Cameron Opens a Pandora's Box

The "Avatar" director shoots for "Lord of the Rings" territory. But he's a long way from Middle Earth

Pandora's a nice place to visit – but is it worth returning to over and over?

We’ll learn this weekend whether nine minutes of new footage is enough to draw droves of moviegoers to the re-release of "Avatar" – a film most who care probably already saw in theaters and possibly on DVD not all that long ago.

The box office take also could provide a clue to the franchise's long-term fate.

Don't get us wrong – any new "Avatar" flick will drive fans, covered in blue makeup, to wait on line for days to don the 3-D glasses at the first midnight showings. What this weekend could offer, though, is an indication of how strong and lasting a hold Pandora will have on the popular imagination – a point that's not lost on "Avatar" director James Cameron.

In a revealing interview this week with The Los Angeles Times, Cameron made clear he’s set on raising Pandora to the pantheon of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and the enduring worlds of the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" series.

"You've got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the ‘Star Wars' and the ‘Star Treks,'" Cameron told The Times. "People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora.”

That's both a humble and arrogant statement – and a daunting self-challenge from the man who gave us "The Terminator" and what, by some measures, are the two most successful movies of all time, "Titanic" and "Avatar."

He's aspiring to tread into some pretty heady territory. Tolkien's classic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was long thought untranslatable to film, but Peter Jackson pulled it off in three movies that Cameron no doubt is looking to for lessons. We’re hoping Jackson will opt to try to create similar magic with the planned two-film version of "The Hobbit."

Things don’t always go, though, quite as fans hope: George Lucas and Co. gave us three incredible "Star Wars" films, and then three others that didn't live up to everybody’s high expectations. The "Star Trek" series is even spottier in terms of spinoff shows, and movies of varying degrees of quality.

But all of those franchises, as Cameron notes, created their own universes – ones we're happy to lose ourselves in time after time.

For Pandora, entry into that exclusive club will be about a lot more than the enveloping 3-D and motion-capture technology that will be old hat by the time Cameron is done making “Avatar” sequels. The most memorable parts of the series the director aims to compete with are the characters, who are more vital to their worlds than the fantastical settings.

We're still a little annoyed at the “Avatar” re-release, which seems like a gimmick to grab more money – especially at the end of a relatively blockbuster-free summer. But we're heartened by Cameron's drive for excellence and his implicit admission that he has a long way to go before "Avatar" hits the ranks of modern mythology.

We'll be sure to visit again when Pandora is open for more than nine minutes.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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