James Cameron submerged in a submersible ten years ago to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, one of the most terrifying places on the planet at more than 35,000 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean.
But returning to Hollywood to make four “Avatar” sequels – the first of which, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” opens in theatres on Friday – seemed destined to be the more difficult adventure.
“I told my wife that a part of me hopes this movie bombs so I don’t have to be an indentured servant to my creation,” Cameron, 68, tells USA TODAY from a Tokyo hotel room where he’s quarantined with COVID-19 this week. “I suppose you should be careful what you wish for.”
That wish is unlikely to come true. Early glowing reviews for “The Way of Water,” which outperforms the original 13 years later in many ways, suggest Cameron has another blockbuster on his hands. This weekend alone, the film is expected to gross $175 million at the box office.
Given that 2009’s technologically groundbreaking “Avatar” is the highest-grossing film of all time, with $2.7 billion worldwide, you’d think Cameron would be busy updating his net worth. Not so.
“I have no doubt that we will make a lot of money, but we’ve also spent a lot of money, so there’s an internal formula that only we know that tells us if we’re profitable,” he says. (Reports suggest that the new film may have cost more than $2 billion in total, including its budget and marketing costs.)
Cameron, who directed the blockbusters “The Terminator” (1984) and “Titanic” (1997), says returning to the “Avatar” universe was not a foregone conclusion: “When you’ve made the highest-grossing film in history, you’re in the shadow of your own work. You need to clear your mind.”
He obviously did. The four planned sequels – all of which have already been planned and the third of which has already been shot – are “a proposal for a business model that we won’t know about for a few more weeks,” he says.
That’s the pragmatist in Cameron, who approaches his deep-sea expeditions and plant-focused sustainable farming ventures with the same methodical approach he does filmmaking. He’s less of an auteur and more of a master builder who imagines and then constructs the world’s tallest structure.
But there’s something strange going on with “The Way of Water,” which asks viewers to sit still for 192 minutes. While Cameron epics are usually more about spectacle than script, this second “Avatar” story has depth.
Cameron’s feelings about parenthood are explored in ‘The Way of Water.’
To summarise the new story without giving anything away, it’s about 15 years later, and Marine-turned-avatar and Na’vi warrior Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his fearsome Na’vi wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaa) have two teen sons and one adopted daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, who played Kiri’s mother in the original).
The Sully family flees their forested realm on Pandora for another part of the island dominated by an oceanic Na’vi clan in “The Way of Water,” a family drama. The Sullys grow to love the water, but they are eventually hunted down by humans who have taken on the form of their big blue avatar.
Massive and at times terrifying battles for cultural and familial survival ensue, with a particular emphasis on the schisms that can emerge between fathers and sons.
“I’ve been the misunderstood teenage kid whose father doesn’t understand him, and also the father who sometimes didn’t get his kids,” says Cameron, who has five children and has been married five times. “Because I’ve been on both sides, I wrote that in. The bonds formed within a family that strengthen you during difficult times.”
Incorporating that storyline, as well as Cameron’s numerous personal interests, into “The Way of Water” adds depth to the new story.
“Indigenous rights, sustainability, and the oceans are three things that drive me outside of Hollywood, and I figured I could express how I feel about those things in this larger landscape,” Cameron says.
In free diving, Kate Winslet outperformed the ‘Avatar’ cast.
His cast was pushed hard when he expressed those sentiments. Not only were most scenes shot in a visual vacuum, with bodies dotted with motion capture sensors, but many had to be shot underwater to look natural.
Many of the actors received free diving lessons from renowned instructor Kirk Krack, and Kate Winslet outperformed the rest of the cast with a seven-minute breath hold.
“I couldn’t come close to Kate and Sigourney,” Cameron, who has been free diving for years, laughs. “I don’t see that as subjecting the actors to anything. It’s a boot-camp mentality; it’s preparation. “Are you kidding me, actors love this stuff?”
According to Saldaa, Cameron kept the cast updated on his progress on the “Avatar” sequels over the years, eventually summoning the actors to a 2015 meeting to lay out the sequel’s broad strokes. Cameron, she claims, is motivated not by money, but by the communal bonds that can be formed in a movie theatre.
The director is determined to reintroduce moviegoers to the theatre.
“He understands that we as humans crave connection, and what better place to do so than in a movie theatre?” According to Saldaa. “The theatre is where we can escape, be inspired, and become aspirational.”
One thing is certain about “The Way of Water”: it should help bring moviegoers back into theatres. The film is a sensory overload, the scuba diving adventure of your dreams, especially when viewed on a massive screen in 3D with massive speakers, and would be ridiculous viewed on a smartphone.
Cameron is eager to champion the theatre experience in an age dominated by streaming.
“We worked extremely hard to optimise this visually and acoustically in order to create a massive spectacle,” he says. “Are we just going to crawl away with our tails between our legs and do streaming all the time? Or will we take a stand and fight? I could end up like that last dinosaur, looking up and getting sunburned by a comet entering the atmosphere.”
While Cameron has heart, Worthington believes his greatest weapon is his brain. “He’s not based on a book, a comic book, or a spinoff of an old franchise,” he says. “This is something out of this guy’s head. That’s very unique and special, and I have complete faith in it.”
Stephen Lang, whose vengeful Marine character Col. Miles Quaritch died in the first film but reappears as an avatar in “The Way of Water,” says Cameron’s devotion to his story inspired fierce loyalty among the cast and crew.
“I don’t believe there’s anything we wouldn’t do to validate his vision and assist him on this journey because he’s given us so much,” Lang says. “I would never bet against James Cameron because his motivations are pure.”
Cameron, ever candid, drew fire in October when he lamented how Marvel comic-book heroes “all act like they’re in college.” He stands by his remark, but adds, “My point is, it shouldn’t just be action. Let’s do some other things as well.”
That’s a formula that’s worked extremely well for Cameron over the years. And it’s looking like he’ll be behind the camera for the duration of this one.