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James Cameron, the king of innovation, returns with ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

The sequel to the blockbuster, which runs for over three hours, will hit movie theaters on Friday. But will it be as successful as the original?

A scene from 'Avatar:The Way of Water'
Gregorio Belinchón

What was the name of the lead character in Avatar? What was his village called? And what year does the story take place? When Avatar was released in 2009, it made nearly $3 billion at the box office, making it the highest grossing film in history.

Yes, despite this, it didn’t make a big cultural impact. According to The New York Times, few people who saw the movie can answer the above questions (Jake Sully, Na’vi people of the moon Pandora, year 2175). But that doesn’t mean they won’t rush out to see its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, when it is released on Friday, December 16. “We authored it for the big-screen experience,” said Cameron, in a September interview with The New York Times.

In that interview, the 68-year-old – who directed two of the most lauded sequels in cinema history, Aliens and Terminator 2, both released seven years after the originals – shared his doubts about whether people would be interested in seeing a new Avatar movie. These doubts were put to rest when the trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water was released: within 24 hours, it had 148 million views.

Jake, in 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'
Jake, in 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'

The sequel is one of several planned installments of the movie saga. Avatar 3 will hit theaters on December 20, 2024; Avatar 4, on December 18, 2026; and Avatar 5, which has only been shot in part, on December 22, 2028. Cameron has ideas for a sixth and a seventh film, but he said he would not direct the last installment as, by then, he would be close to 80 years old. The movies have a $1 billion budget, but this figure is likely to rise, given that just Avatar: The Way of Water cost $350 million to make. Unlike other recent blockbusters, Avatar: The Way of Water has been approved to screen in China.

The new Avatar movie is set to reopen the debate on 3D cinema. When the original was released in 3D, the technology was at its peak in Hollywood. But today, while there is still a market for IMAX theaters in the US, the format has largely fallen out of fashion. When the original was rereleased in October, 90% of tickets sold were for 3D projections.

James Cameron with the main camera used to film 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'
James Cameron with the main camera used to film 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'

The new movie takes place three decades after the first. Jake is living on Pandora with his wife, Princess Neytiri and four children (one of whom is a teenager, played by Sigourney Weaver). Peace is broken when humans return to the moon and the Na’vi have to seek shelter in another clan, the Metkayina, who live among the reef. Most of the action takes place underwater. Actress Kate Winslet, who plays a warrior queen in the movie, learned to hold her breath for seven minutes and 14 seconds to film the underwater scenes. After starring in Cameron’s Titanic (1997), Winslet said she never wanted to work with the director again. But more than two decades on, the actress and director have joined forces again for the sequel.

Kate Winslet filming 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'
Kate Winslet filming 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'

Avatar: The Way of Water runs for three hours and ten minutes. In an interview with Empire magazine, Cameron made it clear that he will accept no complaints about its length: “Give me a fucking break. I’ve watched my kids sit and do five one-hour episodes in a row.”

Back in 2009, the filmmaker also dismissed complaints about Avatar’s running time. In an interview with GQ, Cameron recalled shouting at a Fox executive who suggested he cut scenes from the movie. He said he told him, “‘I think this movie is going to make all the fucking money. And when it does, it’s going to be too late for you to love the film. The time for you to love the movie is today.’ [...] And that’s exactly what I said, in caps, ALL THE MONEY, not some of the money, all the fucking money.”

Jake, with one of his children, Neteyam, in the sequel.
Jake, with one of his children, Neteyam, in the sequel.

Cameron is known for having a temper. On several of his shoots, members of his crew have made T-shirts with the slogan: “You can’t scare me – I work for Jim Cameron.” But he is also a visionary. In March 2012, he became the first human to reach the 6.8-mile deep undersea valley solo. Cameron made the dive in the Mariana Trench (10,908 meters) using a submersible he designed himself. Daniel Goldin, the former head of NASA, told GQ: The man was born with an explorer’s instincts and capacity.” When another adventurer, Victor Vescovo, dived to the wreck of the ocean liner Titanic, he emailed Cameron: “I watched Titanic at the Titanic.” To which, Cameron replied: “Yeah, but I made Titanic at the Titanic.

James Cameron on set in New Zealand.
James Cameron on set in New Zealand.

Avatar was first mentioned in the press in 1996, a year before Titanic was released, in a report in The Tampa Bay Times. The article, headlined Synthetic Actors to Star in ‘Avatar,’ came at a moment when CGI was still mainly being used for non-human characters, such as dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. The technology for Avatar didn’t exist yet; Cameron had to wait nearly a decade. The filmmaker himself invented a 3D camera system for the production. Cameron, beyond his work as a director, will be remembered as an innovator who pushed cinema to its technological limits.

An image from 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'
An image from 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'

Following Avatar: The Way of Water’s premiere in London, social media is abuzz with talk about the film. While most have praised the film, others have complained about its length. The consensus from critics so far is that the movie will be admired for its technological feats, but fail to make a big impact due to its simple script. But what do the critics matter? It will be the public who decides whether the sequel is as successful as the original, says Cameron, who splits his time between his farm in New Zealand, where he lives with his wife, actress Suzy Amis, and their three children, and his house in Malibu.

The countdown is on: the public’s verdict will be known when Avatar: The Way of Water is released in cinemas on Friday.

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