The sequel to 2009’s Avatar was almost a different movie.
Avatar: The Way of Water finally tells the next chapter in James Cameron’s ambitious saga. But a lot has changed in the 13 years since Avatar released, and we don’t mean the higher fidelity of Pandora’s lush scenery and bioluminescent creatures.
“It was never not a full-fledged movie to [Cameron],” Landau tells Inverse. “It just wasn’t the right movie for ‘Avatar 2.’”
Avatar: The High Ground was meant to be a direct sequel to 2009’s Avatar and a “prequel” to Avatar: The Way of Water. Set just a few years after the first movie, The High Ground follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) learning to raise a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) while his enemies, the RDA, return to Pandora to finish what they’ve started.
Originally written as a film script by Cameron and his team, The High Ground is now a prequel graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics by writer Sherri L. Smith and artist Guilherme Balbi.
To Landau, The High Ground told a good story and has its own winning qualities. “It was more focused in its breadth and its scope,” he says.
“It deals with some amazing stuff, with the RDA’s return and the Na’vi going to confront them up at their spacecrafts. It deals with the Spider story and introduces General Ardmore. But we found a way to simply do that in the movie, and to spend more time on another character of our film, Pandora itself, in The Way of Water.”
In previous interviews with The Hollywood Reporter and Total Film, Cameron broke down the making of The High Ground. “We were noodling around,” Cameron said. “We had a lot of ideas. We kept trying to corral it into a box, and it never quite fit. So at a certain point, I said, ‘I’ll just finish it, and see if it’s a movie.’ I did. It came out, I think, at 130 pages. It was like, ‘Man, this is a great story. This is a hell of a read.’”
But a “hell of a read” wasn’t enough to convince a studio to invest millions of dollars and years of development. “It was missing one of those critical elements about sequels, which is that it didn’t go enough into the unexpected,” Cameron said. “It also didn’t play enough by Avatar rules, which is to connect us to the dream world, that which has a spiritual component that we can’t even quite quantify in words. It ticked every other box, but it didn’t tick that one.”
The Way of Water briefly touches on The High Ground — Cameron said the latter takes place between “minute four” and “minute five” of the opening prologue — but a few pieces of The High Ground survive in the movie. “[We found] a way to restructure the elements that we needed to distribute across the first two of the sequels, and relaunched it in a completely different way,” Cameron said to Total Film.
At three hours long, The Way of Water offers audiences plenty to absorb. But if fans are still hankering for more Pandora when the credits roll, Cameron’s graphic novel has them covered.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theaters on December 16.