James Cameron famously quoted the line “I’m the king of the world” when “Titanic” won best picture in 1998. But with “Avatar: The Way of Water” finally hitting theaters 13 years after the original – joining “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” on the honor roll of Cameron-directed encores – he might legitimately bear the title king of the sequel.
Those films each came seven years after the first movies were released, and both paved the way for multiple sequels that followed. In each case, Cameron (who wrote or shared screenplay credit on all three) cleverly expanded upon, rather than simply replicating, the existing template, perhaps most impressively with “Aliens,” which was based on a movie directed by Ridley Scott as opposed to his own.
After the haunted-house-in-outer-space concept of “Alien,” the sequel called in the Marines for a more adventurous and muscular battle, one that included introducing the complex bug-like dynamics of the alien creatures. Cameron similarly revised the formula in “Judgment Day” by turning his original villain into the hero, introducing a new and different mechanized threat for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase-spouting cyborg to face.
The second “Terminator” also marked a massive leap forward into the world of computer-generated visual effects with its shape-shifting liquid robot, which helped lay the groundwork for “Jurassic Park” and the technological explosion that followed. “Avatar” also advanced that ball, and “The Way of Water” feels as if it has again moved the goalposts in terms of the horizons for digital filmmaking.
“Jim Cameron is the ultimate pioneer in this arena,” Stan Winston, who designed the special makeup effects on “Terminator 2” and countless other films, said in a discussion about “Judgment Day” coinciding with its 25th anniversary.
In a recent interview with a Chicago reporter, Cameron summarized his approach to sequels by saying, “You give the audience comfort that the things that they liked about the first film are gonna be there, but they’re going to be turned upside down or jumbled in a way that you don’t expect.”
Yet that almost oversimplifies the way Cameron constructed each of these movies, especially when so many sequels adhere to the “You give the audience the things that they liked” part, and pretty much quit there.
In the case of “Aliens,” for example, there’s still a taste – basically a gruesome reminder – of the gut-wrenching prospect of being turned into an alien host; still, the bulk of the movie is more rip-roaring thriller than horror, with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley becoming not only an action hero but a surrogate mother, grounding the film with a deeper emotional aspect.
Aside from the technical advances, the new “Avatar’s” major wrinkles involve giving the central couple a family and exploring those dynamics – including kids trying to measure up to older siblings and their warrior parents – while introducing an entirely new clan with its own distinctive culture and adaptations.
While celebrating movies with a “2” affixed to them, implied if not overtly, might not sound like embracing creativity, the art of the sequel is more than just an academic exercise. In an entertainment industry that, faced with a proliferation of options, clings to the comfort of familiarity and replicating what has worked before, it’s an unavoidable quadrant of filmmaking that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be dismissed on that level.
Cameron understands those dynamics, but that hasn’t meant resting on his laurels or treating sequels like just another consumer product – the equivalent of serving Coca-Cola in a different can.
That might not technically make him the king of anything, but in terms of Hollywood’s current math, it’s the ticket to becoming a certain kind of royalty.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” premieres December 16 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.
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