James Cameron shares the human inspiration behind his high-tech Avatar: The Way of Water

More than 10 years in the making, the sequel to the path-breaking film focuses on family, as well as promising even more technological marvels

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Franchise newcomer Kate Winslet will never forget the moment she broke Tom Cruise’s six-minute record, set while filming 2015’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, for holding her breath underwater on set.

“I have the video of me resurfacing saying, ‘Am I dead?’ And then going, ‘What was it?’ Straightaway I wanted to know my time,” the star of Avatar: The Way of Water tells The National. “I couldn’t believe it was 7 minutes 15, but you know what the next thing I say is? ‘We need to radio Jim [Cameron].’ That’s the first thing I wanted to do.”

Another unofficial record James Cameron's eagerly awaited sequel is in the mix for is surely "longest time in production for a sequel." Cameron said in 2006, three years before the first film was even released, that a sequel was planned, confirming the fact again in 2010 following Avatar’s huge success.

It’s taken until 2022 for the director to finally make good on his promise.

Nevertheless the director says the sequel wasn't a certainty despite, or perhaps because of, the first film's near-$3 billion haul.

“Spielberg didn't do a sequel to ET," Cameron says. "It wasn't a no-brainer — there's a lot to live up to. It's important for the sequel to honour what the audience loved first time, but also do things they don't expect. There are a lot of surprises that we're not putting into the trailers.”

In terms of what we have seen so far, it’s clear that the new film will build on the technical marvels of its predecessor. Cameron has repeatedly said that part of the sequel’s delay was down to having to literally invent the technology needed to repeat Avatar’s 3D and technological achievements, but underwater, where much of the new film takes place.

It’s perhaps surprising then, that when the director saw all the completed effects in place for the first time only about a week ago, he was struck most not by the high-tech wonder he had created, but something much more human. Or much more N’avi perhaps, since most of the cast belong to the blue alien race.

“I try to stand back and see the whole thing,” Cameron explains. “What struck me was the performances, the people. I look past all the spectacle, the design, the creatures and all that. I look at this, and I see times there’s no dialogue, and it’s close-up, and there’s a whole dialogue in the eyes.”

For Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron, so often chief cheerleader for all things high-tech in cinema, has put plenty of thought into the simplest things that make a film work.

He says he abandoned at least one of his completed scripts during the production process because it lacked “a spiritual component that we can't even quantify.” And one of his key inspirations for the final script came from a decidedly natural place, too: the fact that stars Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington had become parents during the film’s creation.

Saldana and Worthington play N’avi leader Neytiri and her human beau Jake Sully, united once again in trying to protect the planet Pandora from human greed and destruction. And both are parents now too, both on-screen and off.

“I was inspired by the fact that Zoe and Sam were parents, and I’m a parent of five, and we wanted to get into the family dynamics,” Cameron says. “You learn fear when you have kids, when you have something greater than yourself that you could lose. And that’s what both characters are dealing with.”

For Cameron, this life change could have a major effect on how his characters respond to the threat to their home planet this time around.

“Sam plays a character that would leap off of a leonopteryx, fly through the air with no parachute, land on the biggest predator on the planet, to solve his problem. Would he do that as a father of four? Probably not."

It’s a journey Worthington relates to.

In Avatar Jake says, "Open your eyes," says Worthington. "He’s opened his eyes to love, the love of culture, the planet and of Ney’tiri. It’s the natural extension of that.

“They have a family, and it’s about the protection of that love, that world and culture. It’s very base. Jake’s journey has always been finding something worth fighting for.”

With humans once again intent on stealing Pandora’s resources, there’ll be plenty for Jake to fight for all over again, and with more than three hours set aside for audiences to spend on Pandora this time around, fans can rest assured there’ll be ample time for family, fighting and the technological mastery Cameron has made his own, too.

It’s been a long wait, but it promises to be quite a ride.

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Updated: December 14, 2022, 3:35 AM