On its release, Avatar was a legitimately impactful movie. With the film industry in a period of transition, James Cameron's decision to shoot the entire film in Digital 3D helped spark a resurgence of interest in 3D filmmaking, the impact of which we're still feeling today. The big budget action movies and comic book adventures that have become a fixture in our lives owe parts of their box office records to the wave Avatar started; the draw of enhanced visual effects keeps people coming out to theaters in the age of Netflix.
But that legacy is the most important or interesting thing you can say about Avatar in 2017, and we all would be better off if the franchise was left behind.
It's easy to justify another Avatar movie if you're looking at it from the perspective of the studio. Sequels are cash cows for studios, and the team behind Avatar has every right to expect Avatar 2 and subsequent releases to make a fortune at the box office. The original movie grossed almost $3 billion in worldwide box office sales and is easily the biggest movie in history.
Its closest competition on a global scale is Titanic, which lags behind by over $600 million. For perspective, the gap between Avatar and the next film up is roughly the size of the total sum of money earned by Logan, a film that ranks in the top-150 movies ever in worldwide sales.
If you talked to people who saw the movie at the time of release, the justification for going to see Avatar in 2009-10 was never about how good the movie was, or some impressive performance from the non Na'vi actors in the movies. "It's an experience," your co-worker would explain, "you have to see this." And this was a justifiable thing to say at the time—moviegoers hadn't yet seen things like Sandra Bullock tumbling through space in Gravity, nor was it standard for Iron Man to fling projectiles toward the audience.
"It's in 3D and looks cool" isn't a good enough selling point for a movie franchise anymore. Films need characters for fans to care about and storylines that will keep them coming back for more, because it's not enough to be just another cool 3D movie. Most people can watch HD films from the comfort of their couch, and unless you're upgrading to 4K there has never been a better (or cheaper) time to buy huge TVs and create a movie-quality experience in your house or apartment.
Avatar's lack of impact as a compelling series is evident in how it's spoken of nearly a decade later. Even amongst the mercenaries who populate the summer blockbuster circuit, Avatar is especially uninspired. The beauty of Marvel movies or something like the Fast and Furious series is they know exactly what niches they're filling. Whether you want to watch a lot of stuff blow up, hear corny one-liners, or see your favorite hero kick some ass, there are moments and heroes (or villians!) to cling to.
People are happy to sit at home or go to the theater and watch Captain America go into battle, because he's an iconic character who isn't wholly dependent on special effects to resonate. Avatar has no such driving force, and nobody is sitting at home with their loved ones on a Saturday night and thinking, "You know what we should pop in the Blu-Ray player? Avatar."
At its core, Avatar is a tired, overwrought story about soulful natives who are being struck down by the big, bad corporate outsiders. The Na'vi are poorly-realized as a race of people and a thematic device, and James Cameron falls back on tropes to make up for his lack of imagination. There's nothing lazier than using different-colored, "simple" people in touch with nature to tell the story of an uninteresting white dude realizing the error of his ways.
Avatar is basically a worse version of Pocahontas with futuristic technology. And even then, Avatar's humans have somehow upgraded their tech for interstellar travel while still using weaponry barely a cut above what was used for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Battle armor aside, if you can travel across the universe to collect resources to save Earth and the human race, you can probably ditch the bullets for some energy weapons.
But the show will go on, because there's too much riding on the Avatar franchise to turn back now. Disney World is set to open a new Avatar-themed expansion in their park in late May, and the estimated $500 million park was put in motion when Disney reached a licensing agreement with Cameron way back in 2011, when two sequels were planned for 2014 and 2015. Production costs will only have risen for both the parks and the movies—extended production time will do that— and the announcement of release dates for four different Avatar sequels indicates this train has left the station. All parties want a return on their separate investments, regardless of whether the demand for Avatar is still there or not.
Avatar 2 and the subsequent sequels planned out through 2025 may yet make a ton of money and justify their reason for existing. But they look like a soulless, shameless cash grab from industry executives, hoping to capitalize off a movie whose legacy has only tarnished in the years since it released. CGI and 3D will not be enough to save a franchise lacking in depth or originality in 2017.