James Cameron: Hollywood's new king of retread cinema
For the longest time, there has been a remarkable consistency to James Cameron's filmmaking career. He would take years and years--and then even more years--and finally surface with a movie that was remarkably original, shockingly new and pretty much unlike anything else you'd seen all year. So I have to admit that it's something of a crushing disappointment to hear the news that Hollywood's king of the world has become the latest filmmaker to turn himself into a sequel machine, with the announcement from 20th Century Fox that Cameron will make "Avatar 2" and "Avatar 3" as his next two movies.
There's definitely a great story behind the story, since it's hardly a secret that one reason for Cameron's very public flirtation with making "Cleopatra" at Sony with Angelina Jolie was a way to give the filmmaker some much-needed leverage to close his deal at Fox, a studio notorious for driving a hard bargain, even with its most celebrated filmmaker. But the bigger story for me is the way so many of our best filmmakers have abandoned--or to hear some of them tell it, been forced to abandon--the pursuit of original film projects.
I wish I could say that I was exaggerating, but I'm not. Let's see, for example, what most of my favorite filmmakers are doing right now: Christopher Nolan is at work on "The Dark Knight Rises." Brad Bird is doing "Mission: Impossible 4." Ridley Scott is coming off a remake of "Robin Hood." Michael Mann is coming off a biopic ("Public Enemies") and a big-screen adaptation of his own 1980s TV series ("Miami Vice"). John Lasseter is at work on "Cars 2." Even the Coen brothers, who have been paragons of originality their entire career, just finished a remake of "True Grit."
That leaves a much-shorter list of filmmaking gods who are currently free from the stench of sequelitis--notably David Fincher, who swore off sequels after having a deeply unhappy experience making "Alien 3" early in his career; Martin Scorsese; Clint Eastwood; James Brooks; Danny Boyle; and Paul Thomas Anderson, although of course, Anderson is paying a price for his independence, since he can't get anyone to bankroll his new original screenplay.
By and large, the best comedy directors have managed to avoid the trap of sequeldom, so you rarely if ever see Judd Apatow, David Dobkin, John Hamburg or David Wain stooping to conquer by reassembling their characters for one more laugh-ride--though Todd Phillips has stooped to conquer by embarking on "The Hangover 2." I'm sure if Cameron were sitting in my office right now, he'd be trying to persuade me that the world of "Avatar 2" will be just as strikingly fresh and different as the world of "Avatar."
But the odds aren't in his favor. If you look at the greatest movies ever made, "The Godfather Part II" and "The Dark Knight" are the exceptions to the rule. Most sequels, in terms of creativity, end up a lot closer in terms of consumer satisfaction to "Big Momma's House 2" or "Saw II" or even "Iron Man 2." When you leave the theater, you feel somewhere between disappointed and ripped off. I've never felt that way leaving a Jim Cameron movie, because his films were invariably cause for great anticipation. I know "Avatar 2" isn't coming until 2014, but, for now, I'm thinking about the whole project with far more dread than desire.
Photo: James Cameron at work on the set of "Avatar." Credit: Mark Fellman/20th Century Fox