James Cameron opens up about his long-awaited (and awaited) Avatar sequel
What do you do after making the world's highest-grossing movie of all time, shattering the record you yourself had set more than a decade earlier? If you're James Cameron, you take a breath and then dive headfirst into the deep end—literally. After topping the box office with 2009's Avatar, his fantastic tropical saga of blue-skinned aliens and environmental messaging, the director vowed to return with not one but four planned sequels. He decided the first of these (in theaters Dec. 16, 2022) would be set primarily underwater, requiring years of technological research and months of training actors to hold their breath for lengths that would impress even a Navy SEAL.
Now Cameron is finally ready to welcome audiences back to Pandora with an ambitious aquatic marvel that's been a literal decade in the making.
"It sounds kind of nuts, the process," Cameron, 67, admits with a laugh. "I mean, if Avatar hadn't made so much damn money, we'd never do this—because it's kind of crazy."
Listening to the filmmaker describe Avatar 2's journey makes "kind of crazy" sound like an understatement. Cameron began planning the sequel by himself in 2012, bringing in a writing team in 2013 who helped outline four stories that would stretch across Pandora's diverse geography and continue the first film's tale of man versus nature. Filming on Avatar 2 (an official title has yet to be announced) started in 2017, with a story set about 14 years after the original: Former human soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na'vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have settled down and started a family, and much of the film centers on their preteen offspring.
"Ultimately, the sequels are a story about family, and the lengths parents will go through to keep that family together and keep them safe," producer Jon Landau explains. "I always say that Jim's movies have universal themes—and really, there's no more universal theme than family."
Both Avatar 2 and 3 are mostly set in and around the ocean, introducing a new clan of reef-dwelling Na'vi called the Metkayina. Landau describes the new tropical beaches and shores of Pandora as a seaside paradise: "Bora Bora on steroids." If the first film was all about the rain forest, with its cautionary tale about deforestation, the new entries are a love letter to Cameron's first fascination, the sea. The Titanic director has long advocated for ocean conservation, and he completed a record-breaking journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012. "I do the ocean thing when I'm not making movies," he says. "So if I could combine my two greatest loves—one of which is ocean exploration; the other, feature filmmaking—why wouldn't I?"
But setting a story below sea level presents more than a few challenges. The innovative performance-capture process designed for the first Avatar wasn't intended to work underwater, so Cameron and his team had to engineer a way to accurately record the actors' tiniest movements and expressions while submerged. That footage was then animated by artists at the multi-Oscar-winning visual-effects company Weta Digital. Much of the performance-capture filming took place in a 900,000-gallon tank (built specifically for the sequels), which could mimic the ocean's swirling currents and crashing waves. "My colleagues within the production really lobbied heavily for us to do it 'dry for wet,' hanging people on wires," Cameron notes. "I said, 'It's not going to work. It's not going to look real.' I even let them run a test, where we captured dry for wet, and then we captured in water, a crude level of our in-water capture. And it wasn't even close."
Many of the cast members prepared for the plunge by getting scuba-certified, culminating in a field trip to dive with manta rays in Hawaii. But when it came to filming, air bubbles and scuba technology would have interfered with the performance-capture process—so each actor had to train with professional divers until they could free dive, holding their breath for minutes at a time. Cameron says 72-year-old Sigourney Weaver, who's returning in a top-secret new role after dying in the first film, could easily hold her breath for six and a half minutes, while new cast member Kate Winslet "blew everybody away when she did a seven-and-a-half-minute breath hold." Avatar 2 marks a reunion between Cameron and his Titanic star Winslet; here, the 46-year-old Oscar and Emmy winner plays one of the Metkayina, a mysterious character named Ronal.
"One of my favorite memories was we had this circular tank, maybe 40 feet wide, with a big glass portal in it. I walked by one day and I see Kate Winslet walking on the bottom of the tank," Landau recalls. "She's walking towards me and sees me in the window, and she just waves, gets to the end of the wall, turns around, and walks all the way back."
The first film was no small task, taking more than a decade to make it to the screen after Cameron first dreamed up the idea. But Cameron and Landau say their goal for the sequels was to aim higher—and dive deeper. Principal photography has already wrapped on Avatar 3 (due in 2024), and Weta has begun early postproduction on some scenes. The fourth and fifth movies are currently set for 2026 and 2028. "What we are doing now, from a story standpoint and a world standpoint, is on a much larger scale," Landau says. "That's both exciting and challenging. We are putting much more detail, first and foremost, into the performances of the cast, but we're [also] putting much more detail and diversity into the world that we are creating."
Still, while a series of big-budget sequels to the highest-grossing movie ever made may seem like a slam dunk, Cameron notes that the theatrical landscape has shifted wildly since the first Avatar hit theaters. In 2009, Netflix streaming was just starting to gain popularity, Blockbuster hadn't yet declared bankruptcy, and original Avatar studio 20th Century Fox was still years away from being absorbed by Disney. In a new era of superheroes and streamers, Cameron hopes—13 years later— that audiences will still connect with his vision of distant planets and adventure. After all, in 2019 Avengers: Endgame surpassed Avatar as the biggest movie of all time—but Avatar snatched its crown back after a China rerelease in early 2021, setting a new record with an all-time haul of $2.847 billion worldwide (besting Endgame by almost $50 million).
"The big issue is: Are we going to make any damn money?" Cameron says of his planned sequels. "Big, expensive films have got to make a lot of money. We're in a new world post-COVID, post-streaming. Maybe those [box office] numbers will never be seen again. Who knows? It's all a big roll of the dice."
But hey, if you want to make a big splash, you can't be afraid to get your feet wet.