James Cameron is one of the most well-regarded directors of his generation. People often invoke his name alongside other visionaries like George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro. He is responsible for directing some of the highest-grossing films of all time and has made a career out of the big-budget spectacle.
Cameron shot to prominence in 1984 with his iconic film The Terminator. That gripping action-thriller enthralled audiences and made over $78 million worldwide, catapulting Cameron and the film’s stars to international fame. Cameron’s follow-up, T2: Judgement Day is still considered one of the best action films of all time.
Today, audiences probably know him best as the director of two of the most iconic movies ever filmed: Titanic and Avatar. It’s hard to overstate how massive those two films were in their respective era. Without adjusting for inflation, Titanic is still the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. That’s despite the prevalence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise (twice!) after Titanic’s release.
Avatar’s Lasting Legacy
Then, there’s Avatar. Released in 2009 on a massive $237 million budget, it went on to earn over $2.8 billion at the box office. It was the first film to bring in over two billion dollars and remains the highest-grossing movie ever. Once again, that’s despite the pressure from the modern-day MCU and Disney’s Star Wars sequels.
Avatar wasn’t a sequel to an established movie. It wasn’t based on a comic book, nor was it an adaptation of a beloved video game. It was an original story based on the director’s vision, which he’d been waiting to film until technology advanced to the point where it could faithfully capture his alien world.
The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot in filmmaking circles, but what Avatar did is truly unprecedented. The film’s competition in the top-earning chart is slim. In the number two slot, there’s Avengers: Endgame, an ensemble film that capped off over a decade of serialized cinematic storytelling. Then there’s Titanic, the third-highest-grossing film of all time. The fact that the lone director has not one but two standalone films in the top three highest-grossing films list is downright absurd.
The only other movies to top $2 billion at the box office are Avengers: Infinity War and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In both cases, these are monumental tentpole films released as follow-ups to beloved film franchises, not standalone movies that told their own stories. In short, this is all to say: Avatar did something unbelievable in 2009. Then… nothing for thirteen years. No sequels. No spinoffs. It should have been a massive franchise, based on box-office dollars, but Cameron failed to deliver.
At least until now.
“If Avatar Is So Good…”
There’s a popular joke format on the internet where a troll will point to something objectively awesome and ask “if [Product] is so good, where’s [Product 2]?” This format has applied to the Avatar franchise for 13 years, with movie fans poking fun at the long-dormant Avatar sequel. James Cameron has never stopped talking about the long-awaited follow-up to the highest-grossing movie of all time, but fans were skeptical.
With the arrival of the trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water, naysayers are out of jokes. There’s nothing laughable about the visuals on display in the new teaser. Cameron had the audacity to follow up on one of the most visually stunning movies of all time by upping the ante. If creating a believable alien landscape was difficult, why not center its sequel’s plotline around water?
Water is notoriously difficult to animate for VFX artists. Simply adding moisture to a scene can dramatically alter the texture of fabrics, the behavior of hair, and the appearance of any solid materials in the shot. Cameron looked at this issue, said “my team has this under control,” and named the Avatar sequel The Way of Water.
Looking as Big as Its Budget
Many film critics have pointed out that modern CGI doesn’t look as great as you would expect. When you compare some recent films to Avatar, they just don’t hold up. These movies have multi-million dollar budgets and cutting-edge VFX artists, but they can’t manage to beat a 13-year-old movie?
The Way of Water’s trailer briefly showcases the upcoming film’s visual effects, and it’s easy to see where the budget is going. The film cost $250 million to make, and it’s evident in every shot. Light filters through leaves and diffuses across aliens’ skin. Water sloshes over leather harnesses in a realistic pattern. Characters’ muscle tones are visible beneath T-shirt, flexing as they move across the frame.
To call this trailer visually stunning is an understatement. It’s nothing short of visionary, a stark reminder of how good a movie can look when studios take the time to polish every scene and really dial in the details.
Wait, What Happened in Avatar, Again?
Okay, 13 years is a long time to wait for a new movie to come out. That was the case even before the MCU rewired our brains and got us accustomed to watching serialized storytelling on the big screen multiple times every year. If you’ve forgotten the exact plot details from the first Avatar movie, you’re not alone.
Avatar follows a human Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic researcher sent to the distant moon Pandora to help the Resources Development Administration mine the rare material “unobtanium.” The planet is inhabited by blue-skinned aliens named Na’vi, and the RDA interacts with them by sending “avatars,” lab-grown clones of the natives, remotely controlled by a mind link from a human user. Jake is chosen for the program because his late twin brother used to pilot an avatar, and each is uniquely coded to its user’s genetic makeup.
The film’s archetypal plot is similar in tone to other environmentalist movies like Pocahontas and Fern Gully, but it sets itself apart from them with its stunning live-action visuals and top-notch performances. The film’s narrative follows Jake as he falls in love with a Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and slowly begins to trust the natives over the RDA.
Throughout the film, an RDA colonel named Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) pushes for the human colonizers to be more brutal with the natives. He wants to demolish the Hometree, a sacred Na’vi site that houses a complex neurological network that links all of Pandora’s wildlife. Quaritch wants the RDA to access a massive unobtainium deposit located under the Hometree and sends Jake’s avatar to the Na’vi tribe to order them to evacuate.
Jake refuses to sell out the native tribes and instead helps mount a defensive battle to protect Pandora from the human invaders. This leads to the film’s most eye-catching sequences, a sprawling battle that plays out in the air, on the ground, and across the water near the Hometree.
As the fight rages on, Quaritch dons an exo-suit of combat armor and finds Jake’s human body, exposing it to Pandora’s poisonous atmosphere. Despite this setback, Jake and the Na’vi successfully repel the human invaders with help from Pandora’s wildlife. Most of the RDA forces are sent back to earth, and Jake permanently transfers his consciousness into his Avatar. He and Neytiri get married, and the film ends on an uplifting note.
The Way of Water
Of course, the original Avatar leaves plenty of room for more stories in its sprawling universe. For one thing, Jake and the Na’vi succeeded only in repelling the RDA’s attack, but the human race still wants Pandora’s unobtanium to help with its energy crisis. For another, Jake is still something of an outsider in Na’vi society. Many of the tribe’s warriors could still eye him warily, as he once acted as a spy.
The official synopsis for The Way of Water offers a few hints regarding the sequel’s narrative. “Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water begins to tell the story of the Sully family, the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.” While this is a bit vague, it does confirm that Jake and Neytiri have started a family together and that the sequel will take place over a decade after the events of its predecessor.
That narrative time skip is convenient, as the returning actors have all aged more than a decade since Avatar’s release. Notably, the synopsis also indicates that The Way of Water only “begins” to tell the story of the Sully family. Yes, that means there are many sequels on the horizon.
How Many Sequels?
James Cameron and 20th Century Fox have told reporters that there will be five Avatar movies in total, and Cameron is working on the second and third films in the series simultaneously. Those movies will arrive in theaters on December 16, 2022, and December 20, 2024, respectively. The fourth and fifth entries are currently slated for release on December 18, 2026, and December 22, 2028, though these are both far enough out that they could change.
However, if these dates are accurate, it would mark a dramatic shift from the 13-year gap between the first and second entries in the Avatar franchise. The Way of Water promises to welcome moviegoers back to the visually-arresting world of Pandora. Can James Cameron keep his track record of unparalleled visionary blockbusters going across four more films in six years, or will these mega-budget movies crash and burn at the box office?