From “Avatar and the Mystery of the Vanishing Blockbuster,” a N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine piece by Jamie Lauren Keiles (11.30.22):

“The history of recorded images might be described as an incremental quest to master the building blocks of consciousness — first sight, then motion, then sound, then color. With Avatar (’09), Cameron revealed that human ingenuity could marshal even more: physics, light, dimensionality; the ineffable sense of an object being real; the life force that makes a thing feel alive.

“This is not to say that Avatar is good. The movie is basically a demo tape, each plot point reverse-engineered to show off some new feat of technology. The awe it inspires was not just about itself but rather the hope of new possibilities. It was easy to imagine someone in 2009 leaving the theater and asking: ‘What if we made more movies like this? What if we made good movies like this?’

“The year 2009 was a relatively optimistic one: Obama had just won on the audacity of ‘hope.’ Climate change still felt far away. The forever wars were going to end. Surely we would fix whatever caused the recession. Avatar pointed toward a widening horizon — better effects, new cinematic worlds, new innovations in 3-D technology. It did not yet seem incongruous to wrap a project based in infinite progress around a story about the perils of infinite growth.

Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century, 12.16) will emerge into an almost total deferment of that dream. Today, 3-D is niche (at best); digital effects are used to cut costs; home streaming is threatening the theater; and projects of ambitious world-building are overlooked in favor of stories with existing fanbases.”