Thirteen years after James Cameron immersed moviegoers in the cosmic world of Avatar, the lush, distant moon of Pandora finally returns to orbit.
Cameron’s Avatar industrial complex has been running at full speed for some time; production on the upcoming sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, began in 2017. But after going through half a decade of release dates, Cameron’s sci-fi epic is about to cover again movie screens and bring willing travelers back, in 3-D, to the land of the Na’vi.
Even for the visionary filmmaker of Titanic and The Terminator, reviving Avatar is, as Cameron said in a recent interview from Wellington, New Zealand, “a big gamble”. A third Avatar is already in post-production and production has begun on a fourth. The box office record $2.8 billion that Avatar brought in made Avatar’s next armada a far from risky gamble. But a lot has changed since the original was released, when Netflix still rented DVDs by mail and Cameron worked for 20th Century Fox.
To whet moviegoers’ appetites ahead of the Dec. 16 debut of three-hour Avatar: The Way of Water — and remind them of a cinematic world they may have lost touch with — the Walt Disney Co. will release Avatar on Friday. in a remastered, 4K, HDR version that he says is “better than it’s ever been.”
It’s an opening salvo in Cameron’s ambitious plan to sketch out an even grander sci-fi saga and once again evoke a cinematic experience, as he puts it, “that you just can’t have. at home”. Taking a break from all the Avatar juggling, Cameron talked about rewatching the original, his expectations for The Way of Water, and why he nearly quit the Avatar business.
Notes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Avatar seems a long time ago to you?
It feels like yesterday at times, and of course it’s been over a decade at other times. Time has passed quickly. I did all kinds of interesting things. Deep sea research. Build submersibles. Write four epic movies. We are now finishing Avatar 2 and we are halfway through posting on Avatar 3. So Avatar has never been far from my mind. I keep coming back to it, obviously in the remastering process, which makes it better than it’s ever been before. I just live on Pandora right now.
When you went back to see Avatar, what did you think?
I see a lot of good work by a lot of good people in terms of production design, visual effects, the groundbreaking advancements that were made at the time to capture the performances of the actors, and the great work of the actors. It was hard to live. We set the bar very high for ourselves back then and we had to live up to it this time around with the new films. I always remind our VFX team, “Look at the bugs in the forest in the first movie. We had better bugs!
Movies rebounded this summer, but there was a lull at the end of the summer that the Avatar re-release might help kick-start. How do you see the health of the theater at the moment?
He showed a resilience that I don’t think we expected. The pandemic, rightly, has scared everyone. There was a time when you were basically risking your life to go to the movies. People did it anyway. Now we feel like we’ve passed the mark or at least it’s a manageable issue. We are seeing a resurgence in cinemas. It’s not where we were before. Streaming took a bite out. The pandemic has taken a bite. We’re probably down 20, 25% from where we were before the pandemic. I think it’s going to be a really long tail on this thing before we get back to where we were before. It falls to us to double the staging.
Over the years, some have argued that Avatar, despite its stature as the highest-grossing movie of all time, hasn’t stayed in the culture as one might expect. Do these arguments irritate you?
I think that’s true for a specific reason, which is that we didn’t immediately follow up with another movie in two or three years, and another movie in two or three years. We haven’t played the Marvel game. We are playing a longer game here. Avatar isn’t going anywhere, it just hasn’t followed a continuous barrage to keep it in the public eye and in the public consciousness, which is what you need to do. Learning from that, we’ve basically crafted four sequels so that if Avatar 2 is successful, we can follow it with a steady cadence – two years, maybe three years at the most between 3 and 4. It’ll be in the public consciousness more and more regularly, but only if people embrace Avatar 2.
Your films have grossed over $6 billion. I imagine you’re not a filmmaker who gets nervous before opening a movie.
Yes of course. Anyone who says they don’t get nervous before a movie comes out is a son of a liar (expletive).
And there are a lot of people riding the Waterway.
Yeah, it’s a big game. It’s a big bet. And we won’t know where we are until the second or third weekend. The success of the first film – we had a pretty good opening at $75 million. But openings are dwarfed by factors of two or even three these days. Even though we have a stellar opening, we won’t really know where we are for a few more weeks as it was the return visits on the first one. They were people who wanted to share. If we get this again, we’ll probably be on solid ground.
I think the odds are in your favor.
Nobody knows. The market has changed. Twenty-five percent could be our entire margin. It’s one thing to make a lot of money, it’s another to make a profit. We’re not going to keep making money-losing movies even though they look good and make a lot of money. This is a wait-and-see, let’s-put-it-there-and-see-if-people-kiss-it situation.
Avatar was particularly rich with an ecological subtext. In the 13 years since, many things have only gotten worse for the climate and the health of the planet. How concerned were you about doing the sequels?
Absolutely, even to the extent that I debated very strongly with myself and argued with my wife about whether I should stop making films and work on sustainability issues. But we managed to be able to do it in parallel with the process of making the film. We are doing all our sustainability efforts – I don’t mean in parallel, but in parallel. I put as much effort into it as into making the film.
That said, the new Avatar movies don’t feel any more like a lecture on climate or environmentalism than the first. The first was an adventure. It captured you at the character level, at the storytelling level. I think subtext is a useful way to see it. It’s there but it’s not what drives the story. And we kept that in mind with the new movies. Yes, Avatar: The Way of Water is about the oceans and our relationship with the oceans and the animals that live there. But it’s character driven.
Avatar: The Way of Water will bring back 3D and feature high frame rate footage, which moviegoers have mixed opinions about. What do you think has been the biggest technological leap of the past 13 years?
In terms of presentation, we write in high dynamic range, which I think is very important. Field projection is brighter now than it was ten years ago, which is much better for 3D. We use high frame rates wisely in the process of creating our 3D, as people become more sensitive to rapid lateral movement. Your mind is more sensitive, so we solved that by judiciously applying a high frame rate here and there throughout the movie. All of this is in the service of making it a better viewing experience.
I don’t think anyone should go see a movie because it’s written a certain way. It’s part of our showmanship. I think the reasons to see this film are the same reasons to see the first one. You enter a world. You become completely immersed in it. You feel like it surrounds you and you become an inhabitant of it, and you linger in it. You are making this trip. Of course, in the new movie, it’s a bit longer because you have more characters and more story to serve. I think people are very story driven. When they get a cast of characters they love and engage with their issues, they follow it for dozens of hours over several years of limited series. I’m not worried about this part.