Avatar is James Cameron’s worst film – and it has ruined him

One of our greatest blockbuster directors has become mired in motion-captured mediocrity. Will his blue period ever end?

Blue planet: James Cameron's Avatar 2: the Way of Water Credit: Disney/20th Century Fox

The recent teaser trailer for the second Avatar film, unmemorably subtitled The Way of Water, was released this week. On his Twitter account, its creator and director James Cameron announced it with an unusual lack of grandiosity, simply saying "I’ve been looking forward to this." 

If this seemed a strangely low-key way of advertising the first footage for the sequel to the highest-grossing film ever made, the 97-second long trailer did little to inspire, surprise or stir. Not only did the much-vaunted footage look second-hand and oddly cheap, but it was also essentially undistinguishable from the trailer for the forthcoming video game, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. 

There are many other reasons why Cameron’s long-awaited (very long-awaited, in fact; it was first promised in 2014, and perpetually delayed since then) film seems to be doomed to an ignominious reception upon its release this December. Much of the appeal of the first film lay in its use of the then-revolutionary "true" 3D technique upon its release in late 2009, which gave it a must-see cachet that drew the curious to the cinema over and over again, resulting in a box office gross of nearly $3 billion. 

But watched at home, away from the sturm und drang of the theatrical experience, it became painfully obvious that the film was Cameron’s weakest in over a decade, perhaps ever. Once the revolutionary special effects were stripped away, all that was left was a thin storyline that bore a suspicious resemblance to the 1992 animated picture Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, largely indifferent performances from an undistinguished cast (a scenery-chewing Stephen Lang and Cameron regular Sigourney Weaver excepted) and a drably earnest ecological message. 

Only some thunderous action scenes – always a Cameron speciality - and the novelty factor of its 3D presentation distinguished it from many far less hyped films. The multiple awards that it won or was nominated for were surely gratitude for its financial achievements, rather than recognition of its success. 

But now the Way of Water is nearly upon us, 13 years after its predecessor. It is unfortunate that Cameron’s leading man (or, to be more exact, leading Na’vi) remains Sam Worthington, the Australian actor who manages to make a plank of wood look like Daniel Day-Lewis, just as it is a shame that, judged by the first footage, the much-vaunted underwater motion-capture effects (which accounted for much of the delay to the originally proposed release date) look distinctly underwhelming. 

It is a pity that Cameron’s composer of choice, James Horner has died in the intervening years, to be replaced by his former arranger Simon Franglen. It may be problematic that Cameron’s long-standing studio 20th Century Fox has been acquired by Walt Disney, who will be watching the film’s commercial performance with bean-counting precision. And, perhaps most of all, it is profoundly disappointing that one of cinema’s greatest directors has been so side-tracked and distracted by prizing technical detail over character, storyline and emotional effect. 

Cameron has, to his credit, been consistent about his envelope-pushing interest in special effects. With the exception of his Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis action-comedy True Lies, every single one of his previous films since Aliens has won Best Visual Effects at the Oscars. There is probably no filmmaker alive today whose work has been so innovative in its field, whether it is the revolutionary (and still impressive) morphing techniques that he launched in 1989’s The Abyss and then perfected in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day or the painstakingly detailed recreation of the sinking of the Titanic in his eponymous 1997 blockbuster. And yet as soon as he became fixated on motion-capture filmmaking, his entire approach to cinema changed. 

A motion-captured Zoe Saldana in Avatar

If the box office success of Avatar was a commercial vindication of Cameron’s approach and interests, then it is unfortunate for him that the intervening decade and a half has seen cinema and theatrical exhibition change beyond recognition, with the rise of streaming services endangering the cinema experience that he so prizes. 

In addition to his Avatar films (we are promised, or threatened, five in total, but I suspect that an indifferent box office performance for the second will see the series capped at a less-expensive three), Cameron has spent much of the past decade working on an adaptation of the manga series Alita: Battle Angel, which he originally planned to direct but eventually handed over to the director Robert Rodriguez, remaining on board in a screenwriting and producing capacity. 

When it was finally released in 2019, it was similarly enraptured by its own visual effects-led cleverness, with its lead Rosa Salazar undergoing similar motion-capture treatment in order to play an amnesiac cyborg. Audiences were unconvinced. Alita's box office takings of $400 million might sound impressive, but its budget of $200 million meant that it either only just broke even or even lost money. Despite an uncredited, silent cameo by Edward Norton as a supervillain at the end that was intended to set up future films, none have been greenlit. 

Rosa Salazar in Alita: Battle Angel

With Battle Angel’s wings clipped, Cameron’s sole game now is Avatar, and, should the films fail, it remains unclear as to what the now-67 year old director would wish to do next. The once-mighty Terminator series has fallen into abeyance after the financial and critical failure of the last four instalments, and it remains unlikely that Cameron would wish to return to the franchise. 

It would, of course, be a significant coup for the Marvel or DC producers to bring him on board in some capacity. But Cameron hasn’t directed a project that he did not originate himself since Aliens in 1986, and even the Marvel supremo Kevin Feige might find it difficult to deal with the notoriously uncompromising and exacting Cameron: a director who makes Stanley Kubrick seem like a model of a modest and humble company man. (His involvement with Spider-Man in the Nineties came to nothing, though a surprising amount of his original treatment survived in the 2002 Sam Raimi film.) And the other possibilities for a commercial director of his stature – directing James Bond; Netflix action films with unlimited budgets; Fast and Furious shlock – seem more than a little inadequate. 

It may be, of course, that Cameron confounds the naysayers again come December. He has form in this regard. Terminator 2, Titanic and Avatar were all written off before release amidst breathless media stories of chaotic on-set behaviour and ever-spiralling budgets. All of them were enormous, groundbreaking box office successes and continued Cameron’s self-proclaimed reign as “king of the world”. 

James Cameron on the 'set' of Avatar Credit: Mark Fellman

The initial teaser trailer for Avatar was similarly underwhelming, and yet the film’s rapturous reception meant that its oddly timid marketing campaign was swiftly forgotten. But, as Tenet proved for Christopher Nolan, there is a limit to what unchecked self-indulgence can translate into. Nolan’s forthcoming film about the atomic scientist Oppenheimer will see him move away from time-jumping action blockbusters to the (apparently) more conventional strictures of the biopic, and with a lower budget to boot. Might something similar await for his colleague? 

An often-forgotten aspect of Cameron’s success as a filmmaker is how unguardedly emotional his pictures can be. Whether it’s Ripley suiting up at the end of Aliens to do battle with the Alien Queen for Newt, Arnie heroically sacrificing himself at the end of Terminator 2, the horrific fate of the lovers on the Titanic or, perhaps most affectingly of all, the breathless underwater emotion that makes up the final third of The Abyss – Cameron’s most underrated and misunderstood film – his finest work represents a perfect synthesis of cutting-edge visual effects and raw emotion. 

He is a director who makes impossibly affecting love stories that masquerade as paeans to hardware and technology. Just as the Terminator is made up of a tough metal exoskeleton concealed beneath human flesh, so the beating, vulnerable soul of Cameron’s best work lurks under a dazzling barrage of sparks and pixels. 

We can only hope that the maestro of mechanised mayhem has pulled off such a combination again. Soon enough, we shall find out. But I am not inclined to be optimistic. Even Icarus fell to earth, after all. Yet if this most inquisitive of filmmakers sets out looking for a new subject, then whatever he comes up with next could be far more exciting than the peculiar adventures of the blue-tinged Pan’s People tribute group that he is currently fixated with. 

Just like the Terminator, he'll be back.