NEW YORK — Thirteen years after James Cameron opened the doors to the world of “Avatar,” the lush, distant moon of Pandora is finally orbiting once more.
The “Avatar” industrial complex has been running at full throttle for a while now; Production on the upcoming sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” began in 2017. But after half a decade of date changes, the sci-fi epic will set the stage by taking audiences back to the land of the dead. Na’vi in 3D.
But even for the visionary filmmaker of “Titanic” and “Terminator,” the “Avatar” reboot is, as Cameron put it in a recent interview from Wellington, New Zealand, “a big gamble.” A third “Avatar” movie is in post-production, and production has already begun on the fourth. The record $2.8 billion in box office that “Avatar” pulled in made future “Avatar” movies seem less risky to produce. But a lot has changed since the release of the original, when Netflix rented DVDs by mail and Cameron worked for 20th Century Fox.
To whet moviegoers’ appetites ahead of the December 16 premiere of the three-hour long “Avatar: The Way of Water” and remind them of a world they may have distanced themselves from, Walt Disney Co. will premiere on Friday September 23 “Avatar” in a remastered version in 4K, HDR that according to the director “looks better than ever”.
It’s a first in Cameron’s ambitious plan to create a great sci-fi saga and movie experience “that you just can’t have at home,” as he puts it. On a break in the midst of all his “Avatar”-related activities, Cameron talked about rewatching the original, his expectations for “The Way of Water,” and why he was on the brink of leaving “Avatar.”
Don’t you think “Avatar” was a long time ago?
CAMERON: It feels like yesterday at times and it obviously feels like more than a decade at other times. Time has passed quickly. I’ve been doing all kinds of cool stuff. Research in the deep ocean. Building submarines. Writing four epic movies. Now finishing “Avatar 2″ and we are in the middle of the post-production process of “Avatar 3″. So “Avatar” has never been far from my mind. I constantly return to her. Obviously I did it in the process of remastering, making it look better than ever. I am living on Pandora right now.
When you saw “Avatar” again, what did you think of it?
CAMERON: I see a lot of good work from a lot of good people, in terms of production design, visual effects, the innovative efforts that were made at that time to capture the performances of the actors, and the great work of the actors. It was difficult to meet expectations. We had set the bar very high for ourselves back then and we had to live up to the new movies. He kept reminding our VFX team, “Look at the bugs in the woods from the first movie. We had better bugs!”
Theater attendance has rebounded this summer, but there has been a valley to the end that the re-release of “Avatar” could help overcome. How do you see the health of theater attendance now?
CAMERON: He’s shown a resiliency that I think we didn’t expect. The pandemic scared everyone pretty fast. There was a period when you basically risked your life to go to the movies. But people did it anyway. Now we feel like we’re past the brink or at least it’s a manageable problem. We’re seeing a resurgence in theaters. We are not the same as before. Streaming took a part, the pandemic took another part. We are probably 20 or 25% below where we were before the pandemic. I think it will be a very long road before we get back to where we were before. It is up to us to double the artistic talent.
Over the years, some have said that “Avatar,” despite its position as the highest-grossing movie of all time, hasn’t penetrated the culture in the way you’d expect. Do these arguments bother you?
CAMERON: I think that’s true for a specific reason, which is that we don’t immediately follow up with another movie in two or three years, and another movie in two or three years. We don’t play the Marvel game. We are playing a longer game here. “Avatar” isn’t going anywhere, it just didn’t go on a continuous download to stay in the public eye and in the public consciousness, which is what you have to do in that case. Having learned a lesson from that, we basically designed four sequels so that if “Avatar 2” is successful, we can continue on a regular cadence, two years, maybe three years tops between “3” and “4”. It will be in the public consciousness more regularly, but only if people adopt “Avatar 2.”
Your films have grossed more than $6 billion. I imagine that he is not a filmmaker who gets nervous before the release of a film.
CAMERON: Of course I do. Anyone who says they don’t get nervous before a movie premiere is a lying son of a (expletive).
And “The Way of Water” is a great thing.
CAMERON: Yeah, it’s a great piece. It’s a big bet. And we won’t know where we are until the second or third week. The success of the first film, we got off to a very good start with $75 million. But today’s releases exceed that by multiples of two or even three. Even if we do have a stellar premiere, we really won’t know where we are for a couple of weeks because it was those who saw it again in the first one. It was the people who wanted to share it. If we get those again we’ll probably be on solid ground.
I think the odds are in your favor.
CAMERON: Nobody knows. The market has changed. Twenty-five percent could be our full margin. It is one thing to make a lot of money, another is to actually make a profit. We’re not going to keep making movies that lose money, even if they look good and make a lot of money. It is a matter of waiting and seeing. A situation of launching it and seeing if people adopt it.
“Avatar” had a great ecological subtext. In the 13 years since its premiere, many things have gotten worse for the climate and the health of the planet. How much of this was on your mind when making the sequels?
CAMERON: A lot, to the point where I thought it through and talked to my wife about whether I should stop filming and work on sustainability issues. But we managed to do this in parallel with the filming process. We are doing everything for the conservation efforts, I don’t want to say it as a secondary effort, but in parallel. I put as much effort into that as I put into the cinematography.
That said, the new “Avatar” movies aren’t like a lecture on climate change or the environment, any more than the first one was. The first was an adventure. It captured you at the character level, at the storytelling level. I think the subtext is a handy way to look at it. It’s there, but it’s not what drives the story. And we kept this in mind with the new movies. Yes, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is about the oceans and our relationship with the seas and the animals that live in it. But it is driven by a character.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” will bring back 3D and include high-frame-rate images, but audiences have mixed opinions about these formats. What do you think has been the greatest technological advance in the last 13 years?
CAMERON: In terms of the presentation, we’re creating a highly dynamic range, which I think is very important. The projection is brighter now than it was a decade ago, which is much better for 3D. We use ridiculously high frame rate formats in the process of creating our 3D because people become more sensitive to fast lateral movements. Your mind is more sensitive, so we solved this by judiciously applying a high frame rate here and there in the movie. All this to make a better viewing experience.
I don’t think anyone should go to a movie because it’s made a certain way. That’s just part of our artistic talent. I think the reasons for seeing this movie are the same as for seeing the first one. You enter a world. You completely immerse yourself in it. You feel that it surrounds you and you become an inhabitant, and you can wander around. You go on that journey. Of course in the new movie it’s a bit longer, because we have more characters and more story on our hands. I think people are very drawn to the story. When they have a group of characters it’s like they get involved in their problems, they follow them for hours over many hours over the years. I’m not worried about that part.