, ran for two hours-plus and was released in cinemas.

The online/public/economic discourse around Marvel has been full enough to comprise a whole other internet in itself. Now look at the corresponding conversation about James Cameron's epic spectacle since its release in 2009. Hear the crickets?

We crowed about the 3D for a few years until Hollywood ruined it like it does every new technology. But a decade later, is anyone still talking about Avatar apart from chatter about the seeming dozens of sequels being made right now? This story from Forbes summed its absence from the cultural consciousness up perfectly in the headline, let alone the rest of the article.

And that's from 2014. It didn't even take 10 years for us to forget Pandora, Jake Sully and the six legged horse things, it took five. Now, Avatars 2, 3, 4... 49 have twice the battle to fight, for several reasons.

The first, and I know it's got a lot to do with my age, but it's also got a lot to do with relative scarcity. A new Star Wars movie when I was a kid was a unique life event. Now it's just another movie in the crowd like Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker was. With a new Star Wars every year the name is losing its lustre.

Avatar was the last real cinema event that captured the world before the all-encompassing reign of Marvel propelled so many of their movies not just into hits but cinematic watersheds. We were talking about it for months beforehand. In fact I'd argue we were talking about it more than we were Avengers: Endgame, because the latter was just a big fat sequel to a bunch of what had come before. With the promise of a new, eye-popping version of an old technology in the 3D, all of it delivered in a completely new world of creatures and cultures and (*gasp*) an original story, it was something we'd never seen before. Now, it'll be just another studio sci-fi behemoth.

The bigger battle will be that the endless Avatar sequels are going to arrive without the secret sauce the original had. I haven't seen any word on whether they'll all be 3D, but one assumes not only that they will be but, in the hands of master technologist Cameron, the 3D will be legitimately great rather than the postproduction, cobbled-together, headache-inducing add-on it was in subsequent movies for no reason other than so they could charge us more for tickets.

But it's been years since 3D was a selling point. We've been through it and come out the other side unimpressed, and it won't bring punters in like it did the first time. The reason Who Framed Roger Rabbit was such a great movie is very much rooted in the era it came out. The enmeshing of live action and animated characters and elements on screen was brilliant because it was done much better than we'd seen in movies like Pete's Dragon before it. back in 1988, we as audiences could see how groundbreaking it was.

If a sequel came out these days (and yes, the writers have one ready to shoot), we know how making animated characters interact with real props and backdrops is a piece of cake for an average VFX engineer. Like Avatar, Who Framed Roger Rabbit's secret sauce is gone, locked in place in the history of filmmaking technology and technique.

But the final battle will be that despite Cameron's technical filmmaking prowess, he's a bit on a par with George Lucas when it comes to writing characters and story. Without the 3D rabbit to pull out of a hat to convince us all he's worth our $15, what else will Avatar sequels have? Great stories or dialogue? If you've watched the original in the last few years you'll know the future bodes poorly if that's what you're banking on. It's awful!

Viewing on (small, socially distanced) screens lately hasn't been as impressive as it sometimes is, with no real stand-outs. I did enjoy the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems, which (like Greta Gerwig did with Little Women , regardless of how much I disliked it) give two indie directors who've so far worked with original idea and great actors but tiny budgets a much broader canvas on which to spin their tale, one they grew into beautifully.

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