Ray Richmond: Hating on James Cameron (‘Avatar 2’) remains one of Hollywood’s favorite pastimes

Let’s pretend for a moment that “Avatar: The Way of Water” was directed by, say, Christopher Nolan. Or Martin Scorsese. Or Steven Spielberg. It’s unlikely that there would be much in the way of qualification when people in the industry praised the film, which having seen it I can report is another epic technical achievement, so visually stunning, spectacular and transcendent that adequate descriptive adjectives fail me. But because a fellow named James Cameron directed, co-produced, co-wrote, co-edited and probably took care of the craft services, too, there is an asterisk beside the title that says, “Don’t go too crazy for this thing, it’s liable to go to the man’s head.” Not that his head could necessarily get any larger.

I counted 697 people listed on IMDb who worked visual effects for “Avatar 2.” I repeat: 697! It’s possible I miscounted. But give or take a few, that’s an awful lot of professionals tasked with getting the film’s considerable wizardry up to speed. People were working on this movie for so long that it’s possible they could have given birth and had children assisting them. But trust me that this was money well spent. When you’re sitting in a theater watching this performance capture masterwork, you forget that there is a world outside the impossibly vibrant one of Pandora that you’re witnessing. It’s the same experience I had 13 years ago watching the original “Avatar” in a dark room on a big screen. It was mind-blowing then, and it’s possibly even more mind-blowing now.

But it’s not cool to admit that, is it? And I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that it’s James Cameron’s baby, and the man is simply too successful and arrogant to have all that success and our unqualified love, too.

With Cameron, it’s long been personal.

Let’s go back to “Titanic” in 1998. I remember seeing it and being mesmerized. I happily took my then-9-year-old daughter to see it a handful of times on the big screen. It was a phenomenon, and I saw new things to appreciate with every viewing. Those old enough to remember that singular sensation will recall that “Titanic” topped the box office for 15 consecutive weekends. From December through March, it seemed to be the only thing anyone was seeing. As the movie’s monetary take swelled to record-setting levels, the backlash was set in motion. Suddenly, I started telling people what a bloated and idiotic love story it was. By the time the Oscars rolled around, I hated it, because that was the cool thing to do. I lacked the courage to buck the trend, though at the time I ascribed it simply to changing my mind.

Then “Titanic” cashed in 11 of its 14 nominations and Cameron took to the stage at the Shrine Auditorium to accept Oscars three times, once while declaring himself “King of the World!” Of course, he was merely emulating a line from the film, but no matter. The Cameron resentment would commence full force. We like our heroes in this country to be humble, low-key and just a little bit beholden, and he was none of the above. Of course, it’s tough to be modest when your film has just won double-digit Academy Awards and your seagoing tale was on its way to taking in more money than any movie in box office history, grossing a whopping $2.2 billion internationally.

For his next act a dozen years later, all JC did was reinvent the modern sci-fi epic with 2009’s mostly computer-generated “Avatar,” which left me gasping at its scale and beauty. I told anyone who would listen how much I loved it. Then, just as with “Titanic,” I turned on it and I suddenly found it overblown, jumbled and ridiculous, if still beautiful to look at. The film academy bestowed it nine nominations, including three once again for Cameron personally (repeat noms for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing). This time, however, he took home no gold, though the film itself won for its cinematography, visual effects and art direction. And financially, “Avatar” eclipsed “Titanic” and everything else to become the all-time box office champ, taking in $784 million domestically and an astounding $2.9 billion worldwide.

And now, Cameron’s back in the awards season swing with “The Way of Water,” but of course it remains to be seen how Oscar voters respond to him and his latest feat of cinematic wizardry. So far, it’s looking promising. The film earned six Critics Choice Awards nominations (including Best Picture and Cameron for director) and landed Golden Globe nominations for Best Drama as well as for Cameron’s direction. The movie is also on track to snare a Best Picture Oscar nom, currently in seventh place at Gold Derby with combined 23/2 odds, while Cameron presently resides in sixth place in the Academy Awards directors race with a combined prediction score of 17/2.

SEE Box office: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ washes over movie theaters with $134 million opening

Meanwhile, “Avatar: The Way of Water” opened over this past weekend with a $134 million domestic box office take (projections had been $150 million to $175 million) and another $300.5 million internationally. All things considered, not a terrible start, particularly since that $134 million dwarfs the $77 million opening of the original “Avatar” that, you know, wound up taking in more money than any other movie ever. So the first weekend take was hardly what you’d call catastrophic. Yet when it comes to Cameron, the industry seems ever-ready to pounce, smelling blood in the water even when there’s none.

This naturally begs the question of why so many keep hating on James Cameron and would love to see him fail. Is it still due to his immodest performance at the Oscars nearly a quarter-century ago? Is it the fact he specializes in these towering, larger-than-life grand adventures that intimidate other studios and filmmakers? Is it his apparently well-earned reputation for being a control freak and perfectionist? Is it because he seems to have everything set up for him going forward with three more “Avatar” sequels coming in 2024, 2026 and 2028? Is it because he’s so full of himself and hugely demanding of his actors? Or might it just be that his blockbusters make too much money and it leaves many jealous?

It could well be a combination of all these things, with professional jealousy no doubt near the top. But allow me to supply an endorsement on Cameron’s behalf. Say what you will about him, but the man has changed the filmmaking business. He’s an innovator and a revolutionary, and just like that, he’s made 3D big again, if only briefly. Does he and the film deserve Oscars? Nominations, certainly, if not more. And on a personal note, I haven’t turned against “The Way of Water” yet and don’t plan to this time. I can only be so flip-floppy in a single lifetime, after all.

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