Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Avatar.
James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi film Avatar never really managed to break into pop culture in quite the way he hoped. It was a huge financial success – in part because folks were curious to see what this new project was all about – but it never really became a top-tier entertainment brand in the way Star Wars or Harry Potter did. In 1977, Star Wars became a phenomenon, and in the years afterwards the film was constantly on fans’ minds. The Empire Strikes Back cemented its place at the pinnacle of the sci-fi genre… even if Return of the Jedi perhaps tarnished its halo a little!
Avatar just isn’t on that level. There was a lot of hype leading up to its release, with a decent (if rather boastful) marketing campaign spearheading 20th Century Fox’s efforts to push Avatar as the “next big thing.” But for a lot of moviegoers, the film was just okay. It wasn’t bad; it was a solid, enjoyable summer blockbuster that went toe-to-toe with the best pictures of 2009 – including the rebooted Star Trek! But after leaving the cinema, I never really got the sense that fans were clamouring for more in the way Trekkies, Potter-heads, and Star Wars fans are for their respective franchises.
The creation of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World in Florida is a great demonstration of this. The new land attracted attention when it was built, and for months after it opened its rides were queuing out the door! But that happens for almost any new Disney attraction, and when compared to the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, it pales in comparison. There was huge excitement to be transported to a galaxy far, far away. There was curious interest in Pandora… but that was all.
None of this is to say Avatar was bad. It wasn’t at all, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I first saw it. But I was never desperate to re-watch it, and my latest revisit to the 2009 film – which may be the third or fourth time I’ve seen it – was prompted by nothing more than boredom. But it also led to this article, so at least I got something out of it!
This is a much broader point that ties into another piece I’ve been writing, but the difference between a good one-off story and a good story that becomes a larger franchise is world-building. Any film, television show, book, or even video game that hopes to be “the next Star Wars” needs to put time and effort into creating a world that fans want to explore. Star Wars and Star Trek did so, and they did so by showing fans a relatively small piece of what felt like a huge picture. The galaxies depicted in Star Wars and Star Trek are so much bigger than the few characters we met in their original incarnations; it feels like there’s much more to see beyond what was depicted on screen.
Avatar – and a lot of other wannabe-franchises too – doesn’t have that, at least not yet. Partly that’s because the film doesn’t hint at anything more than what we see – Earth, Pandora… and that’s it. And on Pandora there’s one major human outpost. There are starships flying back and forth, and the glimpses we got of Earth had a futuristic vibe, but the world Avatar created doesn’t feel as though it extends beyond the places we see. There’s no other planets that we could imagine humans or Na’vi colonising one day. There’s no fleets of starships on missions of exploration or fighting battles; the few ships we see just fly between Earth and Pandora.
Pandora itself is absolutely beautiful; a location painstakingly created. And the Na’vi are more than just a simple analogue for Native Americans or other indigenous peoples; Cameron and his team went to great lengths to craft Na’vi culture, even going so far as to write a fully-formed Na’vi language. Those efforts may yet pay off, but they don’t seem to have thus far. Because as interesting as the Na’vi are – and they are undeniably interesting – they’re all there is. One tribe of Na’vi and one human settlement on Pandora, and… what? Nothing else, as far as the film showed us.
There’s a sense of scale missing from Avatar, and its world-building, while wonderfully done, is small. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one aspect of a story and a few characters – in the first film in a series that kind of needs to happen! But if the aim is to create a series with franchise potential, something to hook fans in and get our imaginations running, that sense of scale and the idea of a greater world beyond what we see on screen is essential. It’s the single most important element in building a larger story – and Avatar didn’t get it right.
So on to the question I posed at in the title of this article: can the planned sequels – of which there are four – improve the franchise’s standing? Can they spin out what was a decent one-off sci-fi blockbuster into something more? Can Avatar make the jump and become “the next Star Wars?”
The length of time between Avatar and its sequels may be an issue. By the time Avatar 2 hits cinemas in December 2022 – assuming it meets its planned release date – thirteen years will have passed since the first title. Given the general apathy and lack of interest in Avatar this long after its premiere, the first part of this sequel series will have to spend at least some of its runtime refreshing audiences on what happened in the first film and what the setting is. When I sat down to re-watch Avatar earlier, I had only a vague recollection of the film, and I daresay a lot of folks will be in the same position.
When The Empire Strikes Back came out, it had been only three years since Star Wars had been in cinemas. And while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released a decade after The Original Series ended, the only reason the film was made was because there was a growing fanbase who had watched the show when it was rebroadcast and those fans were clamouring for more. Is anyone clamouring for Avatar 2?
Avatar was a welcome addition to the sci-fi genre. Especially as the last decade has been dominated by reboots, adaptations, remakes, and sequels, it was a welcome breath of fresh air, and despite what I’ve said about its world feeling small, there is potential for it to be expanded upon. To say that the Avatar series can never be more than it already is would be ridiculous – there’s only been one film so far, and it was decent. It didn’t blow up the genre or redefine what a film could be in the way its pre-release marketing seemed to suggest, but it was good. I don’t dislike Avatar.
The sequels do have a pretty big job to do, though. The storyline of Avatar was exciting, but it was hardly original. Comparisons have been made to Dances with Wolves and even Disney’s Pocahontas, and while I don’t think it’s fair to call it derivative, it wasn’t a unique narrative by any means. That point of criticism will have to be addressed, and the sequels will have to try harder to be different from a story perspective if they’re to achieve the heights the films are aiming for.
The beautiful world-building that worked so well for Pandora and the Na’vi needs to be expanded upon. Perhaps we could see different Na’vi tribes and civilisations on Pandora, or better yet, expand the scope of the setting out into space. Are there other moons or planets in the Pandora system, perhaps? Or is there another human settlement on some nearby world? These are just a couple of ideas for how the Avatar series can build on the successes of the first film to be bigger – to achieve that sense of scale which the best and most successful franchises have.
Avatar was also a film which had contemporary real-world analogies. I noted influences of at least two of America’s recent wars in the depiction of the Marines, scientists, and Na’vi – Vietnam and Iraq. The dense rainforests of Pandora, and the way Jake and others had trouble navigating them, were the film’s answer to the jungles of Vietnam. And references to winning “the hearts and minds” of the locals was a phrase we heard often in relation to the Iraq war during the 2000s – which is when Avatar was in development. The latter of those themes is arguably less relevant in 2021 than it was in 2009, and Avatar 2 will need to adapt to changing times.
One improvement we’re sure to see is in CGI and digital animation. Avatar was released at a time when CGI was improving – and was far better than it had been even five or ten years earlier – but there are still some aspects of its visual style that haven’t aged especially well. Some textures have that “too shiny” look that plagued cinematic CGI in the 2000s, and while viewing the film on a cinema or IMAX projector screen dulled the impact of some of that, on a television set in 2021 it’s something you notice. I wouldn’t say Avatar looks dated – but it’s right on the cusp. A film that relies so heavily on computer animation – many of Avatar’s sequences are basically fully-animated – is always going to run that risk, and while it has aged more gracefully than, for example, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, there are still noticeable places where the animation isn’t up to code.
There have been improvements in computer animation since 2009, which should mean Avatar 2 and the rest of the sequel series will be far more visually interesting. Pandora was already beautiful, but if that beauty could be expanded upon I think the sequels could really be something special. Some fans tend to turn up their noses at visuals, but if you think about it, a distinct visual style is another absolutely crucial element to a franchise. Star Trek has combadges, ships with saucer sections, Klingons, and the transporter. Star Wars has white-armoured Stormtroopers, lightsabers, Jabba the Hutt, and X-wings. Avatar introduced us to the blue-skinned Na’vi, but none of its technology, characters, costumes, or locations have become iconic in the same way as the other franchises we’ve mentioned. Part of that is down to the quality of the CGI, but partly it’s the film’s own art style. Avatar 2 could introduce a new design for a starship, character, or even just a costume that will go on to be emblematic of the series – in the way that Boba Fett became a symbol of Star Wars after his debut in The Empire Strikes Back, for example.
So yes, there’s work to do to expand on Pandora and the world Avatar created in 2009. But I’m really interested to see where Avatar 2 will take the story after the conclusion of the first film, and what the other films in the planned sequel series have in store. James Cameron is an amazing director, and having put so much work and effort into the Avatar series, I really hope it will see the kind of success he’s looking for. There’s always room for more sci-fi franchises!
Avatar is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and may be streamed on Disney+ in the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries and territories. Avatar is the copyright of 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company. Avatar 2 is due for release in December 2022. Logo and official promotional artwork courtesy of avatar.com. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.