James Cameron Discusses The Connection Between Avatar And The Abyss

Ed Harris in The Abyss, Sigourney Weaver as Kiri Sully in Avatar: The Way of Water
(Image credit: 20th Century Fox, Disney)

As audience members, many of us have come to expect our cinematic worlds to be connected like the Marvel movies are. Some enthusiastic cinemagoers even make up their own “head cannon” to create fantastical connections between different cinematic worlds. For instance, Jurassic World: Dominion director Colin Trevorrow’s theory that James Cameron’s 1989 alien contact sci-fi hit The Abyss could be connected to the auteur’s Avatar world. Well, in a recent interview, The Terminator director talked about this idea, and he discussed why the two movies are connected. 

Empire Magazine recently published a lengthy Q&A with James Cameron, where 20 Hollywood A-listers asked the director their burning questions. The Book of Henry filmmaker asked Cameron if the bioluminescent biological makeup of the creature in The Abyss pointed to a connection between it and the Na’vi. The movie maker confirmed that there is a connection with his movies, but it’s not an obvious one that most audiences would pick up on, because the common element across his filmology is his brain. The director said:

Just the universe of my brain. And obviously, I love bioluminescence. From early childhood on, I’ve had a deep awe and fascination with all the wonders of nature, both above and below water. That’s certainly what drove the creation of Avatar. The Abyss had a different motivation. It was my version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, a function of my Cold War angst, and a comment on how an alien super-intelligence might judge rather harshly the way we mistreat each other and our beautiful world.

This is an interesting statement from the filmmaker. As Cameron pointed out, The Abyss was born out of the “angst” of the Cold War, and it is what he imagines an alien life form would react to how humans as a species treat one another. The 1989 release stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who play an ex-married couple. They are petroleum engineers who are drafted to assist a Navy SEAL, played by Michael Bean, with a top-secret recovery operation. During their submarine mission, they encounter an “alien super-intelligence.” 

What’s interesting is the thematic connection that could be made between both of the director’s underwater universes and what it says about humans’ drive toward warfare and violence. The director says Avatar is much more a story about showing humans as the “invaders." Cameron continued:

In Avatar, WE are the invaders from space, and the common theme with The Abyss is that we are judged harshly by a more evolved alien culture, in that case the Na’vi, who live in a harmony with nature in a way that we have forgotten.

While there may not be a direct connection between Avatar and The Abyss, it seems the connective tissue is James Cameron’s fixation on how the study of how humans treat one another. Though he uses cinema to level criticism of the human race, the filmmaker clearly judges our species as harshly as his alien creations. 

Some may believe The Abyss is a misstep in the director’s career (like Michael Bean); although it was still a mild success and is a great sci-fi film in Cameron’s filmography (see our complete ranking of his work). Of course, nothing could be quite as successful as his Avatar films. The first Pandora outing is still the highest-grossing film of all time, and The Way of Water is sitting in third place. With a third return to Pandora already confirmed and a rumored fourth and fifth installment on the way, one can imagine a future where Avatar installments take up all five slots of the highest-grossing films of all time. 

If James Cameron knows as much about human nature as he does about making box office juggernauts, perhaps we should all consider the critiques present in his work a bit more closely and try to live more like the Na’vi. Or, maybe they’re just fun underwater adventures. You be the judge. 

We still don’t know much about Cameron’s sequels, including their title, official release dates, and what the movies are about. However, expect that to change very soon. While you wait, don’t forget to check out the 2023 movie schedule to see what other blockbusters are in store.

Ryan LaBee

Ryan graduated from Missouri State University with a BA in English/Creative Writing. An expert in all things horror, Ryan enjoys covering a wide variety of topics. He's also a lifelong comic book fan and an avid watcher of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon.