Avatar came out exactly 10 years ago, which means next month it'll have been 10 years since James Cameron worked some Na'vi—the language spoken by the native people of the inhabitable distant moon he created for the blockbuster film—into an acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.
"I see you, my brother and my sisters," the Best Director winner helpfully translated, thereby making him the king of two worlds, this one and Pandora.
At the time, Avatar—the first movie of the 21st century that made 3-D feel imperative—was the product of years of tinkering with the performance-capture process and getting the details exactly right in order to create a visually heightened cinematic experience. "We're family now, guys, whether you like it or not," Cameron said, referring to traditional Hollywood movie-making and the brave new world of digital production he was championing.
"And thank you to the spouses, who waited so patiently for four and a half years while we adventured on Pandora," he added. "Now we're back, and I would especially most like to say thank you for being so patient to my partner in life, Susan, right over here. She's always on my six, she's always got my back—and thank you, baby, because you make my dreams possible."
It's a good thing Suzy Cameron has had her own pursuits to keep her busy. Because after that brief break to enjoy awards season, her husband has barely come up for air.
All along, Cameron knew he wasn't done with Pandora and the Na'vi, the lithe blue creatures whose way of life comes under attack in the 2100s by dratted humans who want to mine their home for the precious mineral unobtanium.
"I've had a story line in mind from the start—there are even scenes in Avatar that I kept in because they lead to the sequel," he told Entertainment Weekly before the Globes. "It just makes sense to think of it as a two or three film arc, in terms of the business plan. The CG plants and trees and creatures and the musculo-skeletal rigging of the main characters—that all takes an enormous amount of time to create. It'd be a waste not to use it again."
He didn't repeat his winning night at the 2010 Oscars, where his third ex-wife, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, became the first woman to win the Oscar for directing and her film won Best Picture, but Avatar still won three—for cinematography, visual effects and production design—out of the nine it was nominated for, blowing the other technical achievements in those categories that year out of the water.
Industry accolades aside, if sequels are instantly planned now after a sleeper hit passes the $100 million mark, then for any studio a sequel would have been a given as Avatar rushed toward the $1 billion mark. It soon became the first movie to make more than $2 billion worldwide, and its eventual $2.8 billion haul was enough to make it the highest-grossing movie of all time, supplanting Titanic, until Avengers: Endgame squeaked past this year.
By the end of 2010, 20th Century Fox was eyeing release dates in December 2014 and December 2015 for the second and third Avatar movies, both returning stars Zoe Saldana as Na'vi princess turned Omaticaya clan leader Neytiri and Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, the paraplegic war veteran sent to virtually infiltrate the Na'vi but who ends up fighting with them against Pandora's human invaders.
"In the second and third films, which will be self-contained stories that also fulfill a greater story arc, we will not back off the throttle of Avatar's visual and emotional horsepower, and will continue to explore its themes and characters, which touched the hearts of audiences in all cultures around the world," Cameron said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to returning to Pandora, a world where our imaginations can run wild."
After the Globes, Worthington told reporters backstage that he was humbled to be in such a wildly successful film—"but it also kind of puts it into perspective," he added, "that, you know, you put in the hard yards, it can pay off."
Yet since the 2009 film was actually 15 years in the making—Cameron first wrote an 80-page treatment in 1994 that envisioned the yet-to-be-invented technology that would truly immerse viewers in that world—anyone who chose not to hold their breath proved prescient.
At the beginning of 2012, producer Jon Landau said at a 3-D screening of Titanic that the next Avatar movie—rumored at the time to be delving beneath the surface of the Pandoran oceans —was "four years away."
Even with word of the longer wait time making the rounds, there was already talk of a fourth movie in the as-yet-one-film saga, but Cameron told E! News while promoting Titanic's release on Blu-ray in September 2012, "We'll see how 2 and 3 do."
As for actually making 2 and 3, he said they were "in the very early stages of that. We've spent the last two years building tools and software to make it a very smooth pipeline for what will be a very big and difficult project."
Cameron filmed most of Avatar in Los Angeles while the 2,500 scenes involving visual effects were completed by Wellington, New Zealand-based Weta Digital, the company co-founded by Peter Jackson that brought The Lord of the Rings to life.
In 2012, Cameron spent a reported $16 million on 2,500 acres of farmland by Lake Pounui in New Zealand's Wairarapa Valley to serve as his home base for the making of Avatar 2 and 3—though at the time he was still busy writing the screenplays at his Malibu home and the plan once again was to mainly film the performance-capture sequences in L.A.
As part of the deal, Cameron had to agree to keep some of his property as working farmland, and he told the New York Times that July that, while he didn't know exactly what they'd grow on the farm yet, he and Suzy—who got the family eating a plant-based diet—were "looking for something more crop-based," as opposed to running a ranch-type operation.
As for a reception hall on the land that the town's residents had historically used for weddings and other special occasions, Cameron said that was going to be his workshop, not exactly assuaging some locals' worries that he'd be plowing into town with nary a concern for his neighbors. His new spread was a 15-minute helicopter ride from Jackson's WingNut Films, which, in turn, is near Weta Digital.
Overall, though, Cameron—who applies for residency status in 2012—appreciated the exuberant vibe of New Zealand's relatively nascent film industry. "They aren't the sort of third-generation people you find working on sound stages in a very jaded Los Angeles," he explained to the Times. The following year, his company T Base 2 bought a nearby dairy farm (in order to halt dairy production), and a walnut orchard, and eventually acquired at least a dozen local properties.
Since then, though his production credits have piled up—including one on Terminator: Dark Fate, the franchise's original writer-director having just got the rights to the story back earlier this year after signing them away in the 1980s as part of the deal to get 1984's The Terminator made—but Cameron has yet to direct any other feature film while he's been toiling away on what are now four more Avatar movies.
At CinemaCon in 2016, Cameron said there would indeed be an Avatar 5, and all would roll out starting in December 2018, followed by releases in 2020, 2022 and 2023.
"We have decided to embark on a truly massive cinematic process," the auteur said. While mapping out only two movies, "we began to bump up against the limitations for our art form."
Cameron continued, per The Hollywood Reporter, "I've been working the last couple of years with a team of four top screenwriters to design the world of Avatar going forward: the characters, the creatures, the environment, the new cultures. So far, the art I'm seeing is, in pure imagination, really far beyond the first film. It's going to be a true epic saga."
The following year, however, reality sunk in.
"Well, 2018 is not happening," Cameron acknowledged in 2017 to the Toronto Star. "We haven't announced a firm release date. What people have to understand is that this is a cadence of releases. So we're not making Avatar 2. We're making Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5. It's an epic undertaking. It's not unlike building the Three Gorges dam."
"So I know where I'm going to be for the next eight years of my life," Cameron continued. "It's not an unreasonable time frame if you think about it. It took us four-and-a-half years to make one movie and now we're making four. We're full-tilt boogie right now. This is my day job and pretty soon we'll be 24-7. We're pretty well designed on all our creatures and sets. It's pretty exciting stuff. I wish I could share with the world. But we have to preserve a certain amount of showmanship and we're going to draw that curtain when the time is right.
"But there is a very high degree of enthusiasm at 20th Century Fox for these projects. And certainly here in house. We're just loving it. We're loving being able to immerse in this world in so much more detail than people can imagine."
At this moment, Avatar 2 is slated for release on Dec. 17, 2021; followed by 3 on Dec. 22, 2023; 4 on Dec. 19, 2025; and 5 on Dec. 17, 2027. (As of now, we mean released in theaters, not on Netflix or inside a virtual-reality headset, but...you never know.)
In the meantime, the Avatar-inspired Cirque du Soleil show TORUK—The First Flight—described as "a living ode to the Na'vi's symbiotic coexistence with nature and their belief in the basic interconnectedness of all living things"—premiered in 2015 and toured the world before wrapping up in London this past June. Also keeping fans excited for more, the $500 million theme area "Pandora: The World of Avatar" opened at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in 2017.
Something else tangible that has sprung from Cameron's endeavors: James and Suzy's New Zealand farm has been growing fruits, vegetables and nuts, and the couple opened a café and grocery store, Food Forest Organics, that sells their produce.
In 2018, Suzy Cameron told Woman's Day that she was looking forward to their family being in New Zealand the following year when Avatar 2 and 3 began shooting.
"I'm really excited we'll be here during the winter months so I can go skiing," she said—the winter months being these past summer months in the U.S.
(The Camerons, incidentally, met making Titanic—Suzy played Rose's adult granddaughter. "People always ask if it was love at first sight," she said. "It wasn't, but he was really cool. We're both thrill-seekers, and love scuba diving and flying planes.")
Worthington, Saldana and Weaver are all signed up for Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5, and, in 2017, Oona Chaplin, who played the ill-fated Talisa Stark on Game of Thrones, joined the Avatar cast as Varang. Also that year, Jon Landau told the New Zealand Herald that hometown son Cliff Curtis would play Tonowari, leader of the Metkayina reef people (so that whole underwater rumor was true).
Landau called Curtis, a former star of Fear the Walking Dead who was seen on the big screen this year in Hobbs & Shaw and Doctor Sleep, "a shining example of the extraordinary creative talents from New Zealand's film community that have drawn us to produce our films in the country."
At the time, the Herald noted that the movies would finally start shooting at Stone Street Studios in Wellington the following year (2018) and start rolling out in 2020. Close, but off by a year.
Presuming Avatar 2 (which may or may not have a more descriptive title at some point) rolls out as "planned" in December 2021, that will be 12 years since the saga's first chapter was told—though at least, thanks to the film's whole performance-capture raison d'être, aging actors won't be an issue.
To really put this gap in perspective, when Avatar came out, Guardians of the Galaxy was still five years away, meaning Zoe Saldana has since been in four Marvel Universe movies as well as two Star Trek sequels (plus a bunch of other things, and she's had three children), and is due to get rolling on a third Guardians next year. And it's not as if those films' visual effects don't take months to get ready once production has wrapped.
But Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5 are happening, Cameron is still only a spry 65, and he has a very committed cast and crew.
After the Golden Globes in 2010—right after, as in backstage, when Avatar was also named Best Motion Picture, Drama—Cameron said that he had never worked on a movie where the cast and crew became as much of a family as they did on this one.
Plus, he and some of the technicians "were basically locked in a gray room together for three years," he quipped. "So you either get along or there's blood on the floor at the end of that time."
Cameron, of course, was exaggerating...mostly.
Linda Hamilton, whom he directed in the first two Terminator movies and then had a daughter with and eventually married, recalled not getting along with her ex-husband at all on the first film, telling MTV News in 2009, "He was not geared towards the human experience. He's the only person I've ever taken off the set and yelled at."
In 2017, The Guardian noted a tale from the set of Avatar, about Cameron nailing crew members' cell phones to the wall with a nail gun if he heard them ring on set.
"Jim and I had sort of a love-hate relationship," Worthington told Parade in 2009. "He pushed me and everybody else. But, I think any movie has conflict while you're making it. That's why you put sand in an oyster to get a pearl. That, to me, is what making is a movie is about. Jim looks at it like you're going to war, but out of that comes solidarity. Out of that comes commitment to the cause. Out of that comes excitement. You surprise yourself."
"Yeah, I think my demeanor at work is much more congenial [now]," Cameron told The Guardian eight years later. "I've learned that, OK, the film is important but quality of life is also important. But it's a learned art for me. I think for Ron Howard it's innate—he's an innately nice guy. I'm an innately nice guy, but bringing that to work has been a learning curve."
Meanwhile, the whole Avatar saga started with a film that—while critics in some circles dinged it for seeming anti-military—showcased the ugly side of the use of military force in a foreign land and remains perfectly topical in 2019 (and in all likelihood will still be in 2027).
Worthington's war vet is "a hero, a man of great courage throughout the film," Cameron explained to reporters in 2010. Jake Sully takes pains to "adapt to the local culture and enlist their aid, and try to understand them—try to see them. He does that, and I think you need to look to the hero of the movie, not the nemesis of the movie, for what the value system of the filmmaker is. Because I can't think of a better tribute to the American fighting man than to make the main character of our multi-hundred-million-dollar movie a former Marine and to have him wear the Globe and Anchor t-shirt."
And, fairly obvious, is Cameron's critique of the ongoing plunder of this planet's natural resources even as (most) world leaders acknowledge that action needs to be taken to reverse the destructive course we're on.
Expect to see more of those messages.
"The Avatar films are very specific about certain themes," Cameron told the Toronto Star in 2017. "In a very broad sense if you stand way back, Avatar is about human hubris and how we use up the resources of our world and try to take it over. Did the Atlanteans do something like that? I do know that pride goeth before a fall. I've got nuclear war in the Terminator films. You have the Titanic going into an iceberg where they thought they were lords over nature and had total dominion.
"The Avatar films are about our sense that we can dominate nature, when we should really learn to be a part of nature. Or we simply won't survive. So there are thematic connections."
He continued, "And again, I think [the lost city of] Atlantis is this enduring myth around this great enigma. How could they have vanished without a trace? I certainly believe the Greek concept of hubris, when you think you know everything, that will precede your collapse. I see that happening now in our civilization. I see the need for a more enlightened approach to our integration and the natural world and our connectedness... Right now everyone is isolating. The nations of the world are separating from a sense of community. Only through an international community are we going to solve problems like climate change which affect all of us. I see us heading for a precipice if we don't change our ways."
No wonder this has been taking so long. Every time James Cameron thought he had a grasp on this world's direst problems, a new one arose.
But serious themes aside, "we're just loving it," he said. "We're loving being able to immerse in this world in so much more detail than people can imagine. When you imagine what Avatar movies will be like from where we were. You won't be able to imagine where we're taking this. And for me, that's the fun of getting to reveal it in it's time."