It is honestly fascinating to observe how Avatar: The Way of Water is ploughing relentlessly through the vast expanses of the worldwide box office, now on course to eclipse a whopping target of two billion dollars, all in the space of just about a month since its much-anticipated release. But equally, this unstoppable juggernaut is already slowly evaporating from our consciousness.
I have written already (and many other people did, too) about the curious case of how culturally irrelevant Avatar is and how it failed to capitalize on its own ingrained potential for its world-building to spread beyond the frame of the movie. At this point I don’t necessarily want to bet that history will repeat itself because it is (a) too early to tell and (b) James Cameron is likely to follow up with Avatar 3 much sooner. After all, it was allegedly shot back-to-back with The Way of Water, so maybe this time round he will be able to unmoor this series and turn it into a bona fide cultural item.
But what exactly is this series supposed survive on? After all, its greatest strength is not its storytelling or its characters, but the spectacle. In fact, a lot of James Cameron’s clout and success can be attributed to the fact he has historically been writing using almost exclusively clichés, thus making sure a story would not get in the way of entertainment, on the back of which he has been betting his movies would ultimately succeed. Normally, this is something that irks me. I like my blockbuster entertainment when it thrives on the strength of its characters and when the spectacle is propelled by a story that is believable and compelling. However, James Cameron has been (almost) consistently able to fly in the face of these requirements and has engineered spectacles that thrived on the back of their technical ambition alone, while relegating character development and narrative sophistication to the back. It is almost as though he possessed what is referred to as Reality Distortion Field – a unique trait that allows an individual to perceive the world not as it is but how they will it to be and then force the universe to abide by their vision, a trait also associated with a man named Steve Jobs.
Jobs wasn’t an engineer. He was not a computer whiz. Yet, thanks to his involvement, Apple became the biggest company in the world because he was somehow able to convince the public at large that their products were not only ground-breaking but cool to use. When the original iPhone was unveiled to the public as a paradigm-shifting device that allowed its users to do so many amazing things, the term ‘smartphone’ had already been coined. Android was already operating in the mobile market and other phones were able to do what iPhone could. But Jobs’ influence in product design combined with his personal charisma and unmatched confidence successfully convinced the general public that an iPhone was a device they must have. It became a watershed moment not because it was innovative or original, but because it looked sleek and because Steve Jobs personally told the world they should form long queues outside Apple Stores in anticipation of forking out small fortunes in exchange for an allegedly revolutionary handheld device that somehow made the owner feel special for having it.
Equally, as much as it may be a hard to swallow pill, James Cameron is less an artist than he is a producer of entertaining content, though an extremely successful one. The originality of his work does not stem from the narratives he writes, the characters he invents, or the stories he tells. They are all simple, digestible and accessible enough to facilitate the spectacle driven either by a gimmick originating from his Reality Distortion Field, a technical innovation, or both. He has an uncanny ability to examine what somebody else has already created and suggest a few crucial tweaks to endear the audiences. He looked at Alien and noted that the crux of its connection with the widespread public lied not quite in the haunted house horror elements, nor in the anti-capitalist dystopia underpinning the thematic third dimension of the movie, but rather in the uncanny biology of the titular creature and how it could be utilized to generate a lived-in spectacle.
Similarly, Cameron was able to take a simple slasher premise of Halloween (and maybe its sequel to an extent), lift a few key aspects of an episode of Outer Limits and construct a perennially entertaining movie about ‘Michael Myers from the future’ using nothing but clichés, prefabricated materials and form as building blocks of a movie which to the outside world looked perfectly original and easy to take in. He somehow instinctively knew – or maybe he distorted the reality to make it so – that people would latch onto the tragic story of the Titanic. Despite myriad naysayers, he insisted that 3D would come back because he would be the one carrying it in his palms, and it didn’t matter one bit that the story he used as a spoon upon which to deliver the spectacle while he was making airplane noises and making us gobble on Avatar was a veritable facsimile of Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves in a Smurf get-up. He just made it work.
It never matters to audiences Cameron lures out of the house once a decade to watch his movies (and then rewatch them thrice more) that the stories they go to drool over are wholly unoriginal, rooted in blatant clichés and often aggressively seasoned with unapologetic expository screenwriting that would simply never fly in a blockbuster directed by somebody else. Similarly, it never mattered to Apple fanboys that, despite what Steve Jobs was peddling from the stage, Apple products were never the best out there. He held a magical sway over the populace and convinced millions of Average Joes and Janes they were spending money on “the best there is” and that their new iGadget had the most tera-hufflepuffs per square donnerwetter or something. Because their guru said so.
That’s right – guru. And to be completely frank, the conversation surrounding James Cameron and his influence on cinema makes him look like one, too. For a while he held the record for the most Oscars awarded to a single movie. Well, tied with Ben-Hur and later with Return of the King, but this little nuance can be easily side-lined to make the plaudits stand out a bit firmer. He made the most financially successful movie of all time and absolutely nobody has a problem with the fact this mostest and bestest movie ever made absolutely no difference to the culture at large, or that its sequel – a decade in the making – is likely not to make a difference either. He convinced the masses that the product he kept behind a snazzy curtain was new, ground-breaking and completely indispensable even though it doesn’t stand to scrutiny when examined against its peers.
Avatar 2 is the best because it made all the money, and it made all the money because it’s the best. Because James Cameron said so. It doesn’t matter that the story it tells is protracted and boring or that an hour of running time could be easily excised without making a difference to the progression of the narrative. In any other movie made by literally anybody else a forty-minute-long sequence involving a bunch of completely animated kids exploring completely animated environments without advancing the story or developing their characters would be unacceptable. But in here it’s not a problem because bioluminescence, special effects, immersiveness and Jimmy-knows-best. Because he wouldn’t have put it there if he hadn’t had a reason. Because the guru said so.
James Cameron is not an artist. He’s a tech guru. And let the record state that I really love many of his movies, like The Terminator or True Lies (though it might be so because I grew up looking up to Arnie), but I think it’s time we sat down and admitted that in the last three decades James Cameron has been busy making rollercoasters, not films. Sure, they’re fun to ride on but they won’t change your life or exert any sort of impact on the world around you. They are dopamine generators. They are sleek, well-constructed products. They’re iPhones. And James Cameron is Steve Jobs of cinema. For better or for worse.