Thirteen years after the original Avatar was released, James Cameron doubles down on pressing environmental and social issues with a visually impressive ocean-set sequel on the planet of Pandora. At times it plays out like a trippy episode of The Blue Planet. One of the major themes that really struck a chord with two returning actors Sigourney Weaver (playing a new role as teenage Na’vi, Kiri) and Stephen Lang (a cloned Na’vi version of Quaritch) was the theme of family. The film focuses on the displacement of Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldana) large family who leave the rainforest and seek asylum with the sea-savvy Metkayina clan led by led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis).
Weaver notes that the film “reflected Jim’s love for his family. They were now the age that we are in the film, and he really wanted to make sure that our family dynamic included eye-rolling and putting each other down and stuff like that, but when it came to it we would do anything to protect each other and save each other. I loved that it was so personal for him.”
Playing an adopted child to Jake and Neytiri, and getting back into the mind-set of a fourteen-year-old girl was a challenge Weaver relished. She spent time observing and interacting with teenagers at LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts while also diving back into her memories of how she felt at that age. “Luckily I had a couple of years to develop Kiri and unearth my not-always-happy fourteen-year-old,” she explains. “It was a great adventure to go back to my teenage self and a safe way to revisit it. What I recall is your sense of injustice is very strong at the age, and you see hypocrisy straight up.
“What I hoped to achieve was seesawing between her great days with Spider (Jack Champion plays a human child left behind on Pandora as a toddler who Kiri adores) in the forest and all the fun and clowning around, and then of course this horror at what the imperialists were doing… and rage really.”
Stephen Lang’s aggressive marine Quaritch who perished in the original film shares many a scene with Champion’s physically capable yet emotionally vulnerable Spider and they bond over gym sessions. There’s a complex relationship between the two characters, and on the upcoming new actor, Lang says, “I knew him from before he had the role because we brought him in and Jim sought out my opinion and Sigourney’s opinion on having this young man in. Throughout the filming I kept my eye on him, yanking him on his tail. He became a gym rat also. He was a willing learner. In a sense, he was raw clay when he came to us. We were tweaking on the Quaritch/Spider relationship as late as July, this past July, so we’ve been working on it a long time.”
Quaritch gets a lot of character development with time to reflect on his past misdeeds which is something Lang had fun with. In one scene he witnesses his own death: “That single scene meant a lot to me because it operates on a number of levels,” explains Lang. “It’s a fun scene in that sense because the concept of witnessing your own death, and finding your own body is macabre but it’s also sort of cool. It’s got a certain amount of existential depth to it as well because he really makes a choice in that moment. It’s really the moment when he makes a choice to repudiate, in a sense, his past. Which is something you really can’t do actually. He doesn’t know that but he tries. He tries to eliminate that Quaritch in the end. That’s the choice he makes.”
Cameron’s love of underwater exploration and his ambitious underwater filming meant that many of the cast had to train in freediving for years. Weaver enjoyed this challenge: “I love the business, because it does suddenly present you with challenges to do things you would never have thought of. We had a great teacher, and Jim doesn’t ever ask you to do impossible things without the training that goes with it. By the time we shot those scenes, which was towards the end of the two years, we do look at ease in the water and I don’t think we could have acted that.”
Over the years both Cameron and Weaver have been involved with projects that are passionate about environmental and animal rights issues. One of Weaver’s most memorable turns, following her iconic role as Ripley in Alien, was Gorillas in the Mist in the role of real-life conservationist Dian Fossey.
“I feel like Gorillas in the Mist introduced me to the reality of the conservation movement,” she says. “I’ve worked with that group ever since and they do amazing work. I feel very grateful for that. I know that these films are about that but with Kiri she has such an instinctive, natural connection that she doesn’t question… I’m sure she feels like everyone is like that until she comes to realise that she’s different and that makes her quite uncomfortable. In the beginning [of the film] when you see the imperialists land and they don’t care at all what happens to whoever they fly over… it’s heart-breaking. All of that enrages Kiri.”
Avatar: The Way Of Water will be released in cinemas on 16 December