After many delays, an ambitious set of sequels to James Cameron's Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, will hit theaters beginning this December. Here's what you need to know:
How many Avatar sequels are planned, and when are they coming out?
20th Century Studios aims to release four Avatar sequels from 2022 through 2028.
After Avatar: The Way of Water opens on Dec. 16, 2022, a third Avatar follow-up is scheduled for December 2024, with the fourth installment scheduled for December 2026, and the fifth scheduled for December 2028. Disney gained ownership of the franchise after obtaining 20th Century Studios' assets in its 2018 merger with Fox, and its current schedule sees either an Avatar or Star Wars movie released every December for the next seven years.
What is Avatar: The Way of Water about?
In 2009's Avatar, human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) goes on a mission to the alien moon of Pandora and ends up bonding with its blue-skinned inhabitants, the Na'vi. By the end, he transfers his consciousness into a Na'vi avatar and starts a new life with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
The sequel, The Way of Water, picks up on Pandora over a decade later and introduces Jake and Neytiri's kids. It follows the Sully family, "the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure," the plot synopsis says. The sequel will be "focusing on the ocean on Pandora," director James Cameron says, and he has described the films as a "generational family saga."
The first trailer for The Way of Water will play theatrically in front of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness when it comes out on May 6, before being released online.
Who's in The Way of Water?
Worthington and Saldana are returning, as are Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang — though it's not yet clear how, considering Weaver and Lang's characters died in the first film. Set photos indicate Weaver may not be playing a human this time. Meanwhile, Cameron has confirmed Lang will remain the villain in all of the sequels.
Among those joining the cast is Kate Winslet as a member of a clan of sea people, Michelle Yeoh as a scientist, Edie Falco as a general, Jemaine Clement as a marine biologist, and Vin Diesel, whose role hasn't been announced.
How much of the sequels has been filmed?
The scripts for all four sequels have been written, and the third film was shot in conjunction with The Way of Water. In 2021, Cameron also said "a little bit" of the fourth movie was filmed while the child actors were still the right ages. But Cameron told Vanity Fair in 2017, "if Avatar 2 and 3 don't make enough money, there's not going to be a 4 and 5."
Though the sequels were written simultaneously, producer Jon Landau says each will tell a standalone story and The Way of Water won't even require knowledge of the first film. "This is a greater narrative broken up into four complete stories," Cameron told Empire.
It has been rumored the titles of the three latter sequels will be Avatar: The Seed Bearer, Avatar: The Tulkun Rider, and Avatar: The Quest For Eywa.
Why have the movies taken so long?
The Way of Water's release has been delayed eight times; it was originally scheduled to come out in 2014. But Cameron has said writing the scripts for all the sequels back-to-back was a time-consuming process that took four years.
There is also the fact that the production, which was delayed for about four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is rather technically complex. The original movie used advanced motion capture technology to translate the performances of the actors to their realistic-looking alien characters, and the sequel is making this even more challenging by doing so underwater.
This involved having the actors perform in motion capture suits while submerged in a 900,000-gallon tank built for the movies, and figuring out how to film motion capture performances in the water took "years of technological research," Entertainment Weekly reports. "It's never been done before," Cameron told Collider.
The film's cast also had to go through months of training to be able to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time while filming, per EW. At one point, Kate Winslet did so for over seven minutes, breaking a record for longest time an actor has held their breath underwater for a movie.
Will the sequels be released in 3D?
The original Avatar helped revive 3D moviegoing, and not only will the sequels be in 3D, but National Association of Theatre Owners President John Fithian says The Way of Water will be released in more formats than any film "in the history of movies," including 3D, IMAX, high frame rate, and more.
How much will these movies cost?
21st Century Fox executive chair Lachlan Murdoch told Variety in 2017 that the Avatar sequels "will be the most expensive movies of all time," and according to Deadline, their combined budget is over $1 billion. That works out to about $250 million per movie, not too much higher than the original's $237 million price tag.
Will this investment pay off?
That's very much the question. For years, Avatar detractors have argued that a sequel could be destined to fail because audiences connected to the original's visual spectacle but cared less about its plot or characters.
But should The Way of Water be as technically dazzling as its lengthy production suggests, it could be a massive hit for Disney for the same reason the original was. In 2019, after Avengers: Endgame temporarily outgrossed Avatar at the box office, Cameron said he was relieved to see that "people will still go to movie theaters" in massive numbers.
Indeed, because of the delays, The Way of Water will arrive at a time when audiences more than ever go to the movies for giant spectacles they can't find on streaming, so in the end, the timing could actually be perfect.