More than a decade ago, James Cameron’s “Avatar” changed how audiences watched movies. It had such an impact that more studios started to present their films in 3D formats and use sophisticated 3D technology. Now, he’s ready to release the highly anticipated sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The film centers on Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldana) new 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.
ThatsItLA joined their fellow journalists at the “Avatar: The Way of Water” virtual press conference, where the two talked about what attracted them to the sequel, the similarities they share with their characters, and more.
For Worthington, the script that he received at first was more akin to an “Avatar 1.5” than an actual sequel. And part of those changes came from Cameron wanting to have more than just a generic story about warriors. “I think it was part of Jim realizing that story was about them being warriors and taking on the battle was over the clans and things like that,” he said. [Jim] wanted to explore what this family dynamic is and the natural extension of this love story. But it gave us a good jumping-off point to understand how to fill in that gap that’s missing.”
The sequel also finds Neytiri adding the role of mother to her characters. But don’t see that as a detriment, as Saldana found similarities in her character’s levels of fearlessness and rebellion. “The leap of falling in love with something outside of you that challenges you to see something that you’ve never seen before. That has always been her dilemma, to surrender to that and then to bring forward fruits of that love,” she said. “That presents a challenge for her because forcing her to grow. It’s forcing her to love something that she has been taught to hate.”
“Also, fear in my personal life, when I became a parent, I fear entered my realm of the fear of losing something that you love so much. You spend a great deal of your time creating these hypothetical scenarios that are just unimaginable,” Saldana added. “When I read, you know, the second script that was heard, I was Neytiri. I didn’t see it, then. I see it now. I because my job wasn’t to see it. My job was to be it.”
And that fear every parent has comes from a real place.” Fear was such a sensation that was paralyzing to me, and it still is sometimes. Now that I’m living in it, that I’ve been a mother now for eight years, and I’m learning to sort of manage that sensation enough so that I can let go,” Saldana added. “You know because there’s nothing greater or more heartbreaking than when your child looks at you and goes, ‘mama, let me go. I can do this.’ “Fearlessness and fear are two very humbling sensations to experience for sure.”
“You’re on to it. You may be fearless when you don’t have kids. You learn fear when you have kids when you have something greater than yourself that you could lose,” Cameron echoed. “That’s what both of your characters are dealing with. I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms. Sam plays a character that would leave awfully Monoprix, go flying through the air with no parachute to land on the biggest, meanest predator on the planet to solve his problem. Would he do that as a father of four? I’m thinking probably not.”
“You also don’t want your kids to maybe emulate that,” Worthington chimed.
“There are stories I can’t tell. They’re embargoed until they’re 40,” Cameron joked.
Cameron has always been ahead of the curve in bringing strong female characters to the big screen. But he wanted to give Neytiri a little more complexity by making her a mother and how her new role influences her place in life. “When she’s a mother, and there’s something else outside herself that she puts herself beneath in terms of her priorities, her pride, as the chief’s daughter, princess of the clan sort of thing, and what’s her new social standing,” she said. “So it’s really interesting to see how Zoey, with all the innate strength and intensity, comes in to see her with the shoe on the other foot when she has to go before Ronal and the Metkayina. She has to eat crow and be kind of submissive, but that doesn’t last very long with her, as you might imagine. And major sparks are struck between the two alpha females very quickly.”
“And then, you know, that results over time, not just within this film but across into movie three, as well,” Cameron said. “And, you know, so it was important for us to talk about, you know, what the arc is across the films.”
“Avatar: The Way of Water” also sees an evolution in Jake Sully, who’s gone from a soldier who helped save the Navi from the humans to a father and leader. “I think he’s opened his eyes to love and the love of culture, the love of the planet and the love of the material,” he said. “In this one, as I said, it’s a natural extension of that. They have a family. And it’s, to be honest, it’s about the protection of that love and that world in that culture. He just tries to be the earth, and we just happen to have a lot of water. So it’s very elemental.”
“Jake’s journey has always been taking these parallels or where does he fit into this world and finding something worth fighting for. In this one is teenage boys and going through that as well,” Worthington said. “The teenage boys are displaced, and like most teenagers, they’re trying to figure out where they are in the world. And unfortunately, Jake is the perfect person to help them but maybe sometimes, as a dad, you can’t find that empathy, learning to find empathy.
Regarding the return of Sigourney Weaver playing a compelling character, Cameron wanted something mysterious and nuanced. “There’s something unknown about her, something enigmatic about her, and I think Sig[ourney Weaver] walked a beautiful line of classic teenage awkwardness,” he said. “And yet as she comes into her power, as she comes into her strength, she’s not a warrior, she’s not somebody who would react in a situation like Neytiri would, she reacts very differently. And she’s not that much of an alpha until we see her manifesting her power. So I thought we had the opportunity to speak to two teenage girls in a way that might make sense to them.”
Cameron pulled from books like “Reviving Ophelia” and his own experience as a father to write about those confusions and search for identity in the script. “I sort of researched that for Titanic. And then I had lived that I was a father after that,” he said. So, we thought there are different ways to be strong or different ways for females to be strong.”
“Avatar: The Way of Water” also marks the return of Stephen Lang as a new but familiar charming and charismatic villain. “Oh, it was very exciting to come back. And it was, I was just so honored to be able to deepen and expand on the vision that Jim had for his character,” he said. And in a cruel twist of fate, Lang addressed how his character has gone through some significant changes. “Essentially, he moves through like a mindless shark in a way. But in this iteration of it, first of all, there’s the absolute magnificent irony that Jim has written of coming back as the very thing he has been destroyed and having to make the adjustment to that to adapt to that.”
See Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in “Avatar: The Way of Water” in theaters on December 16, 2022