Why James Cameron’s Avatar Movies Work for Audiences

There’s been much made about the motto “never bet against James Cameron” following the latest success of Avatar: The Way of Water. This motto has left many doubters trying to wrap their heads around how a sequel to a film 13 years later, which supposedly had no staying power, could release and still have the amount of success that it has ended up generating. As it turns out, that lasting impact was a lot more ingrained in the industry than what could have just been toy or merchandise sales. What was the special sauce in the recipe that makes these movies connect with audiences in ways that seemingly other blockbusters don’t? One needs to look towards Cameron himself, and the simplistic yet sincere nature of his storytelling prowess.


James Cameron Creates Intimacy With 3D

Payakan Tulkun in Avatar the Way of Water
Image Via 20th Century Studios

Movie trends come and go, as we’ve continued to see over the years. Even within the past decade or so, the monumental release of the first Avatar changed movie theaters around the world with the boom in the 3D industry. 3D was largely seen as a gimmick at the time of its initial release, but Cameron’s handling of the technology was one of the major reasons for its success and its continued use throughout the 2010s. It was this superior utilization of 3D that help create a sense of intimacy in both the storytelling aspects and the world-building. The success of Avatar has left many people wondering if it was just the use of its groundbreaking technology that resonated with audiences, or perhaps something more. Cameron’s talked about in various interviews how the universal nature of the story lent itself so well to playing and succeeding all over the world and in turn the earnest nature with which Cameron went about presenting it.

RELATED: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is at Its Best When It Leans Into the Nat Geo of It All

Though a large portion of the success of the Avatar movies can no doubt be credited to the cutting-edge technology used in its performance capture and visual effects work, one of the primary reasons why the franchise continues to resonate with people all over the world is due to the way Cameron and his cast and crew go about presenting a heartfelt and familiar story in an otherworldly setting. Much has been made about the “cultural impact” of a movie that supposedly so few people could name characters from, but the truth is that when going to see Avatar, an incredibly successful portion of the film is the way it goes about presenting familiar themes in otherworldly environments.

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’s Story Is Simple, But Effective

Britain Dalton as Lo'ak in Avatar 2 The Way of Water
Image via 20th Century Studios

While the films have been somewhat criticized for their ‘”unoriginal” story, there’s something to be said about the way Cameron and his writing team have held back on the insincere nature that seems to plague so many other movies. Continued accusations of the story being either cliché or simple aren’t necessarily the heavy criticisms that those who are levying them might think. A simple story is something that has an innate ability to connect with many people, and it’s one of the key reasons why the sincere nature of both Avatar and The Way of Water continues to see success.

Cameron also makes it a point in the sequel to up the stakes by giving Neytiri and Jake children, which allows for an even wider net to be cast to try and capture audiences that might otherwise have been ambivalent to the first film in the series. For a lot of people, it’s one of the oddest franchises out there. For many, it was a series that saw its creator disappear for more than a decade. In truth, the inner workings of multiple sequels were all being readied, as well as the park at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

The film’s producer, Jon Landau, has spoken about how after the first film wrapped they got together and talked about what worked well in the movie, an important note when considering how widely seen it ended up being. Another important aspect to glean from many of these interviews is the way Cameron has spoken at length about executives wanting to cut certain parts out of the Avatar films because they don’t necessarily advance the story. In that same vein, a common criticism that has popped up about The Way of Water has been how its middle portion is structured. It’s during that part of the film that audiences see the Sully’s begin to adapt to their new life in the water after being accepted by the Metkayina clan. This section is largely focused on the Sully kids, as they learn the ways of water and adjust to their new life, while the movie switches more into a hangout film than what one might expect out of a major blockbuster.

Watching these characters continue to connect with nature, just as their parents Jake and Neytiri did in the first film, is endearing in a way that most blockbusters or films of this scope would simply overlook or ignore entirely. In reality, that part of the movie is actually one of the most important sequences in the film, as it allows the audience to connect with these new characters in a significant way.

Sincere Dialogue Allows for Deeper Character Interactions in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver in Avatar the Way of Water
Image via Disney

Another glaring aspect that jumps right out at you if you’ve seen any major movie release of the past 5+ years was the large absence of quippy dialogue when something major unfolds in the story. There always feels as if there’s a snarky response or sarcastic tone just on the other side of an earnest piece of dialogue. In The Way of Water, however, Cameron plays his serious scenes completely straight. That doesn’t mean that the film is devoid of humor, but rather that he lets those scenes exist in their own place, rather than relying on giving a wink and a nod to the audience. It’s one of the many refreshing aspects of the film, as it continues to stand out upon reflection.

Cameron isn’t afraid to let the kids in The Way of Water be kids, and the film is largely better off for it. While there are a couple of funny lines that might take you out of it for a second, they’re so few and far between that they’re never overbearing. The sincere nature that Cameron goes about presenting this family dynamic in a compelling way, which can be relatable to most people watching it throughout the world, lends itself wonderfully to the overall product. Avatar: The Way of Water is never a movie that feels as if it’s belittling its audience, creating insufferable dialogue and overbearing characters that are there to act as comedic relief.

Nowadays as the major box office success stories begin to homogenize, there’s something incredibly refreshing in the way that The Way of Water goes about presenting its story. Each character present feels as if they could be someone that a member of the audience could potentially connect with; a far cry from many of the other blockbusters, and for a film leaning heavily on its young actors and cast, it excels largely in that regard.

Truthfully, when watching Avatar: The Way of Water and listening to interviews that James Cameron and his cast and crew have given, it’s easy to understand why it’s a film that has connected in the way it has with audiences. These come in the form of its depiction of universal themes in otherworldly environments, which are key components of both Avatar movies. It’s a testament to Cameron’s storytelling prowess that his sincere nature of storytelling has the ability to allow audiences to so quickly and closely connect with this alien species and the planet that they inhabit. Universal themes of family and the relationships that are built upon them help create this earnest nature that seems so largely absent from the modern-day blockbuster.

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