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What makes 'Avatar: The Way of Water' so special?

Christine Lehnen
December 19, 2022

It took 13 years: Now the sequel to the most successful film of all time is finally hitting theaters. Will James Cameron achieve the blockbuster hit he's hoping for?

Film still from 'Avatar: The Way Of Water': Two figures look at each other, a burning landscape in the background.
Expensive to produce — but will it also be successful? James Cameron's 'Avatar: The Way Of Water'Image: 20th Century Studios/dpa/picture alliance

Avatar's sequel hopes to emulate success of its predecessor

As the sequel of the most successful film of all time, the box office expectations for "Avatar: The Way of Water" are high.

James Cameron's 2009 "Avatar" remains cinema's biggest box office hit, grossing $2.9 billion, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Will he be able to repeat this success? The reactions until now are mostly positive. According to movie ranking website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has 80% positive ratings from professional critics, and has been liked by 95% of registered film fans.

But theatrical distribution now faces the competition of streaming platforms. Additionally, many cinemas in China, a major market for the film, are still closed due to the pandemic.

"Can we be profitable in a changed market? Or are we just the last dinosaur dying after the comet hit? I couldn't tell you that right now," Cameron told Reuters ahead of the movie's debut.

James Cameron: the blockbuster king 

Although the exact budget of "Avatar: The Way of Water" has not been revealed, The Hollywood Reporter estimates its budget at $350 million, making it one of the most expensive productions in film history.

James Cameron told Reuters that the film needs to gross at least $2 billion to avoid losses.

Only four films have ever achieved this feat so far — and Cameron happens to have directed two of them, the first "Avatar" and "Titanic" (1997).

Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as two passengers of different social classes who fall in love as their cruise liner sinks, "Titanic" not only broke box office records but was crowned with numerous accolades. It won 11 Oscars — the only two other films to have collected as many Academy Awards were "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003).

Expectations were very high for the movie, which has made $134 million (approx. 130 million euros) in the US and an additional $300 million (282 million euros) abroad so far. It remains one of the biggest cinematic openings in pandemic times and experts are positive.

"Expectations aside, this is outstanding. The movie is set up for a very strong run through the holidays," David A Gross of Franchise Entertainment, a media research company, told AFP.

New technology and acting records

As he did for the first "Avatar," Cameron has once again worked with cinematographer Pawel Achtel to develop a new camera system, this time to film underwater in 3D.

Film still 'Avatar: The Way of Water': a blue figure touches a whale's head.
New camera technology was developed for 'Avatar: The Way of Water' Image: 20th Century Studios/AP Photo/picture alliance

In "The Way of Water," the main protagonists Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), are haunted by old enemies and flee their home in the forest, hoping to seek protection from a friendly oceanic clan, the Metkayina.

Cameron also had his actors break records during the production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kate Winslet held her breath underwater for seven minutes and 15 seconds for a scene. She beat Tom Cruise's record, who spent six minutes without breathing for "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation," according to the Internet Movie Database. On average, people without training can only do this for one to two minutes.

Winslet, who previously worked with Cameron on "Titanic," was full of praise for the director's "capacity to create incredible female roles," she told The Hollywood Reporter

"These leaders, these women, they have power, they have physical strength, they have emotional gravitas," she said.

In "Avatar" she plays the role of the matriarch of the Metkayina clan. It was "very exciting" to portray a "character who is so in line with how I see the world and how I hope to be as a parent and as a woman," she said of the role.

Kate Winslet at the world premiere of 'Avatar: The Way of Water'.
Kate Winslet at the world premiere of 'Avatar: The Way of Water' in London on December 6Image: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/picture alliance

Joining the sequel trend

In the past decade, Hollywood has relied heavily on sequels and spin-offs for revenue, especially the Star Wars or Marvel films and series and this year's "Lord of the Rings" series — the most expensive TV series ever made. 

But some observers fear that the long interlude between the first "Avatar" movie and its sequel may weaken moviegoers' interest in the story.

"The common perception has been the first movie didn't enshrine itself in pop culture," Shawn Robbins from Boxoffice Pro told Reuters.

 an avatar couple line up an arrow
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, left) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) fell in love during the first 'Avatar' filmImage: 2009 Twentieth Century Fox

But the story never disappeared completely, inspiring a successful circus show by Cirque du Soleil, for example. Meanwhile, the 3D "Avatar" rollercoaster is one of the most popular attractions at Walt Disney World in Florida; and people wait three to four hours to fly over the world of the planet Pandora.

In any case, Cameron is also ready to contribute to the sequel trend. Beyond "The Way of the Water," he has signed a deal with Disney to shoot parts three and four of "Avatar."

Climate protection and a love story

But beyond the draw of a sequel, the themes of the new "Avatar" are another crowd-puller.

Already in 2009, "Avatar" managed to deal with ecological issues in a blockbuster format, drawing attention to the importance of living in harmony with nature.

Today, James Cameron remains entirely devoted to nature conservation, and particularly to the protection of the oceans. Meanwhile, the climate emergency has also entered the consciousness of a wider audience.

James Cameron smiles as he emerges from a green vessel.
Cameron also conducts underwater research: He's shown here returning from the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean in 2012Image: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic/dpa/picture alliance

Cameron's films always deal with one of the strongest human passions: love.

Just like "Titanic," "Avatar" features more than spectacular scenery, the latest camera technology, and a message about the climate crisis. As lead actress Zoe Saldana put it in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: "It's a love story at its core."

The second part is not just about a romantic relationship, but also about the love for one's own family.

That's why Shawn Robbins believes the ambitious Cameron will be "delivering on his big bets." 

"He's always had a good feel for what audiences are looking for."

"Avatar: The Way of Water" is released in German cinemas on December 14, 2022.

This article was originally written in German.