NEW YORK — Thirteen years after James Cameron immersed moviegoers in the cosmic world of Avatar, Pandora’s luscious, distant moon is finally back in sight.
Cameron’s industrial complex “Avatar” has been spinning at full speed for some time; Production on the upcoming sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, began back in 2017. But after tackling half a decade of release dates, Cameron’s sci-fi epic is ready to hit the big screens again and transport willing travelers back. in 3-D, in the land of the Na’vi.
Even for the visionary filmmaker of Titanic and Terminator, as Cameron said in a recent interview from Wellington, New Zealand, the relaunch of Avatar is “a big bet.” A third “Avatar” is already in post-production, and production of a fourth has begun. The record-breaking $2.8 billion in grossing that “Avatar” brought in made the upcoming “Avatar” armada a far from risky bet. But a lot has changed since the original was released, when Netflix rented DVDs by mail and Cameron worked for 20th Century Fox.
To whet the appetite of moviegoers ahead of the December 16 debut of the three-hour Avatar: The Way of Water — and to remind them of a movie world they may have lost touch with — the Walt Disney Co. will on Friday “ Avatar” in a 4K HDR remastered version that he says is “better than it’s ever looked.”
It’s an opening salvo in Cameron’s ambitious plan to outline an even greater sci-fi saga and once again evoke a cinematic experience, as he puts it, “you just can’t have at home”. Cameron took a break from all the Avatar juggling to talk about re-watching the original, his expectations for The Way of Water and why he almost quit the Avatar business.
The comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: Does “Avatar” seem like a long time to you?
CAMERON: It sometimes feels like yesterday and then it obviously feels like more than a decade. Time has passed quickly. I’ve done all sorts of interesting things. deep sea research. build submersibles. Writing four epic films. Now we are finalizing Avatar 2 and we are in the middle of editing Avatar 3. So Avatar was never far from me. I keep going back to it, obviously in the remastering process, to make it better than it’s ever looked. I kind of live on Pandora right now.
AP: When you went back to watch Avatar, what was it like for you?
CAMERON: I see a lot of good work from a lot of good people in terms of the production design, the visual effects, the groundbreaking advances that were made in capturing the actors’ performances back then, and the actors’ great work. It was difficult to live up to. We set the bar very high back then and we had to live up to that bar this time with the new films. I keep reminding our VFX team, “Look at the bugs in the forest in the first film. We had better bugs!”
AP: Cinema attendance picked up this summer, but there was a late summer lull that could give the Avatar re-release a jump start. How do you see the health of the theater at the moment?
CAMERON: It showed a resilience that I didn’t think we expected. The pandemic has rightly scared everyone. There was a time when you basically risked your life to go to the movies. People did it anyway. Now we feel like we’ve overstepped the hump, or at least it’s a manageable issue. We’re seeing a resurgence in theaters. It’s not where we were before. Streaming has taken a bite. The pandemic has taken a bite. We’re probably 20.25% lower than before the pandemic. I think it’s going to be a very long time before we’re back where we were before. It behooves us to double down on showmanship.
AP: Over the years, some have argued that despite its status as the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar isn’t as embedded in culture as one would expect. Do these arguments bother you?
CAMERON: I think it’s true for a reason, which is that we didn’t immediately do another film in two or three years and another film in two or three years. We haven’t played the Marvel game. We’re playing a longer game here. “Avatar” isn’t going anywhere, it just wasn’t followed by a continuous barrage to keep it in the public eye and in the public consciousness, which is what you need to do. As a lesson from that, we basically designed four sequels so that if Avatar 2 is successful, we can continue at a regular cadence – two years, maybe three years at most between “3” and “4”. It will come into public awareness more and more regularly, but only if people embrace Avatar 2.
AP: Your films have grossed more than $6 billion. I can imagine that you are not a filmmaker who gets nervous before opening a film.
CAMERON: You can bet on it. Anyone who says they don’t get nervous before a movie is on is a lying son of a (expletive).
AP: And there’s a lot to drive on The Way of Water.
CAMERON: Yes, it’s a big play. 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 got off to a pretty good start with $75 million. But openings these days eclipse that by factors of two or even three. Even if we have a great opening, we won’t really know where we are for a couple of weeks because it was the return visits to the first. They were people who wanted to share. If we get that one more time, we’ll probably be on solid ground.
AP: I think the odds are in your favor.
CAMERON: Nobody knows. The market has changed. Twenty-five percent could be our total margin. It’s one thing to make a lot of money, it’s another thing to actually make a profit. We’re not going to keep making films that lose money even though they look good and make a lot of money. This is a wait and see situation, let’s get this out there and see if people take it.
AP: “Avatar” was particularly rich in an ecological subtext. In the 13 years since, many things have only gotten worse for the climate and the health of the planet. How much have you thought about doing the sequels?
CAMERON: Very much so, even to the extent that I’ve been debating very hard with myself and discussing with my wife whether I should give up filmmaking and look into the sustainability issues. But we managed to do that parallel to the film making process. We conduct all our sustainability efforts – I don’t want to say incidentally, but in parallel. I put as much effort into it as I do into filmmaking.
However, the new “Avatar” films are no more like a lecture on climate or environmental protection than the first one was. The first was an adventure. It captured you on the character level, on the storytelling level. I think subtext is a useful perspective. It’s there, but it’s not what drives the story. And we kept that in the back of our minds with the new films. Yes, Avatar: The Way of Water is about the oceans and our relationship with the oceans and the animals that live in them. But it’s character driven.
AP: Avatar: The Way of Water will bring back 3D and feature high frame rate footage, which moviegoers have mixed opinions about. In your opinion, what was the biggest technological leap in the last 13 years?
CAMERON: In terms of presentation, we write in high dynamic range, which I think is very important. The projection out in the field is brighter now than it was a decade ago, which is much better for 3D. We carefully use high frame rates when creating our 3D videos as people are more sensitive to fast lateral movement. Their minds are more sensitive, so we solved that by applying a high frame rate here and there throughout the movie. It’s all to make it a better viewing experience.
I don’t think anyone should watch a film because it was written a certain way. That’s just part of our showmanship. I think the reasons to see this movie are the same reasons to see the first one. You enter a world. You are completely immersed in it. You feel surrounded by it and become a resident there and can stay there. You go on this journey. Of course it’s a bit longer in the new film because we have more characters and more story to serve. I think people are very story driven. If they get a set of characters they like and they get into their problems, they will follow them for many hours over several years in limited series. I’m not worried about that part.
Avatar is produced by Disney, ABC’s parent company.
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