A Plague of Sequels

The franchise and cultural decay

Breaking the Bubble | Matt Boomer | April 19, 2016

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Last week, James Cameron confirmed plans for four sequels to 2009’s Avatar over the next seven years, meaning that by 2023, there will be five Avatar movies no one needed to see.

Avatar was a box-office hit – adjusting for inflation, it is the 15th-highest grossing film in American history. It achieved this through cutting-edge effects and dazzling visuals, but offered little else. The plot was shamelessly derivative, the dialogue was insipid and cliché-laden, the acting was unconvincing, and the message – corporations bad, nature good – was so heavy-handed, it made Michael Moore look subtle. Despite its lucre, it had no pop-culture footprint: it came, it saw, it conquered the box office, and it disappeared.

Other movies have cultural staying power because of something Avatar lacks: impact. Great films inspire us and inhabit the back of our minds, whether we know it or not, as we live our lives – as positive examples of virtue, cautionary tales of vice, or ambiguous, layered, thought-provoking ethical studies. Their elevated status in our collective memory is the sum-total of millions of individual experiences. For Avatar, there is no such impact. I defy you to find one person who can, off the top of his head, name three or more of its characters or reference one recognizable quote, let alone one with lexicological significance.

Pictured: protagonists frick frack and such-and-such.
Pictured: protagonists frick-frack and such-and-such.

Avatar‘s sequels will likely fail to address these problems, because their maker’s esteem for his work is matched only by his immense self-regard. If you built a monument to James Cameron’s ego, he would complain that it didn’t give him enough credit. He is talented, but, like George Lucas before him, he is blinded by overconfidence and privilege, surrounding himself with sycophants to insulate him from criticism.

Quality control is for suckers.
Feedback is for losers.

Reminiscent of the “feelies” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Avatar pleases the senses but does nothing for the mind. It does not offer new or interesting consideration of the human experience, nor does it expand our imagination beyond its outlandish visuals. Films like this have become increasingly popular in recent years, with studios favoring sure money in effects-driven spectacles over risky, innovative storytelling and dialogue. This was the reasoning behind the brief 3-D boom, of which Avatar was the foremost representative, and it is why there will be at least seven films in the aggressively mediocre Transformers series.

Meanwhile, franchises based on great films are stretched beyond credulity. With rare exceptions – such as last year’s Creed, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the James Bond franchise – reboots, sequels and remakes of classic films are bloodless, empty shells of their originals. However, revisiting beloved characters is safe for studios looking to recoup their investments, which is why we have a new Batman film only four years after the last series definitively concluded, while Ghostbusters and Die Hard get sequels years after they should have been retired. As these series drag on, they take on Avatar-like qualities, sacrificing acting, writing, and storytelling for cartoonish spectacle. This is the difference between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, between the original Star Wars and its prequels. In each case, the later installments failed because, despite improved effects, they were hollow and unsatisfying.

Lest you think I am engaging in genre snobbery, or that contributing to human understanding is too high a bar for blockbuster films, rest assured: a film need not be a highfalutin period piece to pass this test. Die Hard, whose tapestry of lyrical genius includes such gems as “yippie-ki-yay, motherf*cker,” (“mister falcon,” if you’re watching on cable), still added something to our imagination: an action hero anyone could identify with, a good man in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was not an original idea, but Die Hard defined it for a generation. The Lord of the Rings, an incredibly successful literary and cinematic franchise, has probably impacted me more than any work of art because it tells an epic, inspirational narrative – one that draws on history and countless ancient stories. A film can have a gigantic budget, borrow from older stories, be silly or dumb, and still have meaning as artistic expression. Even bad films can be memorably bad – who among us has witnessed Nic Cage’s hysterical overacting in The Wicker Man and forgotten it? Avatar, however, fails so deeply that it does not even manage to be bad. It is just forgettable. It is unoriginal, but its problem is not that it is simply Pocahontas in space with giant Smurfs; rather, that it is that and nothing more. It does not redefine or augment the themes and stories from which it is derived, it does not provoke new thoughts or put any innovative spin on its influences. The ideas it espouses are condescendingly trite, putting forward nothing a 5-minute children’s cartoon could not express. Despite its incredible visuals, it is utterly unremarkable storytelling. You sit down, endure it, and forget it. Now we can look forward to that four more times. Bravo, Mr. Cameron.