The pop-cultural landscape looked considerably different in 2009. Television shows were still largely watched on television sets. “TiK ToK” referred to a hit song by Kesha. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe consisted of only two movies released the previous year.
Instead, the multiplexes were about to be dominated by “Avatar,” James Cameron’s science-fiction epic about a battle for natural resources between human colonists from Earth and the native Na’vi people of a distant moon called Pandora. “Avatar” went on to become one of the most successful films of all time, grossing more than $2.8 billion worldwide and winning three Academy Awards.
Cameron, the decorated filmmaker of “Titanic,” “True Lies” and “The Terminator,” went off to prepare the next entries in his new franchise. Now, as he puts the finishing touches on the first of four planned sequels, “Avatar: The Way of Water” (which 20th Century Studios will release on Dec. 16), nearly 13 years have gone by and much has changed.
To help reacquaint audiences with “Avatar” — and with the 3-D filmmaking that dazzled audiences in 2009 — the first movie is being rereleased in theaters on Sept. 23. It’s a strategy that is, of course, intended to prime ticket buyers for the impending follow-up, but also to remind them of what was special about the original.
As Cameron said of “Avatar” in a video interview on Thursday, “We authored it for the big-screen experience. You let people smell the roses. You let people go on the ride. If you’re doing a flying shot or a shot underwater in a beautiful coral reef, you hold the shot a little bit longer. I want people to really get in there and feel like they’re there, on a journey with these characters.”
Calling from his studios in Wellington, New Zealand, the 68-year-old Cameron spoke about seeing “Avatar” through new eyes, how the world has or hasn’t changed since its release and whether this onetime king of the world has maybe — just maybe — chilled out a little bit. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Have you watched the original “Avatar” recently? What was that experience like?
It was a real pleasure to watch it, in its fully remastered state, a few weeks ago with my kids, because they had only ever seen it on streaming or on Blu-ray. “Oh yeah, it’s that movie that Dad made back then.” And they got to see it in 3-D, at good light level and projection levels, for the first time. And they were kind of like, “Oh. All right. Now I get it.” Which, hopefully, will be the general audience reaction. Young film fans never had the opportunity to see it in a movie theater. Even though they think they may have seen the film, they really haven’t seen it. And I was pleasantly surprised, not only at how well it holds up but how gorgeous it is in its remastered state.
Did you see details that you wished you could change?
I don’t think that way. It’s such an intense process when you’re editing a film and you have to fight for every frame that stays in. I felt pretty good about the creative decisions that were made back then. We spent a lot of time and energy improving our process in the decade-plus since. But there’s certainly nothing cringeworthy. I can see tiny places where we’ve improved facial-performance work. But it doesn’t take you out. I think it’s still competitive with everything that’s out there these days.
Even with everything you had accomplished before making “Avatar,” were there still elements that you had to fight the studio to keep in it?
I think I felt, at the time, that we clashed over certain things. For example, the studio felt that the film should be shorter and that there was too much flying around on the ikran — what the humans call the banshees. Well, it turns out that’s what the audience loved the most, in terms of our exit polling and data gathering. And that’s a place where I just drew a line in the sand and said, “You know what? I made ‘Titanic.’ This building that we’re meeting in right now, this new half-billion dollar complex on your lot? ‘Titanic.’ paid for that, so I get to do this.” And afterward, they thanked me. I feel that my job is to protect their investment, often against their own judgment. But as long as I protect their investment, all is forgiven.
What do you think has changed about the movie industry in the years since its release?
The negative factors are obvious. We’ve got a turn of the world toward easy access in the home, and that has to do a lot with the rise of streaming in general, and the pandemic, where we literally had to risk our lives to go to the movie theater. On the positive side, we see a resurgence of the theater experience. People are craving that. We’re still down about 20 percent from prepandemic levels, but it’s slowly building back. Partly it’s been because of a dearth of top titles that people would want to see in a theater. But “Avatar” is the poster child for that. This is the type of film that you have to see in a theater.
Does knowing audiences want that blockbuster experience put more pressure on you?
I’ve always thrived in that scenario. The danger has been that there are so many big movies coming out all the time and we were always jostling for place. That’s why I recommended to Fox that we push “Titanic” till Christmas, because we’d have a clear playing field in January and February, and that worked out beautifully. The same strategy worked well with “Avatar.” And of course we’re going into the same date with “The Way of Water.” But we’re not jostling as much now because there aren’t as many big tentpoles.
There’s a sense of responsibility to do the best job we can and make it a moneymaker. But I don’t how that translates artistically to any decision I make on the movie. I don’t say, Hmmm, let’s put that plant over there because we’ll make more money. It doesn’t work that way. When it’s good enough, you kind of know.
“Avatar” had a prominent message about taking care of the environment and the resources it has provided. In the years since its release, do you feel like that message has been heeded?
I’m not going to feel guilty because my movie didn’t save the world. I certainly wasn’t the only voice back then, and I’m certainly not the only voice now, telling people that they have to change. But people don’t want to change. We love to burn energy. We love to eat our meat and dairy. Asking people to fundamentally change their behavior patterns, it’s like asking them to change their religion. We’re seeing this ongoing series of greater and greater manifestations of the consequences, like with these heat waves in China and North America and Europe, the flooding in Pakistan, which is horrific. And eventually we will change or we’ll die out. “Avatar” is not trying to tell you what to do specifically. It’s not telling you, Go vote for so-and-so, buy a Prius, put down the cheeseburger. It’s just reminding us of what we’re losing. And it puts us back in touch with that childlike state of wonder about the natural world. As long as that beauty still resonates within us, there’s hope.
Are you concerned that in the time between the original and the sequel, audiences will have lost their connection to the story or its characters?
I think I could have made a sequel two years later and have it bomb because people didn’t relate to the characters or the direction of the film. My personal experience goes like this: I made a sequel called “Aliens,” seven years after the first movie. It was very well received. I made a sequel called “Terminator 2,” seven years after the first movie. It did an order of magnitude of more, in revenue, than the first film. I was a little concerned that I had stretched the tether too far, in our fast-paced, modern world, with “Avatar 2” coming in 12 years later. Right until we dropped the teaser trailer, and we got 148 million views in 24 hours. There’s that scarce seen but wondered at principle, which is, Wow, we haven’t seen that in a long time, but I remember how cool it was back then. Does that play in our favor? I don’t know. I guess we’re going to find out.
In the era of the original “Avatar,” we learned that you possess a baseball cap bearing the letters “HMFIC” (a boastful if family-unfriendly personal description). Did that get any use on the making of “The Way of Water”?
I would either wear that hat on the first day of a new shoot, or I would wear my T-shirt that says “Time becomes meaningless in the face of creativity.” Just to shake up the studio a little bit. I don’t think I [wore] the HMFIC hat on the new “Avatar.” This is the kinder, gentler me. This is the mellow, Zen nice guy, sensitive to everybody’s needs and emotional requirements. No microaggressions here. Which is usually good for about the first two weeks.