Why Avatar Can't Fail

You can tell that a lot is riding on James Cameron's Avatar by the fact that people are already talking about the backlash. But are Cameron and the movie studio the only people who can't afford it to fail?

2009 has been a hard year for fans, let's face it. Two high-profile movies had successfully wooed them with trailers, internet teasers and big promises from press junkets, and then failed to deliver when they finally appeared. To add insult to injury, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was dealt a death blow after finally convincing doubters that it had a reason to exist that didn't rhyme with Bummer Blau. Even the renewal of Dollhouse couldn't stop the pain (And, for some, just made it worse in a "Why this and not that? Why is the universe so random, oh God, why?!?" way, to be honest), and even a summer full of Star Trek and Transformers was overshadowed by the potential hall of suck that GI Joe is rumored to be (Although it may surprise us all, and the anti-hate backlash has begun, bizarrely and happily enough). In all the rush to talk about the technical successes of Avatar, one thing seems to be being overlooked: We need this movie to be a success as much as anyone else does. The alternative will be too heartbreaking.

In a way, Avatar itself is almost secondary to the whole thing. I mean, yes; we want to see it and we're excited about seeing it and the footage that's been screened is what we're all talking about and getting excited by, but it's like Watchmen and Terminator Salvation; we're buying into the hype and the promise that this won't just be a good movie, but one that will change our lives in some way. There's every potential that the movie can be good, even amazing, and still seem like a disappointment (It'll be interesting to see what Watchmen will seem like, years later, when it can finally be viewed away from the hyperbole that surrounded it). It's not enough for Avatar to be a good movie anymore; it has to be the best movie starring Sam Worthington about alien warfare in space that we've ever seen.

Where did this pressure come from? Why do some films become avatars (heh) of the hopes and dreams of collective nerddom, and suffer from those raised expectations when the movie is finally ready to be seen by the world? Some movies actively seek to become the nerd grail - Hi, Tron Legacy! - in a way of building enough buzz to try and cross over into the mainstream through noise and net presence as much as anything else (Call it The Dark Knight effect, I guess), but it seems to me that, just like Amy Winehouse's love, it's a losing game: By baiting fans continually with teases and hints and promises that they've never seen anything like this before, they're actively creating a million fictional movies in a million different heads that will be more exciting and personal than the real thing could ever be. The only way to win by doing that is by doing something that isn't what fans expect; getting back to Dark Knight for a second, the structure of the movie and the machismo nihilism - while both were frustrating - came out of left field, and in surprising the audience, deflated whatever expectations they may have gone in with. Watchmen didn't have the luxury to try that, and Terminator Salvation... well, we don't like to talk about that anymore.

Getting back to my point, though; Avatar could still win. So much of the movie is still shrouded in secrecy, and it's that element that allows Cameron and his crew the opportunity to deliver something that we really won't be expecting. What people have seen so far shows that one of the concerns everyone had - that the visual effects would disappoint - isn't really a problem anymore, but even though finding that out raises the stakes slightly (Now we get the "They conquered the effects! What could go wrong now?!?" euphoria, for one thing), we still don't really know enough about the movie itself to come up with a version in our heads that we could fully expect to see.

I hope that they manage it, and that the finished movie lives up to all of their promises and hype; the last thing we need to finish the year is another example of our selfish dreams gone sour.