My Case Of posts where I serve as the defense for and prosecution against the Best Picture, Director, and four acting competition hopefuls arrives at our second contender in the biggest race of all. That’s Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s long-in-development sequel to 2009’s 3D game changer.
The Case for Avatar: The Way of Water:
If the Academy wants to honor the highest grossing worldwide pic of the bunch, this is your movie. Cameron’s follow-up just surpassed $2 billion at the global box office and has ruled the domestic box office for seven weeks running.
The Case Against Avatar: The Way of Water:
If the Academy wants to honor the highest grossing domestic pic of the bunch, Top Gun: Maverick is their movie. It’s the sequel that had the best nominations haul on Oscar noms morning. Water‘s four overall mentions are less than half of the nine achieved by the original 13 years ago. It won three – Art Direction (now Production Design), Cinematography, and Visual Effects. This one seems destined for a sole victory. Cameron couldn’t make the final five for his direction (he did get a Globes nod) and editing is another significant omission.
Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects
That likely win is in Visual Effects. With the aforementioned whiffs in direction and editing and the less than impressive haul (compared to part 1), Water was pretty fortunate to make the cut at all.
My Case Of posts will continue with The Banshees of Inisherin!
If you missed my posts covering the other BP contenders, click here:
Avatar: The Way of Water is both visually sparkling and narratively flat. In that sense, James Cameron’s sequel is much like the 2009 original (which happens to be worldwide highest grosser in history). The effects thirteen years ago were revolutionary and kicked off a mostly unfortunate trend of tentpoles getting the three-dimensional treatment. That sense of wonder from Avatar is present occasionally below the surface in a few astounding underwater sequences. Many blockbusters have competed with this franchise in visual splendor and come up short and that includes some shoddy MCU battles. Cameron and his crew can still wow, but subpar writing and a lack of tight editing remains a problem. If you loved the forests of Pandora in part 1 and didn’t want to leave, you’ll likely love lounging in the aquatic action of this follow-up. If your feelings were mixed like mine were, expect a similar reaction.
Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi spiritual leader in waiting Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are married with four kids as Water begins (it’s set a decade and a half plus post Avatar). Adopted teenage daughter Kiri (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) is miraculously spawned from Sigourney’s scientist in the original. We suspect she might have special powers if she can get over her Jan Brady lot in life. Older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is the responsible one while second born boy Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the rebel. Youngest girl Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is eight and precocious. The Sully tribe are living a peaceful existence until those mean corporate Earthlings return to Pandora. On their list of plays is total colonization as the home planet is dying.
Due to a memory implant system, Stephen Lang’s villainous Colonel is leading the charge in the guise of a Na’vi big blue boy. He has revenge on his mind since it was Neytiri who arrowed him to death years ago. There’s also a son he left behind that the Sully’s are raising who goes by Spider (Jack Champion). Clad in a loincloth, his character comes off as a cartoonish plot device. He’s got about as much depth as Bam Bam Rubble. The dynamic between Spider and his father is one of a few daddy issues happening. I half expected a sky complected Maury Povich to interrupt and start moderating.
Since Jake is being targeted for his skill in fighting off the Sky People, he relocates his brood to the tropical island of At’wa Attu. They feel out of place among the residents who spend much of their day submerged. The chief of their clan known as the Metkayina is Tonwari (Cliff Curtis). He and his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) are skeptical about harboring their guests. It’s in and around the island where some memorable moments happen. The Metkayina share a spiritual connection with the giant mammals swimming below. Lo’ak befriends one of them and it’s a subplot that clicks.
Part 2 relegates Jake and Neytiri to the sidelines for much of its three hours and 12 minutes. A larger focus is on their offspring and how they feel like fish out of water. The filmmaker’s own well-documented fascination with the deep comes in handy with the whale tale portions and beyond. The bulk of its themes, on the other hand, are heavily borrowed from before. Cameron and his tech wizards can enthrall us and exasperate us in this new habitat that questions our humanity.
Avatar: The Way of Water surfaces on your 3D and IMAX screens this Friday. It is, of course, James Cameron’s follow-up to 2009’s original which still stands as the biggest worldwide grosser of all time (and third overall domestically). The social media embargo lifted last week and the common refrain was “don’t bet against James Cameron”. I held off on my Oscar speculation until the official review embargo lapsed. That happened today.
Currently at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes (part 1 ended up at 82%), many critics are claiming this is an improvement over the first. Some of the same gripes remain including that it is overlong (3 hours and 12 minutes) and underdeveloped in its screenplay. Praise for its technical work is more universal.
In 2009, Avatar made an Oscar splash with nine nominations: Picture, Director, Art Direction (now Production Design), Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing (the Sound races are now combined), and Visual Effects. It won 3 – Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.
Water has a chance of receiving the same number of nods. On Monday, the Golden Globes put it in their five for Picture (Drama) and Director. I already believe the Academy will make room for this in BP. It should be the second massive international blockbuster (alongside Top Gun: Maverick) in the mix. Cameron showing up in the directing quintet is not as automatic.
Let’s dispense with the easiest items. This is going to win Visual Effects just like its predecessor. That’s one of the slam dunk categories you can cross off already. Production Design and Cinematography and Sound are all probable inclusions. I’m less certain about the score and editing. Then there’s the Weeknd, who contributed the song “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength)”. I’m not so sure about its strength in that competition. He needs to overcome other superstars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish and that could be a tall order.
You’ll notice I haven’t discussed the performances or the screenplay. While there’s kudos for returnees like Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver (in a different role than in 2009), don’t expect the acting to capture the attention of voters. Given that the writing is the most faulted aspect, don’t hold your breath expecting Cameron and cowriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver to contend.
Bottom line: Avatar: The Way of Water looks to be Cameron’s third movie in a row (after Titanic and Avatar) to be in the BP race. Look for its nomination total to be at least 4-5 and maybe more. In other words, to borrow a phrase from most of Twitter last week, don’t bet against James Cameron. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…
Hollywood looks to be awoken from its box office slumber when Avatar: The Way of Water surfaces on December 16th. After plenty of delays in the release date, James Cameron’s sequel to his 2009 record breaking phenomenon comes with a reported budget in the neighborhood of $400 million. Clocking in at 3 hours and 12 minutes, the 3D sci-fi epic is the only newcomer on the pre-Christmas weekend and it should dominate the marketplace. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, and Matt Gerald reprise their roles from part 1. Joining the Pandora universe for the first time are Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Jermaine Clement, and Brandon Cowell. Sigourney Weaver appears in a different part from 13 years ago.
It’s dangerous to underestimate Cameron. This is only his third feature in a quarter century. 1997’s Titanic withstood shaky buzz during its filming and became the highest grossing film of all time. That record stood for 12 years until it was broken by (you guessed it) Avatar, which also had troubling word-of-mouth until it didn’t. With $785 million domestically (which includes a September re-release which did impressive business), Avatar still ranks fourth all-time stateside behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. The international tally is $2.1 billion and that ranks as #1.
There are legitimate questions as to the sequel’s potency. 13 years is a long time between entries. Are younger viewers excited for a trip back to the planet with all the blue people? Disney and 20th Century Studios need this to make a splash as a third Avatar arrives in two years with fourth and fifth (and possibly more) editions planned.
One number is easy to know. The Way of Water will have no problem dwarfing the $77 million that Avatar made for its debut before it became the must-see picture for months. It was #1 for 7 weeks. The sequel is expected to take in double that figure with $160 million generally being considered the floor. The ceiling could be $200 million (and perhaps higher) though its length could hinder that possibility. There’s also some older moviegoers who may not feel the need to rush out opening weekend to view it.
I believe $175-185 million is likely for the Sully family as they land in theaters once again. My projection gives it the 14th biggest domestic premiere of all time between Iron Man 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. That’s also the 3rd largest opening haul of 2022 behind Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Black Panther: WakandaForever.
Avatar: The Way of Water opening weekend prediction: $173.1 million
20th Century Studios is hoping moviegoers are ready for a return trip to Pandora (and its Papyrus font) when it re-releases Avatar into multiplexes on September 23rd. It arrives three months before James Cameron’s long gestating sequel Avatar: The Way of Water. The original 2009 3D tale revolutionized that technology and it broke the director’s own record to become the highest grossing domestic earner of all time. (topping Titanic). That designation stood for six years until Star Wars: The Force Awakens came along.
Journeying to approximately 1800 venues, Avatar will look to add to the $760 million already in its coffers. The best case scenario is that it could top the charts over Don’t Worry Darling or The Woman King. A far likelier outcome, in my view, is a third place showing in the high single digits.
Avatar re-release opening weekend prediction: $8.5 million
For my Don’t Worry Darling prediction, click here:
Despite penning the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader somehow never got an Oscar nomination until his script for 2018’s First Reformed. That was the sole nod for that acclaimed effort as Schrader’s direction and Ethan Hawke’s central performance didn’t make the cut. Last year’s follow-up The Card Counter wasn’t an Academy player at all despite some decent critical reaction.
Schrader’s newest crime thriller is The Master Gardener which has premiered at Venice. Joel Edgerton stars as a horticulturist with a dark past. Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell costar. While there’s plenty of praise for Edgerton, the Rotten Tomatoes meter is at a middling 58%. If Counter (with an 87% RT score) couldn’t make a dent in the awards chatter, Gardener won’t either. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…
1989 was unquestionably the Summer of the Bat as Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader broke records. For 1992, it’s a bit more murky but we could call it The Summer of the Cat based on the sequel being the season’s biggest blockbuster.
As I have every season on the blog, I’m recounting the top 10 hits as well as some notable pics and failures from the summers of 30, 20, and 10 years ago. For 1992, it was a time of no crying in baseball, a Best Picture winner being discovered, and audiences refusing a biopic about a discoverer of America.
We begin with the moneymakers from #10 on up before moving to additional hits, misses, and those somewhere in between.
Domestic Gross: $58 million
While not the blockbuster he’d had just six months prior with Father of the Bride, Steve Martin had a midsize performer with this rom com costarring Goldie Hawn.
9. Honey, I Blew Up the Kid
Domestic Gross: $58 million
The return of Rick Moranis and plenty of special effects had shrunken grosses compared to the predecessor. The $58 million tally is less than half of what Honey, I Shrunk the Kids made. Nevertheless a direct to video sequel and TV series followed.
8. Far and Away
Domestic Gross: $58 million
Tom Cruise is ruling summer 2022 with Top Gun: Maverick. It was a different story 30 years ago with this rare misfire. Ron Howard directed the epic Western costarring Tom’s ex Nicole Kidman. The domestic take was less than the reported $60 million budget. Cruise would quickly get back in the good graces of moviegoers later in 1992 with A Few Good Men.
Domestic Gross: $70 million
While not approaching the earnings of his largest hits, Eddie Murphy’s first foray into romantic leading man territory did decent business. A string of flops would follow before a plus sized comeback four years later in The Nutty Professor.
6. Patriot Games
Domestic Gross: $83 million
Harrison Ford stepped into the role of Jack Ryan after Alec Baldwin (who played the role in The Hunt for Red October) didn’t return. The result didn’t quite reach the financial or critical levels of its predecessor, but it easily made enough to warrant Clear and Present Danger two summers later.
Domestic Gross: $101 million
Clint Eastwood’s tale of an aging cowboy out for revenge took the August box office by storm and eventually was an awards favorite – winning Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor for the villainous Gene Hackman. Unforgiven is the rare BP winner to release in the summer season and kickstarted an impressive second act for the legendary filmmaker.
4. A League of Their Own
Domestic Gross: $107 million
Penny Marshall’s World War II era baseball comedy was celebrated for its interplay between players like Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell in addition to one of cinema’s longest urination sequences from Tom Hanks.
3. Sister Act
Domestic Gross: $139 million
Coming on the heels of her Ghost Oscar, Whoopi Goldberg hit the jackpot with this fish out of water pic putting the comedienne in a convent. A less regarded sequel would follow in December 1993 as well as a Broadway musical.
2. Lethal Weapon 3
Domestic Gross: $144 million
Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s third go-round in their buddy cop franchise didn’t generate the reviews of its two predecessors, but it had no trouble raking in the bucks. Rene Russo joined the party this time as Gibson’s love interest and fellow officer. Part 4 would come six years later and a fifth is in development right now.
1. Batman Returns
Domestic Gross: $162 million
Breathlessly anticipated and then received with mixed reaction due to its dark tone, Batman Returns is now seen by many as an improvement over the 1989 original. One thing that’s generally agreed upon is Michelle Pfeiffer nailing the role of Catwoman. This would be Burton’s last time helming the series with Joel Schumacher taking the franchise in a far more cartoonish direction for 1995’s Batman Forever.
And now for some other noteworthy selections outside of the top ten:
Domestic Gross: $57 million
Coming on the heels of the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. Riots, this thriller starring the late Ray Liotta as a dirty cop tormenting Kurt Russell felt timely.
Single White Female
Domestic Gross: $48 million
Liotta was the Cop From Hell while Jennifer Jason Leigh was the Roommate From Hell terrorizing Bridget Fonda in this memorable psychological thriller.
Domestic Gross: $40 million
The cinematic era of MTV personality Pauly Shore (as well as Brendan Fraser) began with this caveman comedy that grossed several times its meager $7 million budget.
Domestic Gross: $36 million
Action lunkheads Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren teamed up for this futuristic sci-fi pic that turned a nifty profit and spawned numerous sequels. Four summers later, director Roland Emmerich would dominate the season with Independence Day.
Honeymoon in Vegas
Domestic Gross: $35 million
With a plot similar to Indecent Proposal that would follow a few months later, Honeymoon in Vegas took the more comedic route and earned decent grosses in the cast led by Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the just departed James Caan. Plus… Flying Elvis impersonators!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Domestic Gross: $16 million
It did manage to double its meager budget, but this vampire comedy likely wouldn’t be remembered had it not led to a critically acclaimed WB series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. The title role in the film version belonged to Kristy Swanson with a supporting cast including Luke Perry, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman), and pre double Oscar winner Hilary Swank.
My final section of the summer 1992 recap gets to the under performers and downright flops…
Death Becomes Her
Domestic Gross: $58 million
This star studded satire from Robert Zemeckis boasted Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis above the title and some innovative special effects. While it just missed the top ten, the $58 million take barely surpassed the $55 million budget. Audiences and critics were mixed though Death has become a cult favorite in subsequent years.
Domestic Gross: $55 million
Despite marking the directorial debut of David Fincher and featuring a memorably bald Sigourney Weaver, Alien 3 is considered to be a step-down from its iconic predecessors Alien and Aliens. In spite of the backlash, the franchise has continued and, of course, Fincher went onto brighter (albeit even darker) pastures.
Domestic Gross: $14 million
Animator Ralph Bakshi is best known for his X-rated 1972 feature Fritz the Cat. After Cool World, he was still mostly known for Fritz the Cat. This hybrid of live-action and cartoon fantasy starred Kim Basinger and Brad Pitt. Yet it bombed with reviewers and crowds alike and only earned half its budget back stateside.
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery
Domestic Gross: $8 million
No one had interest in discovering this critically drubbed Columbus biopic that had Marlon Brando and Tom Selleck in the cast. Later in the fall, Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise about the title character would also bomb.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Domestic Gross: $4 million
In 1990, David Lynch’s bizarre TV series was a cultural phenomenon… at least for a season. The movie version arrived after the second and final season and audiences had tuned out.
And that’s your look at the cinematic summer from 30 years ago! My recap of 2002 will be available in short order…
Based on a dozen reviews thus far out of Sundance, Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane stands at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Focused on the real life Jane Collective from the 1960s (a group of women who fought for reproductive rights prior to Roe v Wade), Elizabeth Banks stars alongside Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara, and Chris Messina.
While its rating is high, most reviews so far are in the three star range. Nagy makes her feature film debut after drawing acclaim for her Carol screenplay in 2015. Banks’s lead performance is drawing solid notices but it’s the supporting work from Weaver garnering a bit of buzz. Despite appearing in a whole lot of high profile pics over the decades, she hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since 1988. She was actually up twice that year – in lead for Gorillas in the Mist and supporting for Working Girl. Her first nod came two years prior for Aliens. She’s never won.
A campaign for Weaver could be Jane‘s only real shot at awards recognition a year from now. Time will tell and my Oscar Prediction posts will continue…
The original Ghostbusters, lest we forget, was filled with ribald humor coming from SNL vets that were in the prime of their careers. Overloading the reboot/sequel Afterlife with gooey family drama feels, in many ways, as misplaced as the missteps that 2016’s version took or that 1989’s traditional follow-up was a fairly weak retread of the first. This franchise hasn’t succeeded in their attempts to capitalize on what made 1984’s pic special and that extends to this.
It’s not for a lack of trying as the 2021 iteration goes to extreme lengths to get our nostalgia radars working into overdrive. Jason Reitman takes over directorial duties from his father Ivan, who made the 80s blockbusters. There’s not a piece of attire or Twinkie or demonic marshmallow from 1984 that isn’t placed with the clear purpose of inspiring wild cheers. Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows the name of every nearly four decade old artifact, vehicle or gadget. In this Afterlife, it more often feels forced than welcome.
We shift from the Big Apple to the sleepy town of Summerville, Oklahoma. Egon Spangler, Harold Ramis’s nerdy scientist from the OG ‘Busters, has relocated to a dilapidated farmhouse and cut off contact with his family and former colleagues. His demise in the prologue causes his heirs to inhabit the dusty domicile. This includes down on her luck daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two kids. Since I think it’s now contactually necessary for Stranger Things players to participate in these reboots, Finn Wolfhard is her teenage son Trevor. Mckenna Grace is the real lead as 12-year-old daughter Phoebe, who resembles her granddad in looks and interests. An outcast at school, she bonds with fellow geek Podcast (Logan Kim) and her summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd).
Trevor and Phoebe are completely unaware that Egon was a Ghostbuster (we’ll just go with that I suppose). Paranormal activities start revealing his life’s work including Phoebe’s ongoing chess game with an unseen spirit. The iconic car (yay!) is stored on the property. Of course, the late Egon was in Summerville for a reason and it has to do with familiar haunters from ’84 and preventing them from returning.
This all leads to familiar heroic faces eventually turning up (though not with significant screen time). With their limited participation, the question is whether the new and much younger generation of spirit crushers is compelling enough to warrant a feature. I didn’t think so, but there are some positives. Grace’s performance is terrific (while Wolfhard and his budding romance with his bellhop coworker Celeste O’Connor adds little). Rudd’s considerable talents (he takes a liking to Callie) add a bit of fun. The sight of Bill Murray randomly turning up anywhere is good for a smile (though not much more here than reading about how he does so in real life).
However, the tone in general struck me as off. It’s hard not to be touched by its tribute to the late Harold Ramis (a man responsible for so many laughs in landmark comedies of the past). I felt the sentiment because of that and not the absence of Egon. Afterlife seems trapped in the notion that our emotional connections to these characters run deeper than they do. Like many reboots nowadays, the mere presence of something old is meant to provide the requisite entertainment value. It made me feel mostly dispirited.
It’s in with the old and in with the new as Ghostbusters: Afterlife debuts in theaters November 19th. This was originally scheduled to haunt multiplexes in the summer of 2020 before numerous COVID delays. Jason Reitman directs and there’s some family legacy involved as dad Ivan made parts I and II in 1984 and 1989. Newcomers to the series include Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Tracy Letts, and Paul Rudd (not to mention Stay Puft Marshmallow Minis according to the trailer). Returnees from the 80s are Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver.
If rebooting this franchise sounds familiar – that’s because it happened five years ago to middling results. The Paul Feig helmed remake led by Melissa McCarthy and Kristin Wiig took in $46 million on its opening weekend but fizzled quickly due to so-so reviews and audience reaction. It also featured the OG Busters making cameos. This new iteration serves as a direct sequel to the first two.
Some estimates have Afterlife beginning at $50 million or above. That’s certainly doable, but I’m not so sure. While it’s obviously a well-known property and the ’84 original is rightly considered a classic, both follow-ups have been letdowns. The 71% Rotten Tomatoes score is OK, but its actually below the 74% that greeted the ballyhooed 2016 pic.
I’m projecting that this makes it to $35-$40 million and doesn’t get to the number we saw just a half decade back.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife opening weekend prediction: $38.1 million