The future of Avatar: How The Way of Water sets the stage for a new Na'vi era
A generation of moviegoers recognizes 2009's Avatar as a game changer: Hollywood's highest-grossing film of all time, and one that also made history by pushing performance-capture technology in bold new directions. But the only recollection that actress Bailey Bass, 19, has of the original is the memory of her six-year-old self in a theater. "When you're that young, it's hard to understand what's going on," she tells EW. It wasn't until she prepared to audition for the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, at the age of 12 that she understood the hype.
Actors Trinity Bliss, who was born the year Avatar hit theaters, and Jack Champion, now 18, had similar introductions. "I'd watched it maybe once or twice when I was really young, but I never really watched it until I was obsessively watching it because I knew I was auditioning for The Way of Water," Champion says. "It worked to my disadvantage because now I'm a fan. Before, I had no idea who this James Cameron was, but now I'm like, 'Oh, my God, he made Avatar.'"
"He went down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench with a Rolex," marvels Bliss, 13, of Cameron's record-breaking deep-sea voyage in 2012. "He's an OG," Champion agrees.
Their costar Jamie Flatters, 22, remembers the first Avatar as the movie every classmate in primary school wanted to see for their birthday party — "as transcendent as your dreams are as a child," he says.
Now all four of them get to be a part of that dream made real as the next wave of Avatar stars.
Avatar: The Way of Water, in theaters this Friday, introduces Flatters, Bliss, and Champion through similar performance-capture magic as the children of military-vet-turned-Na'vi-chieftain Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Pandoran huntress Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the main characters of the first movie. Bass portrays Tsireya, a chieftain's daughter from a neighboring Na'vi clan, and the love interest of Sully's child, Lo'ak, played by Britain Dalton.
What does the future of the Avatar franchise look like? As the Whitney Houston song tells us, the children are our future.
A New Generation
"That's a generation of Sullys that we will be able to follow into the sequels," says franchise producer Jon Landau, noting the three installments already on Disney's calendar for theatrical release through the year 2028. "We want you to see Britain Dalton and Jack Champion, to see Bailey Bass and Trinity and Jamie Flatters, as they grow up and continue to play these characters."
Cameron and Landau have been wanting to make more Avatar movies since the release of the first one, according to the producer. But both were busy: Landau mentions Cameron's building of the "vertical torpedo" submarine that would eventually take him down to the depths of the Mariana Trench, making the Titanic and Terminator filmmaker the first human being to reach that 6.8-mile-deep marker in a solo submarine. Around that same time, Landau was occupied with executing the re-release of Titanic on its 15th anniversary in 2012. It was only after that milestone that they sat down in earnest to map out their plans for an Avatar franchise.
"Jim went off and he wrote 1,500 pages of story notes, having tossed around ideas like, Do we stay on Pandora? Do we go somewhere else?" Landau recalls. "And [he] made the decision to keep all the stories on Pandora, because we realized that we could spend our whole lives traveling Earth, and not see all the wonders it holds or not meet all the diverse cultures that exist here. We want to do that same thing with the sequels, so set all the movies on Pandora." (Landau separately told io9 that a section of their planned fifth movie is set on Earth.)
Cameron soon hit a wall. His initial plan was to make three sequels for a total of four Avatar movies. Kate Winslet, who starred in Cameron's Titanic and also features in Avatar: The Way of Water as a shamanic clan leader, mentions how the director once spent an entire year working on a draft of a script before ultimately throwing it out. There was too much material for even a filmmaker accustomed to epic canvases to shape.
"We brought in three teams of writers to work with Jim, who, in six months, broke down those 1,500 pages into three sequels," Landau says. "As we got into writing, we realized there was still more story to tell than could fit into those three sequels, and we decided to do four sequels."
One treatment for the first sequel was a story about Jake raising a family with Neytiri when the colonizing "sky people" return to Pandora with a vengeance, having fled in defeat after the events of 2009's Avatar. Landau says that treatment was "pretty much a complete script," but it "went in a little bit of a different tangent and never went as far as our movie does time-wise."
The story, called High Ground, now exists as a comic book released by Dark Horse. In the context of the film we now have, The Way of Water begins in prologue, seeing the birth of Jake's family and the return of the human army, before jumping forward a year in time. High Ground takes place during that gap.
The story that would become The Way of Water really kicks off with Jake, now a chieftain of the Omaticaya Na'vi clan, leading his people in missions to thwart the invading force's shipping lanes and supply chains, cutting off their resources. General Ardmore (Edie Falco) leads military efforts of the exploitative RDA in an effort to make Pandora a new home for humanity as Earth decays.
Before she can do that, she must deal with the natives. Ardmore creates her own Na'vi strike team by placing the minds of soldiers into hybrid Avatar bodies. That includes the recently deceased Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang). With a target on their backs, Jake and his family decide to leave the Omaticaya and go into hiding, ultimately seeking sanctuary with the Metkayina, a clan of reef-dwelling Na'vi whose bodies have adapted to ocean life. Winslet's Ronal and Cliff Curtis' Tonowari lead the Metkayina.
"The key to The Way of Water is to get you on the side of the characters, so you actually care about what happens next in their journey," says Cameron, 68.
"I don't think he's out to replicate himself," Worthington says of Cameron. "He's out to expand the world and expand the family. Within that, the stakes are going to get higher. As we introduce more characters and more of Pandora, the more exciting and expansive this saga is going to become."
Worthington's Jake Sully still maintains a rebellious, reckless spirit, but now has kids. "How can you be these inspirational warriors [while] being these protective parents?" the actor asks. Of the sequels, Saldaña says, "I was tapping into that fear that I'm a mother and [Neytiri] is also a mother, but also respecting and revering your partner. When do you trust, and when do you let go? Just like all of those conflicts that happen when you have a family, and you're constantly responsible for someone's safety, it causes a very unique dynamic between you and your partner, because every decision has to be a mutual decision."
Planting Seeds on Pandora
Sigourney Weaver had a different challenge. The actress does appear in Avatar: The Way of Water as Grace Augustine, her character from the first movie, but the 73-year-old is primarily playing a completely different role: Kiri, the 14-year-old adopted Na'vi daughter of Jake and Neytiri who was conceived and carried in Grace's now-brain-dead Avatar body.
Weaver plays coy when speaking about the character's origins, noting it's "a bit complicated and mysterious." Kiri maintains a strong connection to nature and the animals that inhabit Pandora. She's closest to the spirit of Eywa, the Na'vi God. Given her seemingly immaculate conception, "Na'vi Jesus" isn't a far-out descriptor for Kiri. "I think it was hard for me to grasp," Weaver says of first hearing about the concept from Cameron. "It was just like, 'How are you going do this?' It was excited shock."
Weaver spent most of her time with her younger costars, being that she was playing one of the gang. "We had lessons in underwater sign language," she remembers. "We had lessons in parkour, free diving, breath holding, knife fighting, everything you could think of. I was determined to keep up with these kids, who have endless energy and flexibility. I'm really happy about that because we do have to be our own little mob. By that time, I felt like one of the little rag-tag kids."
"She's so young at heart, like a kid at heart, and so much fun," Bliss says of Weaver. "She's a legend, but she's really there for us. She'd be there, making us feel like she's our big sis. She'd recommend or sometimes give books that she loved in her childhood like Pippi Longstocking or The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes."
Bliss, Champion, Dalton, Flatters, and Bass would be entering the world of Avatar for the first time, a feeling the veteran cast still remembers. Saldaña puts her hands over her heart as she thinks about that. "From where I was standing as a parent, I was excited to see the sense of wonder in all of their eyes, getting to experience the world of Pandora, shooting it," she says. "What they bring is such a breath of fresh air, Kiri included. It's a brand-new experience into Pandora."
Flatters' Neteyam is the eldest child of Jake and Neytiri. He often carries the weight of familial responsibility and blame, especially when his younger brother, Lo'ak, makes brash decisions. Flatters looks back on the first day of filming as "probably one of the worst acting experiences of my life." He was shooting a scene with Worthington and Saldaña. Normally, he says, he doesn't get intimidated by big names, but on the day, he kept judging himself. "It wasn't a very good day, but I knew that I needed to then desperately get ahold of who I needed to be in the space. It was the best day in that sense."
Bliss' Tuk is the youngest child, but she doesn't see herself that way. She's "trying to prove that she can do what everyone else does," Bliss explains. "She might be small in size, but she's mighty in courage."
Champion's Spider is more complicated — a human child who was left behind by the RDA when the militarized organization fled Pandora after the first movie. As the film explains, infants weren't able to survive cryogenic stasis. Jake took Spider in and raised him as one of their family, though Neytiri sees him as other. "Then Quaritch comes and all the stuff happens that just complicates his emotional feelings even more," Champion says.
"I learned from the kids," Lang, 70, comments. "It's just that wonderful innocence, and rediscovering what acting is all about, as if I've never done it before. The relaxation that they have, the nerves that they have as young people, [that] was very instructive and infectious, too."
The Way of the Future
These beats with the kids are the seeds Cameron plants in The Way of Water that will sprout in the sequels. "The way I mapped this out is that it's one big continuous saga when you see it all, but each film has its own offramp and finale that rounds it all out," the director explains of his grand plans. "The best metaphor is really good episodic TV, where you understand the problems of the character. The specific proximal problem of this story has been resolved, but these characters are going to have the same problem next time I drop in on them because they're not going change that much, or they will change profoundly if something happens that's bad enough or enlightening enough."
Cameron notes there are "a couple questions" purposefully left unanswered by the end of The Way of Water. Some of those questions revolve around Kiri, others around Quaritch. "I wouldn't say he's even in the middle of his journey [in The Way of Water]," Lang confirms of his character. "There's a long, long way to go."
"You can call it sequel bait, but I'm not trying to justify a sequel," Cameron says. "We've already shot the other damn movie. I don't have to sell it to anybody."
In an ambitious effort, the production shot Avatar: The Way of Water, the entirety of the third movie, and the first act of the fourth movie back to back — sometimes simultaneously. Bass mentions some days would entail shooting two scenes from Avatar 2 in the morning before moving into scenes from Avatar 3.
"We did read-throughs, we discussed extensively where we were, we defined those beats that distinguished 2 from 3," Saldaña says. "So from where I was standing, I never felt that it was uncomfortable or anything, but that just has to do with the amount of time that we took in preparation for this. Jim makes you a part of the whole process and hears you. Every need that you have, he takes great attention to that detail and tries to the best of his ability to accommodate and incorporate your input."
"You can assume that the majority of the cast is returning for the third film and the subsequent films," Landau adds — though not everyone. "It was important for us to write all of the scripts, get them ready before we started so that [the actors] would know their complete character arc. They could know where they were going."
Another reason for such a perfectly orchestrated filming schedule: the growth spurts of children. Performance-capture VFX, while able to transform Weaver into a Na'vi teenager, can only do so much. Trinity was around 7 when she was cast as Tuk. Now she's 13.
"I love Stranger Things, but you get the Stranger Things effect where they're supposed to still be in high school, and they look like they're 27," Cameron remarks. Champion, cast at age 12, was "growing like a weed," Cameron remembers. "We shot with Jack when he was 14 and 15, almost up to 16. So we were shooting him over an 18-month period."
There was one six-month period when Cameron thought his plans for the sequels would fall apart: Production was forced to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, right in the middle of Champion's window before he would noticeably age up.
Cameron went to the most pessimistic place: "I was imagining scenarios where we don't go back to work for a year and a half, and we're completely screwed because he's aged out, and then we have to go back and reshoot with another guy," he remembers. "It was like, 'Just hand me the shotgun.' But fortunately, it didn't work out that way. We were able to appeal to the New Zealand government to let in a small group of our key [actors] so that we could bring the production back."
The Way of Water, the still-untitled Avatar 3, and the start of Avatar 4 take place in close proximity to each other. Time now isn't so much an issue when it comes to the rest of Avatar 4 (currently on the calendar for release on Dec. 18, 2026) and Avatar 5 (set for Dec. 22, 2028). Cameron says there's "a big time jump" coming after the first act in the fourth movie. "We jump as many years as we need to jump." The director can whip out the exact moment it happens from memory: "Page 35 of the script in movie 4." He's that entrenched in this world.
"They're young men, young women at that point, when we get to the B side of that time jump," Cameron says. Boyhood comes to mind, the film made by Richard Linklater over the course of 11 years that depicts actor Ellar Coltrane aging on screen as a product of a drawn-out shooting schedule. "I enjoy seeing them grow up as people, and I'm very proud of the young — I'll even call them adults — that they've all become," Landau remarks of the actors. " I think audiences will want to go on the journey with them."
Set on the reefs of Pandora amid the Metkayina, Avatar: The Way of Water hints at what audiences can expect in those sequels. Moving forward, "each movie will introduce audiences to new biomes," Landau confirms. "Each movie is going to introduce audiences to new clans, new cultures on Pandora. Once we introduce a character, they stay a part of the ongoing evolution. We just add to it. So you can expect to see the Metkayina that you meet in this movie in subsequent movies. There are other clans that we'll introduce in movie 3 that you'll see in movie 4 and so on and so forth."
Cameron offers an update on the status of all the sequels. The third film, he says, "is fully in the can," noting, "We're looking at a couple of years of post-production." (Dec. 20, 2024 is the official release date carved out for Avatar 3.) The film is partially edited and some scenes have already been turned over to New Zealand-based VFX studio Wētā FX for rendering. Should The Way of Water prove to be just as lucrative at the box office as its predecessor, Cameron and his team will regroup on Avatar 4 and 5, which he plans to shoot together "just for economy of scale," he says.
Those plans will also surely include technological advancements. He and Landau won't say what those are yet, only that they're actively thinking about them. Just as 2009's Avatar made waves for its implementation of performance capture, new tech had to be created to film the actors underwater in the sequel.
The Way of Water used to be the "new ceiling," Landau says. Now, "that's our new floor."
"We are continually trying to push the boundaries of what is possible," he continues. "Let's keep venturing there."