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Can James Cameron’s striking ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ pull off a box-office smash?

Disney’s new film opens across North America this weekend to massive expectations
This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Jake Sully, portrayed by Sam Worthington, in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” (20th Century Studios via AP)

With a striking blend of visual effects and state-of-the-art motion capture technology, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is billed as a movie-theatre experience unlike any other in the last few years, but it’s by far James Cameron’s biggest risk yet, industry analysts say.

Disney’s second film in a projected five-part saga opens across North America this weekend to massive expectations. Can it draw enough audiences to make up for its budget, reported to be more than $250 million? And will the sequel eventually rival the $2.9-billion total gross of the original film, released in 2009?

Whether the Ontario-born filmmaker, who now lives in New Zealand, can pull off another theatrical success story depends on several factors, observers say: how the film’s use of underwater performance capture and 3D technology will translate to profits under the current theatrical model, whether it’s going to become a must-see sensation, and if it can buck the media trend that’s beginning to prioritize streaming in a pandemic age.

“‘Avatar: the Way of Water’ is poised for a ‘Titanic’-sized debut,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore media analyst, referring to the filmmaker’s 1997 movie that brought in about $28 million in its first weekend and went on to make $2.2 billion in ticket sales.

“James Cameron’s films have always benefited from long-term success and playability rather than a huge pop on opening weekend.”

Dergarabedian added that with some ticket sales also being purchased for premium formats that include 3D and IMAX, the film benefits from more revenue-generating power.

Overall, Dergarabedian views it as unwise to underestimate the power of the film to overcome future obstacles.

In Cameron’s hands, the first “Avatar,” a fantasy epic about a paraplegic marine torn between Earth and an alien world of sapient humanoids from a planet called Pandora, propelled the popularity of 3D viewing and motion capture technology when it was still novel.

In “The Way of Water,” the marine-turned-alien Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his blue-skinned counterpart Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have become parents to three children who fight against human invaders.

Cameron has said he mined his own experience as a father for the film, which introduces viewers to the next generation of young cast members.

One of those new characters in the franchise is played by actor Bailey Bass, now 19, who was six when “Avatar” was released and 12 when she auditioned for the next three films.

Bass plays Tsireya, the daughter of the Metkayina leaders — a group of water-based humanoids that befriends the Sully family.

Bass believes that the broad appeal of Avatar 2 to fresh generations will partly come from “FOMO” — a fear of missing out— and the desire to take part in the popular event of the moment.

“It’s the fact that you have to go into theatres, see this film, and its glory will bring you back to looking at someone and just being like, ‘hey, did you see that movie?”” Bass said during an in-person interview in Toronto. “Like that urgency and just the community of loving a film. I think because of streaming, we haven’t really experienced that in the same way we did when Blockbuster was a thing.”

Aside from Avatar’s franchise aspirations, Cameron’s use of 3D motion capture technology remains the main selling point of the new film.

His use of a 48-frames-per-second, which is twice the standard, gives images a smoother and more realistic sheen as as the characters’ bodies move through digital landscapes and take part in action scenes..

Steve Levitan, a media lawyer, film producer and instructor at Toronto Metropolitan University, isn’t entirely convinced that “The Way of Water” can bank as big of an audience off of this technology however, suggesting it’s something audiences will feel they’ve seen before.

“We’re in an era of VR and advanced AI. ‘Avatar’ did all of that just as YouTube was hitting its stride, let alone Netflix and streaming,” said Levitan.

“A large part of the viewership and attraction to Avatar was a 3D (experience) like you’ve never seen before, and I don’t know, did you go out and buy a 3D television? I hope you didn’t.”

The film’s reviews hover above 80 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Cameron’s technical bona fides and attention to detail are already being heavily celebrated over the more mixed critiques of the film’s core story elements.

Levitan feels the plot of the first “Avatar” was largely forgettable and did not possess much of a cultural footprint — unlike Cameron’s “Alien, and “Terminator” franchises.

“Will it be a more enjoyable movie? Will it be something people talk about and can’t forget?” said Levitan. “If you asked me the names of the main characters in the original ‘Avatar,’ I couldn’t tell you.”

Irene S. Berkowitz, a media researcher and instructor at Toronto Metropolitan University, believes an industry in flux that’s experienced additional challenges throughout the pandemic won’t do “The Way of Water” any favours either.

“The shift to streaming wasn’t triggered by the pandemic; the pandemic accelerated what was already happening by a decade,” said Berkowitz. “While ticket prices skyrocketed, attendance plummeted, and 500 screens closed since the pandemic.”

Furthermore, Berkowitz adds that it’s a lot to ask today’s viewers to sit through three hours and 12 minutes of the film in today’s climate of options, much less return for a second or third ride.

“Except for young teens who would do anything to escape home, most of us prefer not to watch content on someone else’s deadline,” said Berkowitz. “It’s mostly generational — location-based entertainment experiences are declining.”

Regardless of the obstacles the film is facing, Cameron has a historically proven track record in defying the odds at the box-office.

“It should be interesting to see what happens, whether $2 billion-plus can be made on a $300 to $400-million budget,” adds Berkowitz. “Even if so, few other films can keep that trend going.”

—Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press

REVIEW: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is a big screen blast