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'Avatar: The Way of Water' Is an Epic About Parenting, According to James Cameron and Cast

The director says his sequel will 'honor what the audience loved the first time but also to get them off-balance and do things that they don't expect.'

Danielle Turchiano
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'Avatar: The Way of Water' 

Disney

Avatar: The Way of Water may seem like a no-brainer because of how well Avatar proper did. Not only does it have a Metascore of 83, which means, critically, it is universally acclaimed, but it has also grossed almost $3 billion at the box office. Yet, during a press conference for the sequel, director James Cameron said that returning to the world wasn't an obvious choice.

"Steven Spielberg didn't do a sequel to E.T," he explained. "Do you want to call down the lightning strike again in the same spot? It's a lot to live up to."

There has already been a lot of speculation about how profitable (even if creatively stunning) this sequel can be, in part because of the way viewing habits have changed over the past 13 years since the original films hit theaters, especially as movie theaters struggle to come back from the COVID-19 pandemic. But Cameron's vision for a larger franchise for this world won, and Avatar: The Way of Water is only the first of four followup films planned.

The point of a sequel (at least a good one), he said, is to "honor what the audience loved the first time but also to get them off-balance and do things that they don't expect."

Therefore, Avatar: The Way of Water "goes a lot deeper in terms of the heart and the emotions. It was a much simpler story, and the characters were simpler, the first time," he continued.

What complicates the sequel is that Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have to leave the home they made to explore other regions of Pandora with their teenage kids, and they are also raising Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Grace's daughter. There is also the addition of characters played by Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis. Bringing Winslet into the fold was "a big inspiration" in particular for Cameron in this first followup (they famously collaborated on Titanic, of course), and her character also represents the fierceness of a parent as she dives into battle while pregnant.

But it's not just the parents whose perspectives get explored.

"Jake's journey has always been taking these parallels of where does he fit into this world, and in this one his teenage boys are going through that as well; they're displaced," Worthington said. "Jake is the perfect person to help them, but sometimes you can't find empathy. I think he relates more with Kiri. Jake's a warrior but sometimes you have to be a pacifist and calm down in order to listen to your kids."

Speaking of Kiri, Weaver said that she first talked with Cameron about returning to the world of Avatar in 2010. Her character, Grace, died in the first film, so to find a way to bring her back and keep her going throughout the sequels took some finesse. The idea of Kiri started as "a girl who was more comfortable in the forest with the creatures and the flora and the fauna."

"I love that I had the opportunity to play someone I consider a real adolescent in most ways, and then she has these other bright spots that she's learning about," she said. 

To prepare for the role, Weaver shared she visited high school classes to study everything about teenagers, done to the pitch of their voices. "There's a big range of who an adolescent is between 12 [years old] and 15 [years old]. And once I saw that I was like, 'OK, I can let Kirki come out — whoever that is combined with who I was at 14," she said.