James Cameron spent more than a decade developing ideas for how to sequelize his groundbreaking 2009 hit Avatar — so naturally, not every idea made the cut. In fact, Cameron tossed out an entire movie in order to revive the franchise with December’s The Way of Water. And with that scrapped screenplay, Cameron chucked out a truly wild action sequence: an attack on incoming earthling ships by Jake Sully, Neytiri, and a mix of Na’vi and human allies. Thankfully, there’s reason to think Cameron could return to the idea in a future sequel.
The scene comes from Avatar: The High Ground, the first screenplay Cameron wrote as a direct sequel to Avatar. But according to writer Sherri L. Smith, who has adapted The High Ground into Dark Horse’s newly released graphic novel prequel trilogy, the more Cameron discussed his follow-up with his Avatar writers’ room, the more driven he was to start the film later on the Pandoran timeline.
“The logical progression is to go chronological,” Smith says of development on the sequels, “So [Cameron] figured out day by day, basically, over the years, everything that happens leading up to The High Ground.” Which is why The Way of Water quickly chronicles the years we don’t see, a kind of prologue recap of a movie Cameron never actually put out.
Using both the 100-page screenplay and the “Pandorapedia,” a Bible for all things Avatar, Smith worked hand in hand with Cameron to adapt The High Ground into a comic so that it clicked into the larger world of Avatar and naturally segue into The Way of Water. (“People ask, ‘Is it canon?’ I say, ‘Well it’s 100% Cameron,’” Smith says.) And one of the key moments, which spans 90 pages of the three-book series, is the Na’vi assault on the Pandora-bound drop ships commanded by General Frances Ardmore (played by Edie Falco in the movie). While in The Way of Water the humans immediately arrive back to Pandora and scorch earth, The High Ground finds the Na’vi intercepting their ships with a plan to fight back.
As a comic, The High Ground is a thrilling interlude full of dialogue-less splash page action. But as a movie, it may have been too much momentum too quickly, for a set of characters Cameron needed to reestablish as both dimensional and historical. As we see in The Way of Water, Jake Sully and the Na’vi have a moral standard that isn’t easily sacrificed.
“[One key thing] that the Pandorapedia gets at is that the Na’vi are not warriors, technically,” Smith says. “They’re hunters, they don’t wage war. They are peaceful, and they kill for necessity. So when you see these great big battles on screen or even in the book, it sort of changes the cognitive dissonance that the Na’vi are going through in having to take on human ways in order to combat humanity.”
The High Ground was enough of a thing in Cameron’s camp that design work was done to crack the sequence. Ben Procter, Avatar: The Way of Water’s hard-surface production designer, says that his team worked on “visually bonkers” space designs when The High Ground was at the exploration stage, and they were derived from biosuit concepts inspired by designs by real scientists and technicians. The hope was to get away from rigid bulky spacesuits and embrace a technology where the pressure vessel would come close to the Na’vi skin.
“In a biosuit, the tension lines and folding lines of the human body are incorporated into where the strands are placed,” Procter explains. “All that beautiful motif stuff you may see in the graphic novel of diagonal bands that are crossing… Those are all meaningful, creating a network that crosses the joints in a certain way that allows flexibility. That’s a long way of saying: The suits are based on real stuff, it’s a cool sci-fi interpretation of it, and Jim likes to make things real every single time you can.”
Costume designer Deborah L. Scott says the Na’vi siege on spaceships never made its way into The Way of Water screenplay, and she’s not upset about it. Every single piece of costuming in the Avatar sequel was physically crafted for actors to wear during performance capture, in order for them to realistically interact and for Cameron’s team to understand material motion. But that caused all sorts of nightmares — even a pair of Na’vi-sized sunglasses had to be found, altered, and adjusted for use during “filming.” Creating biosuits for Jake and Neytiri would have been a huge undertaking. “It was hard enough to do the hospital gowns that fit over those guys,” Scott says.
Could Cameron wind back to the “Na’vi in space” sequence in a future sequel? Scott isn’t counting it out, and neither is The Way of Water cinematographer Russell Carpenter. While Carpenter teases that Avatar 3 involved even more underwater shooting for even bigger aquatic action sequences, he leaves the door open for a space stunt.
“Jim’s playing a very long game here,” he says. “And there are going to be aspects of this cosmology that we haven’t seen that are still to be revealed.”