It was December 2009 when Australian actor Sam Worthington, unaware of how massively his role as an ex-Marine on a mission to a new planet was about to change his life, received a bit of advice from James Cameron.
The movie they’d been working on for two years, the sci-fi epic “Avatar,” was about to hit theaters — and there was some doubt as to how the film, with a reported production and marketing budget of $430 million, would fare with audiences.
“Jim told us that science fiction may not translate as well,” Worthington told The Times ahead of the film’s 4K theatrical rerelease, beginning Friday, designed to reintroduce the best picture nominee to audiences before its highly anticipated sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” opens in December. “He said, ‘When the movie comes out just take yourself away, out of the world for a bit. Go live on an island or go up a mountain and try not to read anything.’ And I did.”
By the time Worthington returned from a snowy getaway with friends — no talk of box office receipts allowed — the film was a massive global hit. “I pretty quickly realized my life had gone 180,” said Worthington, who needn’t have worried: The film scored nine Oscar nominations and won three and went on to gross $2.8 billion to date, with four new blockbuster-sized sequels on the way.
Written and directed by Cameron (“Titanic,” “Aliens”), “Avatar” employed groundbreaking performance capture technology to tell the story of Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic former soldier who operates a blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall genetically engineered avatar on the planet of Pandora. There, he falls in love with a local warrior, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and joins the Na’vi tribe to stop Earth colonizers from destroying their world.
Producer Jon Landau remembers those pre-release nerves — and the steadfast belief he and Cameron shared that audiences would connect with the wonderment of immersion in the vivid and imaginative world of Pandora.
“There was cynicism when we were making the movie. There was cynicism when our first trailer launched. There was cynicism before the movie opened. There was cynicism after the success for the movie,” said Landau with a smile. “I believe when it comes to ‘Avatar’ — show, don’t tell. Let people go and see it. I think it’s that experience that takes away the cynicism.”
Returning to screens in a new 4K remastering at a higher frame rate and with High Dynamic Range, the theatrical rerelease in both 2-D and 3-D will allow moviegoers to experience “Avatar” at a level of visual detail not possible during its initial run, says Landau. “Now there’s such a broader range of colors and brightness levels that we can get on the screen,” he said from New Zealand, emphasizing notable differences in the hues of the banshee creatures and in the bioluminescent flora of Pandora.
“Seeing it in 4K with dynamic range, I was more there than I ever was,” said Landau, who also helped make the vibrant fictional world real, in theme park form, in 2017. “It was as if I was seeing the whole movie for the first time again.”
Landau confirms that Cameron fielded suggestions to alter or add things to “Avatar” for its theatrical rerelease, as filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have done retroactively to their own classics.
“There were people who thought about it,” said Landau. “But to us and to Jim, this was the movie he wanted to release. It wasn’t like we didn’t get to do something. It wasn’t like there was an ending someone tried to talk us out of. When you have an orchestra and it’s playing beautiful music, don’t try to add another instrument. It sounds pretty good the way it is! It’s no different than when we originally rereleased ‘Titanic.’ We didn’t add anything. ‘Titanic’ is ‘Titanic.’ ‘Avatar’ is ‘Avatar.’”
While audiences have had to wait 13 years for the sequel, many of the cast and crew have been working on and off for Cameron on simultaneous sequels in the intervening years. Worthington will return for multiple sequels alongside Saldana and Stephen Lang, with Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao and CCH Pounder also back for more.
In 2012, the year Cameron made a record-setting solo dive into the Mariana Trench, he also began discussing ideas for “Avatar 2″ with Worthington, who praised the director’s penchant for pushing limits even outside of film.
“I texted him and said, ‘Hope you don’t get eaten by a Megalodon, brother,’” said the actor, who has already filmed most of his scenes in “Avatar 3″ (expected release date: Dec. 20, 2024) and a few scenes for “Avatar 4″ (due in 2026). “I do my washing on my days off. This guy goes down to the Titanic.”
Stage and screen veteran Lang had been cast as Col. Miles Quaritch, the ruthless head of security for the mining company tasked with harvesting valuable unobtanium from Pandora, two decades after auditioning for Cameron for a role in 1986’s “Aliens.”
It was during production of “Avatar” that the director first told him he’d be bringing him back for future installments. Initially the news took Lang by surprise. After all, “Avatar” ended with Quaritch taking two Na’vi arrows to the chest.
“As far as I’m concerned, I was probably dead,” he said.
But during a day off of filming in 2007 in New Zealand, Cameron turned to him. “He said, ‘You know, you’ll be coming back.’ And he had a beer in his hand and I had a beer in my hand.” said Lang. “I thought it might be the beer talking, but if you know Jim, you know Jim doesn’t say things lightly.”
In 2010, after “Avatar” opened to critical and commercial acclaim, the filmmaker confirmed it. “This time he said, ‘You’re in all the sequels.’” By that time Lang had witnessed the “Avatar” effect firsthand.
“We have a master storyteller who’s telling a poignant and beautiful and far-flung story, in a wonderful and enchanting and dangerous and exotic way,” said Lang. “It was eye-opening to be in an audience and to feel the energy and the joy and the surprise and the wonder and the disbelief that people were feeling over what they were seeing on the screen.”
While years of painstaking and costly research and development went into the unprecedented performance-capture technology and production processes, the technology created for the first film has been expanded upon for the sequels, the first two of which filmed simultaneously. “Avatar 2,” set in a previously unseen aquatic land on Pandora, will feature underwater performance capture filmed in a 900,000-gallon water tank built for the sequels.
“‘Avatar’ just created the floor of the technological advances that we want to continue to push with each sequel,” said Landau.
The narrative bridges between “Avatar” and “Avatar 2,” he said, are themes of family — Jake and Neytiri now have teenaged children — and the continuing environmental conscience that is central to the first film. “Jake and Neytiri now have a mixed race family; he’s of the human world, she’s of the Na’vi world. Their kids are being raised in this environment. How do they handle it?” said Landau.
“The sequels are a story of the young Sullys coming to define who they are,” he added. “It’s a story about family dynamics and when the family is forced to flee their home and go try and find safe haven in the distant atolls, they are literally and figuratively fish out of water. Now they have to adjust and adapt thematically, in a way that oftentimes refugees might have to. So again, very relatable themes for the world.”