James Cameron compares Avatar sequels to Lord of the Rings

One does not lightly invoke the sheer scale and spectacle of Lord of the Rings. Unless, of course, you are James Cameron, the pioneering director of 2009's Avatar who, this year, is set to revisit the world of his blockbusting epic. The trendsetting director has compared his Herculean effort in launching the Avatar sequels to the sweep of J.R.R. Tolkien.

“What I said to the Fox regime at the time was, ‘I’ll do it, but we’ve got to play a larger game here. I don’t want to just do a movie and do a movie and do a movie. I want to tell a bigger story’,” Cameron tells Empire Magazine.

“I said, ‘Imagine a series of novels like The Lord Of The Rings existed, and we’re adapting them.’ Now, that was great in theory, but then I had to go create the frickin’ novels from which to adapt it.”

Hubris, or an accurate reflection of a filmmaker who's always sought to defy the odds? One can make their own mind up. But there's no denying Cameron's technical capacity or penchant for large-scale storytelling.

Avatar: The Way of Water is the long-delayed follow-up to the original Avatar movie, which is still positioned as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Buoyed by its immersive 3D presentation and astonishingly life-like motion-capture effects, Avatar swept audiences into the exotic and extraordinary world of the planet Pandora. Well, a global box office of $2.7 billion surely doesn't lie. (Almost incidentally, Cameron's 1997 drama Titanic became the first movie to surpass the $1 billion mark.)

To say that the pressure is on the Avatar sequel is an understatement. Returning hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who turned his back on the colonial marines to be reborn as a Pandoran Na'Vi inhabitant, must reconcile with his past. Alongside his partner, warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Sully is forced to seek the protection of the watery Metkayina tribe who dwell amidst the astonishing multifaceted beauty of Pandora's oceans.

The Avatar lore is set to expand with Sigourney Weaver's deceased scientist character Grace Augustine now reborn (somehow) as a teenager. And we're confronted with the return of the first film's apparently dead villain, Quaritch, played as before by the enjoyably scenery-chewing Stephen Lang. Quaritch is now occupying an avatar body and is set to create fresh hell for Jake and Neytiri.

“He’s bigger, he’s bluer, he’s p****d off,” Lang tells Empire. “But there may possibly be an aspect of humility. When you take two Na’vi arrows in the chest, that’s gonna have some kind of effect on you. “[Quaritch] was always a character who moved in straight lines and at right angles. But now he is as lithe as they come. He can move with the same kind of cunning and feral quality that any of the Na’vi can.”

New faces in Avatar: The Way of Water include Kate Winslet as Metkayina leader Ronal. Significantly, it's Winslet's first collaboration with Cameron since she gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Rose in Titanic.

Following Avatar: The Way of Water, three more Avatar sequels are scheduled for release. But will Cameron be at the helm for all of them?

“The Avatar films themselves are kind of all-consuming,” Cameron admits to Empire. “I’ve got some other things I’m developing as well that are exciting. I think eventually over time – I don’t know if that’s after three or after four – I’ll want to pass the baton to a director that I trust to take over, so I can go do some other stuff that I’m also interested in. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

"Everything I need to say about family, about sustainability, about climate, about the natural world, the themes that are important to me in real life and in my cinematic life, I can say on this canvas. I got more excited as I went along. Movie four is a corker. It’s a motherf****r. I actually hope I get to make it. But it depends on market forces. Three is in the can so it’s coming out regardless. I really hope that we get to make four and five because it’s one big story, ultimately.”

Avatar: The Way of Water is set to release in Cineworld cinemas on 16 December 2022.