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Avatar 2 took forever because James Cameron had to make sure Avatar 4 was ready to shoot

Plus: The broad plan for the next three Avatar movies, and how Jake Sully’s kids will take over the story

A Na’vi warrior sitting at water level on the ocean, riding a submerged sea creature, is seen from behind, looking at an immense mechanical human ship covered with rotors and engines in a shot from Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water was a notoriously delayed project. Writer-director James Cameron first announced the sequel to his 2009 hit Avatar in 2010, with a goal of releasing it in 2014 and following up with a third Avatar movie in 2015. But every time the release date got close, Cameron would announce a new delay, postponing the releases by another year — or several. And all that release-calendar jumping was before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production and made long movie delays and schedule shuffles commonplace.

The reasons cited for the delays have often been vague. Cameron has talked about the “logistical and technical elements” involved in making several movies back to back, particularly after the announcement that two more sequels would follow Avatar 3, for a total of five movies. And the complexities of shooting Avatar: The Way of Water, as seen in early behind-the-scenes footage, suggest unusual levels of production difficulty on the film.

But in a recent interview with Polygon, Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water producer Jon Landau says that the production and release delays weren’t primarily driven by the stakes of bringing aquatic Na’vi and their detailed whale friends to life.

“We did not have to hold here for technology,” he said. “I think the first Avatar proved to us that we could be the impetus to push technology to where we needed to go.”

Instead, he says, the delays came because the filmmaking team was determined to get the scripts for all four planned Avatar sequels written and finalized before shooting on Avatar 2 even started.

“We felt that this project was about getting the story right,” he said. “You would never build a house until you had the blueprint to build from. The scripts are that blueprint. So we wanted to wait to all four of those were there.”

That decision may have been related to the casting of the child actors who serve as primary protagonists in Avatar: The Way of Water. The movie continues the story of space Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who takes on the avatar body of a Na’vi, a 10-foot felinoid native of the planet Pandora, and eventually takes a local Na’vi woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) as a mate. But in The Way of Water, the focus partly shifts to their biological children, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss); their adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver); and the kids’ young human friend, Spider (Jack Champion).

Former human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Na’vi form angrily addresses his Na’vi family — Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) in a scene from Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

It seems likely that Avatar 3 — which was shot back-to-back with The Way of Water — will continue the story threads left open at the end of Avatar 2, and that Avatar 4 will initially continue the kids’ story, then jump forward in time to their adulthood. Cameron has confirmed that the “first act” of Avatar 4 has already been shot, even though there’s no guarantee that the story will continue past the third movie. Landau teased the reasons:

“There were logistic reasons, it turned out, why we needed to shoot not just movie two and movie three, but the first act of part four now. We couldn’t wait to do it later,” he said. “So we wanted to get that all in place. And then we felt we could be the impetus again to push technology to tell these stories.”

Landau confirms that “the Sully kids” will be the throughline for the Avatar films, and the means for introducing new generations to new settings in Pandora, like the coastal area where much of The Way of Water takes place.

“They’re in many ways our entry into this new world of Pandora that we go to,” he said. “It’s a family story. But it’s not just told from the parents’ perspective. It’s also told from the kids’ perspective — kids who are struggling to find their place in life. One of them feels like an outcast. Another one is questioning what her origins are, where she even comes from. These are things people struggle with today — it makes it relatable. It’s the Sully kids that we go on our first swim experience with, at the reef. We see it through their eyes. And now, as we graduate through the movies, we’re gonna grow up with them as we go on in the saga.”

Avatar: The Way of Water is in theaters now. The third movie is scheduled for release in December 2024, with movies 4 and 5 planned for 2026 and 2028, respectively.

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