Will the “Avatar” sequel be a flop or will it be a spectacular success? What about that 3D and underwater cinematography, will the plot of “The Way of Water” make the show of a...

Rafał Donica

10 December 2022

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Thirteen years, that’s exactly how long the king of the world made us wait for the Avatar sequel. James Cameron slept through the era of Marvel and the three Batmans. This statement sounds like a jab at the Terminator creator, because in the age of comic book movies he’s popping up again with his Na’vi in an unchanged formula. It is possible, however, that the oversleeping of superhero cinema may… work out for Cameron and the sequel to his life’s work. First of all, the creator of True Lies doesn’t look at the prevailing seasonal trends in cinema, doesn’t pander to the viewer, but makes cinema his own way, long and carefully, giving each project due attention, which so far has translated into artistic and commercial success of his films every time. This cinematic visionary doesn’t need to check what the competition is doing, because he is a fully aware, confident and long-fulfilled craftsman artist. The master of cinema is not afraid of anyone, because for years he has been playing in a completely different league, his own, in which the competition simply does not exist.

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The first Avatar was created roughly from 1997 – and in Cameron’s mind much earlier – until 2009, an equal 12 years. This formal gem was an innovative way of shooting scenes in spectacular and absolutely unmistakable 3D created using the PACE Fusion 3-D camera system (an invention of Cameron himself and Vince Pace). The impact of Cameron’s work on the technological side of movies was enormous, new titles in 3D began to spring up like mushrooms after the rain, and 3D-capable televisions soon came under the roof. The meticulousness with which Cameron conjured up the depth, spatiality, almost tangibility of the beautiful planet Pandora, and the fact that Avatar was polished in every detail (finally the eyes in CGI were as they should be – LIVE, and the emotions on the faces of the digital characters – NATURAL) proved unbeatable by any other production. And so soon 3D, especially the homemade one, from which it was a headache, got boring, and the fashion for it simply ended. Avatar still remains the lone representative of its genre, an auteur’s one-of-a-kind work and the highest-grossing film of all time, with a brief pause for consolation with the top spot on the box by Avengers: Endgame. As the pro-environmental Avatar was triumphing at the cinema box office in 2009, something new was being born behind its back that would soon change the course of entertainment cinema history, and which was dubbed the Marvel universe, although Martin Scorsese insists it’s a theme park. Beginning in 2008 with the premieres of  The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man (the cinematic relay would only be joined five years later – with Man of Steel – by the DC release), the tricorders now indivisibly rule the hearts and minds of mass audiences and their wallets of kors. But their fat years seem to be slowly coming to an end….

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I would have said a few years ago, without a second thought, that if Cameron had sprung the Avatar sequel at the moment of Marvel’s prime time, that is, somehow around the end of Phase Three (see our Ranking of all Marvel phases) topped by two mega blockbusters in the form of  Infinity War and Endgame, his sequel “about smurfs in space” would have been lost with a thud. After all, the attention of popcorn audiences – that is, those who, let’s not kid ourselves, bring money to the cinema box office – was directed everywhere but in the direction of the further fate of the blue inhabitants of Pandora. The world simply forgot about Jake Sully, and somehow no one particularly hoped or waited for the sequel. Cameron probably didn’t calculate intentionally to work on The Way of Water for so long – a whopping 13 years – until the hype for Marvel and DC faded a bit. So perhaps with the December release of the second Avatar, the creator of The Abyss will absolutely take advantage of the space left by his film’s decelerating comic book universes. A flurry of weak series, new fourth-phase heroes who didn’t buy audiences’ hearts the way Iron Man and the Avengers team did, meant that the theme of costumed heroes with powers of such and such is commonly starting to become overdone, so inevitably audiences will look around for something fresh, new, different. Only will the Avatar sequel guarantee them this springboard satisfactorily? And will it capture the attention of modern viewers enough to make them start waiting for installments 3, 4 and 5?

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Personally, although I have watched all parts of the cinematic adventures of the tricorders (both the Marvel and DC ones), I am sick of comic book cinema. What’s more, reviewing media reports and talking to friends, I find that I am increasingly not alone in this overeating of the subject. If mass audiences are as keen as I am to take a moment’s respite from comic book cinema, Avatar: The Way of Water will be like an antidote to superhero movies and will just flawlessly hit its time like Robin Hood’s arrow stuck in the middle of the center of the bullseye. In addition, James Cameron promises that the plot will be very surprising, and this is a very good prediction, as long as it is not just a marketing ploy. For it is the plot, its unpredictability and the sparkling relationships between the characters that must be the workhorse of the film this time, unlike in the first installment, which stood for innovative visuals, and the plot was accused, and rightly so, of a template script based loosely on the backbone of Pocahontas or Dancing with the Wolves.

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The first trailers did not create some great frenzy of anticipation among viewers. The previews were rather ascetic, almost sentimental, nostalgic, presenting Pandora’s flora and fauna with the reverence of Eliza Orzeszkowa in Polish novel Above the Niemen, although the snapshots from the action scenes (the flamethrower knocks off hats!) look insane. Cameron’s trailers seem to say that he’s so sure of the quality and the enormous load of emotions and attractions contained in his film that he doesn’t need to ruffle feathers in front of prospective viewers by showing them a bombastically edited conglomeration of action scenes. It’s worth going back to 2009 at this point, when the trailers for the first Avatar also failed to impress audiences in any particular way. Based on the scribbles of The Way of Water, viewers even began to turn their noses up at the fact that, all in all, it looked like a repeat of Avatar… only underwater and in higher resolution. I admit that I somewhat share these concerns, but at the same time I have faith in Cameron and his talent for making cinema that is epic, spectacular, imaginative and, above all, blazing new trails in cinema in technical terms, cinema for which the trailer is simply a space too cramped to spread its wings. Reportedly, the director worked for those 13 years on new technology that allowed him to shoot underwater scenes in motion capture. Add to that the fact that Cameron shot The Abyss, explored the wreck of the Titanic, directed the documentary Aliens of the Deep and produced the film Sanctum 3D with fantastic underwater cinematography, and we can be sure that the sequences located in the Avatar sequel under the water mirror will tear us up in the cinema this and that.

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The Way of Water, for technical reasons, should be viewed, if possible and where you live, in IMAX theaters, for it is there that the aforementioned wings of Cameron’s vision will fully unfold and the 3D effect will resound. On top of that, only on the IMAX big screen will we experience the 1.90:1 aspect ratio of the image, so that we will see, to put it simply… more of Pandora than in traditional cinemas, where it will be a ratio of 2.39:1 in 2D theaters and 1.85:1 in the 3D version. The Way of Water was shot with a Sony CineAlta VENICE 3D camera with solutions supposedly so innovative that oh my! And here’s a little digression, because there will be a real clash of titans at the 2023 Oscars; After all, The Way of Water of Water will compete for Best Effects and Best Cinematography statuettes with the insanely realized Top Gun: Maverick. Regardless of the outcome of this next year’s duel, technically the Avatar sequel is sure to blast us with the bluescreen, and we’ll be looking for jaws on the floor long after the screening amidst roasted corn scattered with impressions and trampled nachos. Only, after 13 years of film production, will the underwater cinematography, no matter how breathtaking, be the big thing worth waiting so long for and soaking the actors for so long?

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After all, we had DC’s theme park Aquaman relatively recently, which messed up nicely in terms of underwater shots and, we have to admit, was impressive, so wet cinematography in action cinema will no longer be some stunning novelty today. That it will be beautiful underwater, I do not doubt, however, if the underwater cinematography in The Way of Water does not thrill us as the master assumes, what else will be left for him? My quiet dream related to Cameron’s promise that we will be taken by surprise in the cinema is such a course of the plot that, behold, pissed off by the human invasion, the community of Pandora finally catches a mighty nerve, hijacks the invaders’ spaceships and… goes to Earth to start retaliation on our territory, and an epic battle between the Na’vi and the US army will begin. The first reviews saying that the last hour of The Way of Water is pure action give a tiny hope for such a course of action, but the trailers rather suggest that it will be a simultaneous underwater and surface battle, or land battle altogether, both on Pandora. I don’t know what kind, but I’m hoping Cameron is holding some ace up his sleeve that he neither showed us nor guessed at.

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The cast includes both Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver, who seemed to have died a bit in the first film. I wondered if they would somehow miraculously be resurrected, or if perhaps The Way of Water would somehow be a prequel like Godfather Part II telling parallel stories across two timelines. It turns out, however, that we’ve already been revealed in the promotional materials that it A LITTLE SPOILER it won’t be a prequel; I found a photo of Sigourney Weaver’s avatar online without much snooping, and Stephen Lang says this about returning to the role: “Quaritch 2.0 is a genetically modified autonomous avatar that has been downloaded with Quaritch’s mind, emotions and, even more interestingly, perhaps Quaritch’s spirit.” The actor admitted that this is esoteric stuff, but revealed that in the new film Quaritch will not remember his death. He said that overall he plays the same character, but with differences. END OF LITTLE SPOILER.

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How much will The Way of Water earn? There are three possibilities, the first is: the film will turn out to be a total financial flop (not very realistic), and James Cameron will feel the bitter taste of failure for the first time in his career – he would have a harsh pill to swallow. Option two is earnings… lukewarm, ot covered the budget and the film coming out without a loss, maybe even with some slight upside, which, however, will leave a feeling of inadequacy for the ambitious director, because he didn’t spend those 13 years sitting underwater with his actors to settle for mere reimbursements. And finally, the third option, which is a spectacular financial success, people pounding IMAX with doors and windows several times each so they can stay on beautiful Pandora and in its ocean as long and as often as possible, as almost fanatical admirers of the original film did, filling the producers’ sack with money more than a decade ago. Cameron says the sequel’s budget was so large that to (only) come out at zero, The Way of Water would have to rank among the top five highest-grossing films of all time….

…And taking a quick glance at Box Office Mojo, we see that the top five highest-grossing films are closed by Avengers: Infinity War, exceeding $2 billion. So given Cameron’s words, one can try to estimate that since The Way of Water has to be in the TOP 5 to recoup production costs, its budget was, wait a minute, I’m counting, two, forty-eight, two thousand one hundred and thirty-seven, production plus promotion, plus catering for the film crew… comes out to about $1-1.3 billion! Other sources report that the film needs to earn as little as 1 billion for the costs to be recouped; officially on IMDb, the budget item (estimated), which dampens estimates somewhat, shows an unspectacular 350 million (the first part cost about 240 million), and a figure of $400 million is circulating online. The truth about the budget probably lies a long way off, but sticking to Cameron’s words, the production must have cost an insane amount and certainly far more than the aforementioned 350 million. So why hasn’t it been trumpeted yet that we are dealing with the new most expensive film in history, leaving behind the previous record holder, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides?

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If only the news goes out into the ether, as it did with the first Avatar, that the film is a feast for the senses (and we’re already hearing such signals), I’m not afraid for the earnings of The Way of Water. Does the sequel have a chance to top the original in terms of spectacle? Yes, and it certainly will, as can already be seen in the trailers and heard in the first hurrah-optimistic reactions of industry journalists who have already had a chance to see the sequel. The work that WETA Effects has done on the visual effects crushes with realism everything Industrial Light & Magic has done for the MCU, including the acclaimed Thanos (James Cameron himself said so in a recent interview. Sure, The Way of Water took 13 years to make, and Marvel’s tape-produced films took some…. 13 weeks, but who’s telling them to take their time and mess with their graphic designers who don’t fine-tune the effects? Getting back to the topic, will Avatar 2 top the one financially? I don’t think so, after all, Avatar is just less than 100 million short of crossing the magic barrier of $3 (THREE!) billion, and such a ceiling already seems unattainable for anyone, even the King of the World. Personally, I’m betting that Avatar: The Way of Water will earn, say, some 1.5-1.7 billion greenbacks. And what are your types?

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Reactions from lucky people after the first closed screenings of The Way of Water are very enthusiastic. Journalists unanimously write that the sequel is better than the original and that it represents one of the best cinematic experiences in years, and from the visual side it simply impresses with every frame. Perri Nemiroff of the Collider website notes at the same time that Cameron has not forgotten about the characters and world-building, and the technical side serves to expand them. In turn, Erik Davis of Fandango writes that The Way of Water is “phenomenal, bigger, better and more emotional” than the original and exemplifies the pinnacle of filmmaking. Kevin McCarthy of Reelblend added that watching the new Avatar made him feel like a kid staring at Terminator 2 again.”

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In the journalists’ reviews we find repeated statements that although from the visual side the film is a firecracker in full swing, the most important thing remains the characters, and the last act is particularly impressive. If there are accusations, they concern the excessive number of characters and the duration. However, from the reviews emerges an overall picture of a very successful, technically stunning sequel. As Jake Hamilton of JakesTakes stated – “James Cameron is the GOD of sequels”. On the one hand, such reports rejoice and give great optimism, urging, at least me, to a screening of The Way of Water (IMAX tickets already bought, on December 19 I’ll find out). On the other hand, however, if someone writes about Cameron’s film that it “represents one of the best cinematic experiences in years,” it’s like telling your girlfriend that she’s one in a billion, to which she will respond, and rightly so, with a killer question: “So do you think there are seven more like me in the World?”.

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James Cameron, asked recently during an interview at what point in his new film (I remind you that the sequel is expected to be over three hours long) the best time to go to the restroom for the proverbial pee so as not to miss something important, replied that… any time, and then buy a ticket again and watch the film again without missing a single scene. This is a humorous answer, of course, but not without meaning, for having gone to the cinema to see Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, I bravely endured two hours of the film with a stomach ache, then, forced by natural forces, I finally went to the restroom and missed… the attack on Pearl Harbor. All joking aside, I have no doubt that if The Way of Water delights mass audiences as much as the first part did, plenty of people will actually go to the cinema a second, and probably a third time regardless of whether they peed at the first screening. Will it help jump the 2009 all-time blockbuster score? On the one hand, Cameron doesn’t have to worry about it, because whether he jumps the Avatar bar or not, his film will still stand on the top step of the podium. The only important thing is not to score a sequel with a big blunder, because if audiences wave their hands at Part 2 in a gesture of disinterest, anyone will be even less eager to wait in the following years for the announced Parts 3, 4 and 5, with releases scheduled for 2024, 2026 and 2028, respectively. The sequel, then, has quite a task ahead of it, and a paraphrase of Uncle Peter Parker’s saying pushes itself to the tongue: “With a big budget comes big responsibility.”

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Cameron, however, has a contingency plan in store, which he is not particularly secretive about, in case of failure or an unsatisfactory financial outcome of The Way of Water. He will simply abandon the production of episodes 4 and 5, finalizing the entire story in part three, for which shooting is reportedly almost complete, turning the Avatar franchise into a trilogy. Frankly speaking, I personally am not interested enough in the fate of the inhabitants of Pandora, and I can say this even before the release of the sequel, to wait for as many as four films, and no matter what the outcome of part two is, I would prefer that the series just ended with part three, a classic trilogy, in God’s way, with class and a bump, without diluting the theme for another years and a total of five installments. And you dear readers of, what are your expectations from The Way of Water? How do you bet, will Cameron end up with a shield or on a shield? Will it be a huge success, 3D us sweep the floor again and stun the senses, or will we get a reheated chop thrown in the water and get bored in the cinema for the first time with Cameron? Are you waiting for the sequel at all? I encourage you to discuss it in the comments.


Rafał Donica

Rafał Donica

Since watching "Blade Runner", he has been passionate about cinema, loves "Akira", "Drive", "Escape from New York", "North by Northwest", the underrated "The Hateful Eight" and "Terrifier 2". Author of the book "Frankenstein 100 years in cinema". Founder and editor-in-chief (in the years 1999 - 2012) of the Polish film portal FILM.ORG.PL. Since 2016, a professional reportage photographer.

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