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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is James Cameron’s ‘waking dream of the ocean’

The director talks about making the most of the cinematic experience, drawing inspiration from the deep sea, and trying to learn from criticism.

Director James Cameron behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios' "Avatar: The Way of Water."Mark Fellman/20th Century Studios

When it came out in 2009, “Avatar” was a cinematic event — lauded as a “technical breakthrough” and feat of CGI innovation.

Thirteen years later, director James Cameron says he’s tried to recreate that magic and introduce the world of “Avatar” to a new generation. His sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” is out in theaters Dec. 16.

Cameron co-wrote the new film, which returns to the mythical planet of Pandora where futuristic humans from Earth seek to take the planet over from its original blue alien inhabitants.

In the first “Avatar,” audiences met protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former US Marine who worked to infiltrate the forest-dwelling Na’vi tribe of Pandora by inhabiting a blue alien body. Along the way, Sully fell in love with Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), joined the Na’vi warriors, and led them to victory. He then becomes their new leader.


When the sequel starts, Sully has chosen to stay in his blue alien body for good. He’s married to princess Neytiri, and together they have three biological Na’vi children. As the US military continues its attempt to colonize Pandora and subjugate its indigenous inhabitants, Sully fights to keep his family safe.

Sigourney Weaver returns to the franchise as the new character Kiri, adopted daughter of Sully and Neytiri (Weaver plays the character through voice acting and motion-capture technology.) Kate Winslet also joins as Ronal, the queen of a water-dwelling tribe on Pandora.

In a recent Zoom interview, Cameron talked to the Globe about why he wants audiences to see the new film in theaters, his love of deep-sea diving, and how reactions to the original film influenced his approach to the sequel.

Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) in "Avatar: The Way of Water."20th Century Studios

Q. You’ve talked about how the first “Avatar” movie was the kind of film that was made to be seen in a theater. Is that true for “Avatar: The Way of Water?”


A. It’s a big deal for me to try to optimize the theatrical experience. We go way down the rabbit hole; we go find the individual cinema, and we get data on every cinema the movie’s going to play in.

We literally optimize what we deliver to every theater to make the viewers’ experience the best that it can be. We do different color grades, brightness and color, depending on the type of projector that they have.

Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), front, and the Metkayina clan in "Avatar: The Way of Water."20th Century Studios

Q. What’s special to you, personally, about the experience of seeing something in a movie theater?

A. The decision that you make when you go to a movie theater is a decision to not have control. When you’re viewing in the home, you can multitask, you can talk to other people in the room, you can pause it and go make dinner.

So it’s a question of where you want to be on the spectrum of control. If you want control, stay home. If you don’t, and you want to surrender to an experience, then you go to the cinema.

Q. Are any of the family dynamics in the film taken from your own life?

A. I think family is super important. I also know that it’s a minefield: It’s a place of love and bonds that strengthen you; it’s also a lot of duties and things that, in some ways, may weaken you or limit your effectiveness in the world.


Jake’s work-life balance is — his work is trying to save the planet, blowing up trains, and being a guerrilla leader. And his life is his kids and his village and that reality.

We’re all human, we all have the same kind of bonds of love and duty, regardless of our culture, our religion, our language, group. So I was looking for something that was universal.

Q. A lot of the film takes place either around or under water, which is notoriously hard to re-create digitally. Why’d you decide to take the sequel there?

A. It wasn’t an easy choice; we definitely tried to do something hard. And not just because it was hard, but because it was something that I love.

I think it’s well known that I’m an ocean explorer. I’ve spent a lot of time underwater in my life. I’ve been a free diver for 50 years, I’ve been a scuba diver even longer than that. I’ve spent thousands of hours underwater, either on scuba, or just free diving, or in subs. I still love it to this day.

I think your art has to be some kind of refraction of your experience and the way your mind processes the world. I have a lot of dreams that take place underwater; I get a lot of imagery from dreams. And so this is kind of like my waking dream of the ocean.

Q. The first “Avatar” movie generated a lot of discussion. Some people thought it was a “white guilt fantasy” or a “white savior movie.” When you were making the sequel, did any of that commentary inform it?


A. Well, I’m very interested in any kind of reasonably intelligent discussion around the movie; I think that’s in the nature of art.

I think the white savior narrative [criticism] is a little bit revisionist, because that wasn’t really a big thing when the movie came out. I think it’s a legitimate interpretation. It wasn’t my intention; and by the way, my intention has got nothing to do with the legitimacy of their complaint. But my intention was to do something like “Lawrence of Arabia.”

That’s just my white lens on things, of course: You know, guy goes to some exotic land and wants to be part of that culture. It’s our general human desire to just want to learn about other people. I think wise people want to learn from other cultures.

But I think I was aware of that in this film. Jake’s not a white savior, first of all. He’s already one of them physiologically, racially, and so on — but mentally, culturally, struggling to be one of the Na’vi.

So I think you can learn from the criticism. It’s a question of whether it’s presented in a way that actually makes sense.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Joy Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@globe.com. Follow them on Twitter @joy_ashford.