With at least two Avatar sequels on the horizon, one of the most successful sci-fi directors in history is worried about the future of Hollywood’s most bankable genre.
As you might have heard, Avengers: Infinity War just scored the biggest opening weekend in cinema history. Infinity War took that crown from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which took it from Jurassic World, which took it from The Avengers.
So it’s convenient that Infinity War’s record-setting feat happens to dovetail with the premiere of the new AMC documentary series James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which aims to explore the origins of the genre via interviews with luminaries like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Guillermo del Toro, who Cameron enlisted to tackle big topics like outer space, alien life, time travel, and dark futures.
Each of these subjects features prominently in Infinity War, which—like most of the superhero movies being released today—is a grab-bag of ideas culled from comics by writers who were inspired by the greats of of science fiction. So who’s celebrating Infinity War’s success over the weekend? Not James Cameron, apparently. At a recent press event at his studio in Manhattan Beach, California—where he’s working, concurrently, on both Avatar 2 and Avatar 3—Cameron tossed out some gentle criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I’m hoping we’ll start getting Avenger fatigue here pretty soon,” he said. “Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just… Come on, guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process. It’s like, oy!”
Cameron’s mini-rant about the Avengers led to a solid week of people making easy dunks on him. (As the old saying goes, people who want to make four Avatar sequels shouldn’t throw stones.) And as he went on to describe a his plan for series of Avatar films that would eventually make up a generational saga with echoes of the Godfather trilogy, you had to wonder: What is the future of science fiction going to look like, anyway?
Laugh all you want, but “a bunch of Avatar movies” is one very real possibility. Historically, it has been a mistake to bet against James Cameron, who endured legendarily bad press during the filming of both Titanic and Avatar—which became, and remain, the two biggest movies of all time. And Cameron has a unique ability to attract audiences because he’s consistently pushing the boundaries of what’s even possible in cinema—toying around with new technologies until he can make a movie that matches the vision in his head. For The Abyss, Cameron pushed for a variety of cutting-edge technologies that enabled him to film underwater with an unprecedented level of clarity. Terminator 2 became a phenomenon by expanding the bounds of what a filmmaker could do with CGI. And Avatar became the highest-grossing film in history by convincing audiences that seeing the world of Pandora in 3D would be an unmatched cinematic spectacle.
But the original Avatar is a strange pivot point in cinema history. Avatar’s insane success feels like the result of a global fugue state, in which everyone in the world lined up to see a movie nobody—save James Cameron—can muster even a little enthusiasm about today. And the 3D technology that sold Avatar has long since fallen out of favor with audiences. Cameron has already promised that Avatar 2 will introduce a brand-new technology that allows underwater motion capture. He also predicts a “3D renaissance” predicated on new technology that will maintain a screen’s brightness despite being viewed through 3D glasses, and the advent of a higher frame rate on certain movies. (You might remember that last one from the misbegotten Hobbit movies.) Cameron still believes that future Avatar movies can push the boundaries of science fiction films: “We want to show you things not only that you haven’t seen, but that you haven’t imagined.”
Still Cameron conceded that the technological advances in the nine years since Avatar was released have been “evolutionary, not revolutionary.” And he talked, a little wistfully, about the VR and augmented reality experiments being pioneered by younger filmmakers—which he says he’d be attempting himself if he wasn’t committed to a bunch of Avatar movies. (He also acknowledges that the genre—once “stale, male, and pale”—is seeing most of its most exciting work come from non-white, non-male creators.)
Whatever impressive technologies Cameron can come up with, the movies he’s currently planning—a bunch of Avatars and a new Terminator—are rooted in his own past as a filmmaker. You can see the same trends in the roster of people Cameron personally interviewed for Story of Science Fiction. Steven Spielberg embraced his legacy, for better or worse, with the backwards-looking Ready Player One. George Lucas sold his legacy to Disney. Christopher Nolan’s last movie was a historical drama. So was Ridley Scott’s. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t appeared in a non-Terminator sci-fi film since 2000. Of the subjects Cameron personally assembled, only Guillermo del Toro feels like he’s currently interested pushing the boundaries of sci-fi—and his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water has its feet planted much more firmly in fantasy.
So what’s next? When I asked Cameron about the future of science fiction, he had a more difficult time projecting ahead. “That’s the biggest challenge with the genre right now,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to imagine stuff that isn’t already on the horizon. What we’ve seen is the huge separation from what we imagined the future to be and what it’s actually shaping up to be.”
And that leaves the foreseeable future of Hollywood sci-fi to the escapist franchises you’d expect: Star Wars, Marvel, and, uh, Avatar. The people who steered the genre for decades are making the same kind of movies they would have made a few decades ago. And if anyone is going to push the sci-fi genre forward today, it’s probably the people who will watch those movies and recognize that it’s long past time for something new.