“I only have three or four great ideas, and I just keep repackaging them,” James Cameron observes in Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron, a fancy coffee-table book of the 68-year-old Academy Award–winning filmmaker’s sketches and paintings dating back to his tween years.
On one page, we see an alien landscape of exotic and luminous vegetation Cameron drew in the late ’70s when he was trying to get funding for a feature-length version of his sci-fi short Xenogenesis. That project would go unrealized but clearly inspired both his 1986 sequel Aliens and the Avatar films decades later. Cameron writes that he successfully used the decades-old drawing as evidence in his legal defense when unnamed parties claimed he’d stolen the idea for Avatar and its setting, the resource-rich planet Pandora. Truly, the Avatar franchise is his life’s work.
This becomes especially clear in Avatar: The Way of Water, a film full of extended self-homage. In addition to its ecological message, The Way of Water foregrounds the themes of paternity and parental concern that run through Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and even Cameron’s problematic but entertaining 1994 action-comedy True Lies. The new film devotes major screen time to Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldaña) four Na’vi children — and to the couple’s struggle to protect them from danger as the Sully clan is hunted by an old enemy.
We’ve compiled a by-no-means exhaustive list (in roughly chronological order) of more shoutouts to Cameron’s cinematic past that attentive viewers will find stuffed into the maximalist sequel’s one! Hundred! Ninety! Two! Minute! Run time! That’s half an hour longer than Avatar ’09 and just three minutes shorter than Titanic. Which might count as self-homage in itself.