When James Cameron pitched his new project to Hollywood executives in 1993, he delivered the bad news first.
“This will probably be the costliest movie ever,” he said. “Everybody knows how it ends — and there’s absolutely no chance of a sequel . . .”
When the assembled suits had finished picking themselves off the floor, one managed to stop laughing long enough to ask: “Jim, is there any good news?”
“Well,” replied the renowned egomaniac; “If you give me the go-ahead, this will become the biggest grossing movie in history.”
Four years later, the executives were still laughing — all the way to the proverbial bank — after Titanic fulfiled its director’s prophesy, as well as winning a record 11 Academy Awards.
And now, amazingly, Cameron has a chance of similar glory with Avatar, which has already tanked Titanic’s gargantuan $1.84bn takings and, having garnered nine Oscar nominations, is widely tipped to land a clutch of the iconic gold statuettes come Sunday night.
It could happen; after all, Cameron has already forged the template for astronomical success — and sci-fi epic Avatar is ticking all the right boxes.
But Cameron's last two movies have another thing in common — neither are the masterpieces some people think they are.
And, given that the latter got its expensive, computer-generated ass well and truly kicked by The Hurt Locker at the recent Baftas, the bookies have now lengthened the odds on Avatar dominating proceedings at LA's Kodak Theatre.
Like millions of others, I donned my 3D glasses a few weeks ago to see what all the fuss was about. I left the cinema with my jaw sore from repetitive bouncing off the carpet.
The special effects are nothing short of astonishing; from another planet, you might say. Literally, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The faraway world of Pandora, with its lush forest, floating mountains, fascinating inhabitants and fearsome beasties, is both audaciously imagined and brilliantly realised, the seamless fusion of digital animation and live action simply breathtaking. The three-dimensional, wonderfully textured vistas are so immersive they’ll give you vertigo.
The beguiling quality of Cameron’s technical tour de force, however, eventually wore off — and, like most armchair nerds, I started picking holes in it.
First off, it’s at least 40 minutes too long. Yes, the effects are mesmerising — but the plot is predictable, the characters shallow and the dated dialogue is virtually humourless.
I laughed just once during a buttock-numbing 162 minutes; can you imagine what, for instance, those quirky geniuses at Pixar would have done with Avatar’s ideologically-heavy script and pedestrian narrative?
It’s not as if the gifted, innovative Cameron is incapable of producing something both technologically challenging and entertaining; think Terminators 1 and 2 and Aliens.
I couldn’t help feeling that Avatar’s plot— about an inhospitable species resisting a group of profiteering, colonial earthlings — was largely borrowed (along with the military hardware) from the ultimately superior Aliens.
This film is more reminiscent, however, of Cameron’s visually stunning yet ultimately soggy 1989 underwater-alien effort The Abyss. Perhaps the legendary control freak should have concentrated on the visuals and left the writing to someone else.
Another thing: Avatar creates an unfortunate irony when portraying the invaders as brutal capitalists who mercilessly pillage beyond their comfort zone.
If Cameron was attempting to use this as a metaphor for the Iraqi conflict, he has ended up delivering his message with the sort of sledgehammer approach favoured by the US military and despised by so many others, including himself.
Mind you, a movie about American asses getting a right kicking — in this case from blue, feline creatures on the bioluminescent Pandora — is always good global fodder.
Ergo, an anti-capitalist film has now become the most financially lucrative ever; you really couldn’t make it up.
The eye-popping cinematography aside, Avatar follows an all-too-familiar ‘fish out of water’ storyline exemplified (arguably better) by the likes of Crocodile Dundee, Starman, ET, Pretty Woman — and Cameron’s own groundbreaking Terminator.
Never has such a visually unique film contained so many things we’ve already seen.
It suffers from a sprinkling of rather more basic flaws too; our hero, the marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is supposed to be a paraplegic. But watch carefully; you’ll catch him moving his toes.
In another scene, the incarcerated Jake is sprung by his pals — but the derring-do takes place in full view of security cameras, with the co-conspirators clearly identifiable. Surely — in the year 2154 — CCTV hasn’t deteriorated that much?
Michelle Rodriguez’s character, a combat pilot, commits an emotionally reasonable — but militarily unforgivable — act of desertion; why isn’t she hung, drawn and quartered by her boss, the supposedly terrifying, inhumane disciplinarian Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang)? We'll never know.
Perhaps the kiddy-friendly 12A certificate neutered the (entertainingly) excessive violence that Cameron's Terminator/Aliens devotees are used to.
The paucity of Hollywood heavyweights on board has obviously not hindered the film’s success.
With Avatar, Cameron took a similar route to Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) by making the ‘SFX', rather than one particular character, the star.
But you may look back and wonder why Worthington, and not his more bankable Terminator Salvation co-star Christian Bale, was cast as Sully.
And why the nearest thing to an A-lister on the set was 60-year-old Sigourney Weaver.
Perhaps I'm suffering from the so-called ‘Avatar blues’ — but maybe not the same type as others who, having been immersed in the luscious world of Pandora, reportedly get depressed on re-entering the real one.
For me, it’s more an anticlimactic feeling of the kind you experience after an hour of the cheesy, interminable Titanic when, somehow, you resist the urge to scream: “for heaven’s sake, what’s keeping that bloody iceberg?”
Hindsight's wonderful, of course, and let’s not forget that most cinematic exemplars of new technology were over-hyped at the time (the Matrix sequels, anyone?), then ultimately dismissed as style over substance.
And it won’t be long before someone makes a much better all-round film than Avatar, using Avatar-influenced technology.
None of this will trouble the good people from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a largely anonymous but frighteningly influential 6,000-strong group upon whose deliberations so many Hollywood dreams are made and/or crushed.
Avatar of course remains a strong contender to win, among other Oscars, Best Picture.
Its rivals include Pixar’s Up, about an old man who turns his house into a flying machine, and, needless to say, The Hurt Locker, which features a bomb squad in Iraq and is, rather intriguingly, directed by Kathryn Bigelow — one of four ex-Mrs Camerons.
‘Best Picture' is the movie world’s most coveted prize— but its history is peppered with ill-judged and, in come cases, frankly ludicrous choices.
Few film buffs would decry the merits of past winners such as All Quiet On The Western Front (1929), Gone With The Wind (1939), Casablanca (1943), In The Heat Of The Night (1967), The Godfather (1972) or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
You’d be amazed, though, to discover that Citizen Kane (1941), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Exorcist (1973), Chinatown (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The Sixth Sense (1999) didn’t get a sniff of the winners podium.
And how many could now defend the choice of Dances with Wolves (1990) ahead of Goodfellas? Forrest Gump (1994) pipping Shawshank Redemption? LA Confidential (1997) losing out to . . . er, Titanic? Was the finest film of 2005 really Crash — not Brokeback Mountain?
And will we soon be thinking — with righteous incredulity and only a smidgen of hindsight — that the Academy members were way off the mark in voting for Cameron's opus major ahead of his former wife's?
Whatever Avatar’s fate this weekend, it’s now the only movie in history to gross $2bn; it broke the $1bn barrier in just 17 days (Titanic took three months) — and it’s unlikely ‘King of the World’ Cameron will struggle to get his next project financed.
Having successfully convinced 20th Century Fox to part with half a billion greenbacks for an overlong, computer-generated tale about 15-foot-tall, environmentally friendly Smurfs, pitching the Avatar sequel shouldn’t prove too taxing . . .