Why you should never write off James Cameron

“I am not Jesus, but I have the same initials” someone (Jarvis Cocker) once sang. With Avatar: The Way of Water on the horizon, will the similarly-initialed James Cameron have a successful Second Coming? Dominic Corry’s a believer.

It’s beyond a cliché at this point that the world always underestimates James Cameron, and he always proves them wrong. It was already a cliché when the first Avatar movie came out in 2009. He silenced the haters—before ‘haters’ was even a word—in 1997 when he released Titanic, recipient of some of the most gleefully spiteful (mostly forgotten) advance press in movie history. Yet it remains the great lesson that can’t be learned.

The hoary old staple is being trotted out once again in advance of Avatar: The Way of Water, the first of many planned sequels to the highest-grossing movie of all time.

“People don’t care about Avatar,” bray the naysayers. It feels more like a snarky dunk than a considered thought, yet the thesis has generated umpteen think pieces in the years leading up to the sequel’s release.

It says so much about modern moviegoing that the principal argument cited by Avatar doubters for the film’s lack of relevance is the dearth of perceivable expressed fandom for Avatar in online culture. Since when did we judge a film’s value (or popularity, for that matter) by the number of memes it generates?

I haven’t seen many Midnight Run gifs either, but that doesn’t stop that film from being one of the most beloved of all time.

Critics (not film critics, who are all well-adjusted, charming, generous people, I’m referring to critics of JC here) like to point to the constant delays and adjusted release dates as evidence of the folly of Avatar 2, but I say, let the man work at his own pace!

Most filmgoers (and filmmakers) wouldn’t argue with the assertion that 75% of what’s wrong with modern blockbusters is a result of a rushed, predetermined release date-centric mode of filmmaking (Exhibits A through C: the Star Wars sequel trilogy). God forbid a filmmaker lets the story development breathe.

Of the ten top-grossing movies of all time, the only two that aren’t a sequel or remake are Avatar (which reclaimed its number one spot after briefly ceding it to Avengers: Endgame in 2019) and Titanic. How does anyone have the gall to doubt James Cameron at this point? He’s one of approximately two working filmmakers with the power and the moxie to make large-scale original genre films.

But yet, I sort of, maybe, a tiny bit, get it. If only because the modern theatrical market is so unstable at the moment. My official stance is that Avatar: The Way of Water is going to blow all of our socks off and dominate cinemas for months. I would march into battle for James Cameron any day of the week. But I cannot deny a tiny sliver of doubt deep in my heart. Not for whether or not the film is going to kick ass, of that I am more than confident, but as to whether or not it can achieve the insane financial target that has been widely, (recklessly, one could argue) reported.

That, and many, many, many other articles have reported that the Avatar sequel needs to make 2 billion dollars just to break even, but if you go back to where this number was extrapolated from, an interview James Cameron did with GQ, the article actually states: “In order to be profitable, he’d said, ‘you have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That’s your threshold. That’s your break even.’”

Everyone else applied that statement to the current top ten chart and generated the figure, but I think we need to allow for the possibility that James Cameron is speaking a bit more figuratively here, and referring to the kind of success that he is hoping for, the kind that will guarantee all the planned (and partially filmed) sequels will be welcomed by Hollywood with open arms.

Yet I don’t want to cede too much ground to the doubters, as I said, I have a profound degree of faith in his abilities as a storyteller. When I was a teenager, my friends had posters of rock stars and Pamela Anderson on their walls, I had pictures of James Cameron.

I love how irascible he is being in the lead-up to the film. He’s so unapologetically himself at all times, and that is a rare thing in a film media age defined by overly-managed junket environments.

It’s hard to argue with his recent points about superhero movies.

James Cameron represents a style of genre filmmaking that is less about branding and more about epic, weighty storytelling. His auteurist, out-sized ambitions stand in direct contrast to how most modern blockbusters are essentially made by committee. In this type of filmmaking, the director has never been more de-emphasised.

But we still have James Cameron, and James Cameron is still doing his thing. And Avatar: The Way of Water is going to rule.