James Cameron's Big Bet Pays Off ... Again

Review: AVATAR Raises Cinematic Bar

He may be Hollywood’s biggest gambler, but James Cameron is also the movie industry’s safest bet.

“Avatar” delivered a strong $73 million debut weekend and earned mostly stellar critical praise (including our own review). Some people may point out that those box-office figures aren’t exactly record-setting numbers, but that would be missing the point. For one, Cameron movies traditionally show staying power, which means “Avatar” could be settling in for a nice, long profitable run in theaters. But more importantly, the strong start proves once again that when it comes to delivering that one-two punch of groundbreaking cinema and commercial success, Cameron has no peer.

But even though Cameron happens to be one of the very few people in Hollywood with the clout to get the green light on such a massive project, the Oscar winner still had to fight to get “Avatar” made. In “The Futurist,” Rebecca Keegan’s biography on the filmmaker, Cameron reveals how 20th Century Fox was ready to pass on the movie because of budget concerns. It wasn’t until Disney showed interest that Fox finally agreed to terms.

While it’s obviously too early to know how well “Avatar” will ultimately earn, indications are that the studio can rest easy about its investment (reported to be as high as $480 million). And why shouldn’t they? In Cameron, they backed not just a visionary director, but a veritable brand name known for epic cinematic storytelling.

“[James Cameron] doesn’t do inexpensive movies. It’s his brand identification,” according to Hollywood.com box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian . “He makes these bigger-than-life, enormous productions that take visual effects to another level that people haven’t seen before. He’s known for that. This is no different.”

Considering how positive the reaction to “Avatar” has been from those who have already seen it, you would think fanboys would be busy carving Cameron’s face on the Geek Mount Rushmore, next to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. This is, after all, the same guy who made “Aliens,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator,” Terminator 2,” “True Lies” and “Titanic.” He even wrote “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” for whatever that’s worth.

Instead, in the months leading up to “Avatar’s” release, it almost seemed like a large section of the online film community was hoping Cameron’s new film would sink like Leo at the end of “Titanic.”

“It's strange... not sure where this idea of Cameron as a polarizing figure took hold. That was not the case for the majority of his career,” says Drew McWeeney, film editor for HitFix.com.

“The best I can tell, the success of "Titanic" is what created the riff, which basically amounts to "You know that band I used to like before everyone liked them? Well, they suck now because everyone likes them."

Cameron’s arrogance may also have something to do with the fact some people root for him to fall flat on his mega-budgeted rear. The backlash may have officially begun at the 1997 Academy Awards, when he crowed that he was “King of the world” during his acceptance speech.

Anyone reading this has most likely heard about how Cameron wrote the script for “Avatar” 15 years ago, only to learn the technology to create the three-dimensional immersive movie experience he wanted, didn’t exist. So he waited for the tech to catch up to his idea. He also helped create the state-of-the-art Fusion Camera system that made it possible for emotion capture, the process of fully translating the actor’s performance to the final, CGI-enhanced final result onscreen.

“Avatar’s” rich, immersive 3D experience may be getting the lion’s share of publicity, but emotion capture may ultimately be the single biggest contribution “Avatar” makes to the expansion of cinematic boundaries. It is leaps and bounds above motion capture, because it allows for fully realized performances to be computer enhanced and delivered without any loss of emotion and believability.

In many ways, “Avatar” fulfills the grand promise of CGI. Cameron managed to crack the conundrum Lucas couldn’t solve with the Star Wars prequels. Despite all the spectacular CGI work in those three films, much of it ultimately was just eye candy. It had no soul.

The computer-generated Na’vi of Pandora, on the other hand, seem as real as any of the humans they are in conflict with.

It was all a tremendous gamble, an eyes closed, all-in roll of the dice. Putting 10-foot-tall blue aliens with long tails at the center of the story wasn’t exactly a hedge, either. And once again, Cameron won.

Shame on us for being surprised.

Whether it was setting new standards in underwater production with “The Abyss” or taking CGI to new heights in “Terminator 2” and “Titanic” – and now 3D technology with “Avatar” – Cameron’s track record speaks for itself. What he promises, by and large he’s delivered.

And when was the last time all this hullabaloo was raised about a big-budget movie that wasn’t based on a comic book, 80s toy line or a young adult book series?

Hollywood is so intent on adapting anything it can get its hands on, the pipeline for original idea ‘event pictures’ has all but dried up.

For Rene Rodriguez, film critic for The Miami Herald, that thrill of discovery is part of the appeal of “Avatar.”

“What is this? What is this movie about? You get that a lot with smaller, independent movies,” according to Rodriguez. “But you don’t get it very often on this scale [anymore]. I think part of the reason people were so excited about “The Phantom Menace” is not just because it was another Star Wars movie, but it was a new Star Wars movie. You had no idea what Lucas was going to give you.”

“And that is what I think gets your geek on with “Avatar,” Rodriguez continues. “Here is an all-out, science fiction fantasy, no apologies…and it’s based on completely original material. And it’s directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. How can you not get excited about that?”

A person needs a staggering amount of self-belief and chutzpah to pull off a feat like Cameron has done with “Avatar.” And when the end result is something as eye-popping and original an experience as the film is (although far from perfect), is the occasional bout of egomania not a fair enough price to pay?

“Avatar” isn’t going to change movies forever. At least not immediately. The high cost of doing what Cameron has done with his film will ensure any change that happens, will happen slowly. What he has done once again, is the same as he did with “The Abyss,” “T2” and “Titanic.” Namely, steer the industry in – with apologies to the stars of “Glee” – New Directions.

“We absolutely need people like him who are in a position to get these giant movies made,” McWeeney points out. “…and Cameron's ego/hubris/talent prove to be the exact combination that is needed to do something no one's done before.”

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