Now that Avatar—James Cameron's big blue weeping-Indian of an epic—has made a billion dollars (making it the fastest film to do so in history) and Cinema Is Changed Forever, what's next? Will it have a legacy beyond special-effects?
Much crowing has been done about the film's groundbreaking technology, computer wizard stuff that only the die-hardest of FX geeks really understand. Cameron managed to create unreal things that truly looked wholly real, beginning to make good on the jokey promise he made in an episode of Entourage a while back that pretty soon he won't even need actors to make a movie. That gizmo stuff will surely have an effect on everything that comes chasing after it—we'll see sleeker and prettier CGI (or whatever we're calling it these days) done on a more ambitious scale. Though most of the pictures clopping along in its wake likely won't match the budgetary largess of Lawrence of Pandora, Cameron will still have pushed the bar higher, as he likes to do every ten years or so.
But other than that, it's hard to tell if Deep Blue will stand as anything but a perfectly-made (for now) tentpole popcorn flick. For all the advances in magic-making, the movie doesn't really create anything new genre-wise, it hasn't so much reinvented the wheel as it's just given it fancier rims. For all his whizbang pyrotechnics, Cameron is still a pretty stolidly traditional filmmaker, a guy who loves the sweep and swell of an old Hollywood adventure. Where a Quentin Tarantino can take a few pistols and some down-on-their-luck '70s actors and gloriously reinvent cinema from the ground up, Cameron just magnificently gilds long-growing lilies. He's a touch-up guy, a pimper (in the Xzibit sense) of picture, not really an inventor.
And that's why, for all their synthetic heart, his two Big movies, Titanic and The Two Jakes, have a tendency to ring a little hollow under scrutiny. Sure a lot of us were fourteen and enamored by the doomed puppy lust of Rose and Jack once, but, twelve years later, does The Iceberg Storm really stand as anything but a visual marvel? And while some of us were thrilled and sent soaring while watching Dances With Space Wolves, are we really still thinking about the film's supposed themes—something about imperialism and environmentalism—or are we just still softly mumbling "blue... shit... big tree..."? Cameron tends to go for the big quick burn rather than something that smolders in our minds and hearts and imaginations for years to come. To that end, it's hard to see McHale's Na'vi really being anything but a standalone fleeting eyeball-bender.
In terms of starting any thematic or genre trends, there's this Dune remake slowly sand-worming along, but that's been in the works for at least six months, so it might be hard to make the argument that Cameron has laid the groundwork for a new alien renaissance (one hopes it will actually be the spectacular and genuinely affecting District 9 that does that). I mean what did Cameron's other movies really reinvigorate or create, besides new shiny effects? True Lies didn't bust anything open. If anything, it was almost a sad swan song for a particular strain of action movie that soon died out, the muscleman's last, most glorious dance. Aliens and T2 were sequels, and no one really went out and made Lusitania or Dresden after Titanic sank our hearts.
One hopes it's enough for Cameron to simply be the creator of lonely technical masterpieces that are, upon reflection, relatively shallow. He's definitely got some mind toward making something emotionally-driven, though he admirably showed slightly more restraint in going for the feelings-gut with Aliens in the Tree-Attic than he did with the three-hanky Boat Trip. One also hopes that he hasn't got some technically pared-down Serious film simmering somewhere in that circuit board brain of his. Cameron is truly a genius of technique—Avatar proved that—but he's not someone who's terribly adept at weaving an enduringly memorable, or dare I say classic, story into the shimmery fabric. And that's OK!
The Avatar Effect will likely be nothing more than neat new keys given to future directors, access to a set of visual tools that will enhance some genuinely stirring scripts. That's more than enough of a contribution.