Saturday, January 30, 2010

If you don't quit while you're ahead... Why we don't need an Avatar sequel.

We never got a sequel to ET: The Extra Terrestrial. We never had to sit through a strained next chapter to Titanic. We never suffered through a film adaptation of the alleged wretched Forrest Gump and Company. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of studios and unimaginative executives, we are spared unnecessary sequels, spin-offs, and prequels for films that made lots of money the first time around. So yes, it is possible for filmmakers to just walk away for the good of the property. With news that Avatar has crossed $2 billion in worldwide box office and has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, the people behind this monumental achievement are quickly putting their eggs in line for the next installment. I rather loved Avatar. I've defended it from charges that it was merely a 3D special effects exercise, and I've defended it from charges that its box office glory was somehow fraudulent. But I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to see a sequel.


Avatar SPOILER WARNING in place...

It would seem that one of James Cameron's motives was to create a world that he could play in to his hearts content, similar to what George Lucas created with the Star Wars franchise. Pandora was probably intended to be Cameron's 'galaxy far far away' sandbox. And after the coup he just pulled off, he should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to dabble in his newly created universe. But, sight unseen, I'm not terribly interested. Unlike Star Wars, The Matrix, or Pirates of the Caribbean, there aren't very many interesting characters left to revisit by the end of the first chapter. Aside from our two leads (Jake and Neytiri), pretty much every other worthwhile supporting character is dead by the time the credits roll. Stephen Lang's villainous general, Sigourney Weaver's virtuous scientist, Michelle Rodriguez's side-switching pilot, Neytiri's father, Tsu'Tey (Neytiri's intended and leader of the Na'vi army) all perished by the film's conclusion. Sure we could have Giovanni Ribisi's company man returning to Pandora in some capacity (perhaps reborn as a pacifist?), and Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) and Moat (Neytiri's mother) are still in Pandora, but that's a pretty thin returning supporting cast. While Avatar certainly had its share of interesting characters, most of them didn't make it to the end credits.

Comparatively, Star Wars ended with every single major character able to make some kind of reappearance, save for Peter Cushing's Tarkin. The Matrix had several casualties during the second act (plus a few characters lost to contract disputes), but the main trio of Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity were triumphant, with a resurrected Agent Smith waiting in the wings. Pirates of the Caribbean started its second chapter with its own anti-heroic trio of Jack, Will, and Elizabeth alive and well, plus several notable supporting characters (Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport, and several comic pirates) able to carry the load. Part of the fun of a sequel is to be reunited with the characters we loved the first time around. Save perhaps for Zoe Saldana's Neytiri, is there anyone left in the world of Avatar who merits a return trip?

But should a sequel come about, where exactly do you go? Due to the specific nature of the first film's narrative (it was an archtypical story about an indigenous people repelling foreign invaders), the options are somewhat limited. You either deconstruct the mythic template of the first film (The Matrix Reloaded), you challenge the moral compass of the first film (The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), or you basically retell the same story on a bigger canvas (IE - the corporation returns to Pandora, with an even bigger army) and hope the audience doesn't notice (to be fair, Cameron basically played that trick with Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

The other option, one that Fox wouldn't be too crazy about, is to go smaller, with a more intimate story that is more closely focused on a few characters. The Empire Strikes Back pulled this off and became the most-loved film in the Star Wars franchise, but remember that it was actually somewhat disliked upon release for the very things (a darker tone, a more intimate narrative, an emphasis on character over spectacle) that it is praised for today. While most of the above examples were good if not great sequels, they all had a large cast of characters with which to paint the next chapter of their respective franchises. This is the advantage that Avatar lacks.

So, with that being said, perhaps James Cameron should leave the world of Pandora to other mediums (video games, comic books, etc) where the world can expand at a slower, episodic pace. James Cameron's gamble paid off in every way imaginable, so perhaps its best that he walk away from the table with a full bag of chips. Avatar was a staggeringly powerful work of cinema, but I have no desire to see another chapter of this stand-alone tale.

Scott Mendelson

6 comments:

Tom Clift said...

Very. Well. Said. Although I'm not sure Pirates or Matrix 2 count as "good" sequels, but I do agree that Cameron would do good to leave Pandora as it is

RP said...

I like your analysis, but think that there could be interesting possibilities if they introduce new characters, play out the other things that could go wrong once a human has "gone native" in a new civilization.

4nr said...

The sequel is clear - the brother did not die but has organised his own secret plans!

Jon Hainer said...

What do you mean, where do you go from here? There are so many possibilities!

1 - The Na'vi go to earth to negotiate a peace treaty. Perhaps they inhabit human bodies to interact directly with the humans.

2 - Pandora is not quite so united as it seems. There's another group of Na'vi on another continent that would be more than happy to help the humans overthrow their neighbors.

3 - The close human contact has started a plague that threatens the whole planet. Jake Sully and Nierti must strike a deal with the devil (the humans) to get the modern medicine necessary to preserve the planet.

4 - Upon hearing about guaranteed eternal life in the Pandora world-brain, a group of religious zealots make their own Avatars and try convince the Na'vi to let them merge with the hive mind.

5 - A group of environmentalists start Avatar eco-tourism. The very people who profess to loving Pandora, however, are inadvertently destroying it.

The sky's the limit on plots, really.

Jon Hainer said...

What do you mean, where do you go from here? There are so many possibilities!

1 - The Na'vi go to earth to negotiate a peace treaty. Perhaps they inhabit human bodies to interact directly with the humans.

2 - Pandora is not quite so united as it seems. There's another group of Na'vi on another continent that would be more than happy to help the humans overthrow their neighbors.

3 - The close human contact has started a plague that threatens the whole planet. Jake Sully and Nierti must strike a deal with the devil (the humans) to get the modern medicine necessary to preserve the planet.

4 - Upon hearing about guaranteed eternal life in the Pandora world-brain, a group of religious zealots make their own Avatars and try convince the Na'vi to let them merge with the hive mind.

5 - A group of environmentalists start Avatar eco-tourism. The very people who profess to loving Pandora, however, are inadvertently destroying it.

The sky's the limit on plots, really.

4nr said...

The sequel is clear - the brother did not die but has organised his own secret plans!

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