In 2009, James Cameron decided to break his own Titanic box office record by releasing a boundary-pushing CGI feature that promptly made $2.9 billion at the box office.
Avatar represented a huge leap forward in cinematic technology, imbuing an adult version of FernGully with breathtaking visuals of the moon Pandora, its lush vegetation, and fascinating creatures. In the film, former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) deploys to Pandora as part of a corporate team attempting to mine huge quantities of an energy-generating mineral known as unobtanium from the moon, despite an indigenous species of humanoids called the Na’vi already living there.
Sully infiltrates the tribe, but falls for Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and decides to fight for the Na’vi instead of against them. Cameron’s long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, is scheduled for release in December 2022—and will presumably do for the ocean what the first movie, which is currently in re-release, did for the sky.
While you await Avatar’s sequel, here are 15 facts about James Cameron’s bluest film.
Cameron originally offered the role of Sully to Matt Damon, who had to turn it down because of his commitments to the Bourne series. So Cameron turned to the idea of casting a newcomer instead of a big star in the lead. Worthington was fairly well-established as an actor in his native Australia, where he had appeared in TV shows and at least one low-budget horror movie alongside some crocodiles. Even so, he was reportedly living in his car when he auditioned for Avatar.
Half a year later, Worthington got the call confirming he’d gotten the gig. In fact, Cameron was so impressed by Worthington that he helped get him a starring role in McG’s Terminator Salvation.
The fact that Damon passed on making what would quickly become the highest-grossing movie of all time—a record it still holds—was not lost on the Oscar winner. In 2021, Damon joked that, “I was offered a little movie called Avatar, James Cameron offered me 10 percent of it. I will go down in history … you will never meet an actor who turned down more money.”
Just how much money are we talking here? Approximately $603 million. When presented with the math, Damon was understandably shocked. “Stop it!,” he said. “No way! Are you serious?”
Cameron had an 80-page treatment for Avatar in 1994, but the technology to bring his vision to life at that time was either too expensive or didn’t exist yet. It was even listed in a trivia book at the time as a movie that would likely never be made because of its estimated $400 million price tag.
Fortunately, The Lord of the Rings and Gollum came along and proved to Cameron that the tech was finally ready to achieve what he described to Entertainment Weekly as “compelling photo-realistic, fully CG characters, in a photo-realistic world.”
You don’t even have to listen closely to hear the recycled sounds of dinosaurs on Pandora. The Hammerhead Titanothere uses Brontosaurus sounds; the Great Leonopteryx (which they ride) used baby T. Rex noises; the Thanator Jake runs from uses T. Rex roars; and the Direhorse uses the Velociraptor barks made memorable by Jurassic Park’s kitchen hide-and-go-seek scene.
An incredible amount of the film was rendered by computers, including the cigarettes that Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) puffs on. In the DVD commentary, Cameron explains that Weaver had to pantomime smoking; the cigarettes and their smoke were digitally added afterward. It’s a testament to the animators that you’d likely never realize the cigarettes were fake without being let in on the secret.
Cameron reportedly chose to use CGI cigarettes so that Weaver didn’t have to actually have a lit cigarette in her hand; she used a toothpick instead. The director did, however, get a lot of flak for the amount of smoking shown on-screen. In response to these criticisms, he told The New York Times: “I wanted Grace to be a character who is initially off-putting and even unpleasant. She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. She is not meant to be an aspirational role model to teenagers.”
Cameron also noted that, “speaking as an artist, I don’t believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it’s OK for people to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking?” On a personal note, however, he said that “Smoking is a filthy habit which I don’t support, and neither, I believe, does Avatar.”
One of the books Dr. Augustine shares with the Na’vi children is Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. It’s the story of a jealous corporate entity destroying an entire forest in order to make an obscene profit while driving all the natural inhabitants off the land.
When Jake jokes that he hopes all the “tree-hugger crap” he learns during training “won’t be on the final,” it’s a bit of art imitating life—that’s exactly what Fox executives asked Cameron to do to the final cut of the film. Cameron admitted that the production staff was “worried going into Avatar that the environmental themes—that went to a spiritually deep profound level—would actually hurt the film.” Ultimately, it was Cameron who got his way, as the movie is awash in pro-environmental messaging.
The word avatar comes from Sanskrit, and is used to describe godlike beings taking human form to restore balance through good deeds. Cameron also made the Na’vi people blue (and tall) as a nod to Vishnu, the Hindu god who sustains the universe. Likewise, navi is a Hebrew word that means “prophet,” and the Na’vi of the movie worship a deity called Ey’wa, which is Yahweh—one of the names of the Hebrew God—transposed. Plus, Cameron continued his own tradition of naming heroes using Christian symbols. That includes Bishop in Aliens and Monk in The Abyss, and while he’s never confirmed it, Dr. Augustine may be a reference to St. Augustine, Rome’s emissary to bring Christianity to England.
The Avatar design team based the look of Pandora’s floating mountains on a stunning stone pillar at China’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park that had inspired Cameron—and the success of the film inspired China to rename one of those pillars. The Southern Sky Column was renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain because, according to the park, it’s the pillar that most inspired Cameron. Interestingly enough, the Chinese government also pulled the film from theaters briefly because they were worried the revolt of the Na’vi would stir similar sentiments in citizens who had also been displaced to make way for economic growth.
After cutting his teeth as a model maker on Roger Corman’s low-budget movies, Cameron was hired as an art director (credited as Jim Cameron) by producer Chuck Comisky for Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Nearly 40 years later, Comisky lent his 3D expertise to Avatar, working for his former employee.
Late Oscar-winning composer James Horner took the assignment of creating music for another world seriously. In 2009, he told the Los Angeles Times that he had invented some instruments “from scratch. They were programmed. There were a lot of instruments that sound like flutes of different sorts, but they were combined with gamelan-sounding instruments.” (The gamelan is a bell-sounding Balinese instrument.) Horner also manipulated vocal sounds on a computer and combined instruments to come up with sounds that truly hadn’t been heard on this planet before.
Dr. Paul Frommer is a linguist who teaches at the University of Southern California and moonlights inventing languages for movies. Before he made the Barsoomian language for John Carter, he crafted approximately 1000 words for Avatar. Despite teaching the cast their lines, he felt like he was the only one who really knew the language and wished that the fan base would be interested enough to learn it, as they have with Klingon, Dothraki, and other fictional tongues. There are no unofficial Na’vi operas (yet), but fans are definitely learning to speak it thanks to apps and websites that promise fluency in as little as three months.
To be fair, this has been an apocryphal story from most of Cameron’s sets, but Worthington confirmed it was the standing rule on the Avatar set. Cameron admitted that he’d definitely use the nail gun if it came to it, but not in an “emotionally enraged” way. “I would do it in a calculated theatrical way. But when the story gets told later it sounds like somebody who’s constantly off at the deep end,” he told Express. “That’s the beauty of my reputation. I don’t have to shout anymore because the word is out there already.”
Let’s say you meet a tall blue person at a party and want to know whether it’s a Na’vi or a human parading around in a Na’vi avatar. What to do? Easy. The Na’vi only have four fingers, and they don’t have eyebrows. Even in avatar form, humans still have the fifth digit and the little strips of hair above their eyes. If the person has five fingers, no eyebrows, and is drumming on a PVC pipe, that’s a member of the Blue Man Group.
Cirque du Soleil has found inspiration for shows in everything from The Beatles to Shakespeare, but Avatar is the only movie they’ve based a project on. In Toruk—The First Flight, an array of acrobatic acts tell a prequel story of two Na’vi hunters gathering five talismans that will give them the power to ride the Toruk which, along with several other animals made famous from the movie, are rendered by large-scale puppets.