What we learned about new ‘Avatar’ movie from D23 expo footage

Outspoken filmmaker James Cameron arrived at Disney’s fan convention, the D23 Expo, in a forgiving tone – via a live video feed from New Zealand. “Hopefully you’ll see something today,” he said of his long-awaited and often-delayed 2009 sequel Avatar, “and decide if it was all worth it.”

Avatar: The Way of Water, a sequel that has been in the works for 13 years, will finally land on December 16th. Cameron said the actual production time of the 3-D movie, which will transport audiences back to the sci-fi moon of Pandora and its blue-skinned natives, the Na’vi, was around five years old. The Way of Water was shot directly with its sequel, which is scheduled to land in 2024.

So what did the audience see at the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday morning? A whole lot of technological beauty and several scenes that made the plot of “Avatar: The Way of Water” difficult.

The Good: There were audible oohs at the first of about six different clips from the film, which is said to be around three hours long. We began patiently as Cameron explored an intergalactic coral reef with a clear desire to enchant audiences with alien fish. There were puffy, blue-and-white creatures and others in fast-paced, glittering schools. The 3-D was soothing and Cameron let the camera linger as this moment was destined for the audience to enjoy – and rediscover – Pandora.

Instead of following the Marvel formula of putting together a trailer or sizzle reel, Cameron and his team chose to show select moments from the film. Therefore, the clips focused on the “Avatar” lore.

Avatar: The Way of Water takes place roughly a generation after the first film. Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri now have a full Na’vi family, including a recast of Sigourney Weaver as their adopted daughter, Kiri. Weaver played the scientist who spearheaded the program that allowed humans and Na’vi to interact with one another in the first film, and while we’ll get glimpses of that character in Way of Water, the D23 expo clips made it clear that Kiri is a central character in the story.

“Avatar” focused on the conflict between humans and blue-hued, 12-foot tall Na’vi. The two species are able to communicate through a program that creates avatars – genetically engineered anatomy that essentially allows the human mind to control the bodies of the Na’vi. Sully in the first film is a disabled Marine who comes to life impersonating a Na’vi. At D23 Expo, the cast and Jon Landau, Cameron’s producing partner, said a key theme of the second film was the length we would devote to protecting the family.

“The whole film is about protecting family and protecting family love,” Worthington said. “On many levels — the communal family, the family we elect. We have all been through COVID and realized that the currency of love and being together with family is of paramount importance in life and is worth fighting for.”

I’ve wondered how it all adds up as we transitioned from the grandeur of a riff to a science lab, where we got glimpses into avatars’ bodies and hints of drama when it came to discovering Kiri’s parents. However, before we could get a handle on who is who and how they are related, we were led to a prisoner of war scene where what appeared to be humans as Na’vi avatars had been capturing members of the Sully clan. A fight ensues and “Way of Water” will be violent as the audience watched as an arrow shot from Neytiri’s bow pierced a skull. Even gunshots erupt in orange colors in Cameron’s world.

Things got a little harder to follow from there, as we returned to an argument between Sully and Neytiri, with children peeking in through holes in their yurt-like shelter. Cameron’s camera showed us the fight from the youngsters’ point of view, with family conflicts and their cross-generational implications being a theme. While the audience got about eight minutes of footage, including a scene showing that the Sully family is still viewed as an outsider among their own kind, it was those moments that saw Cameron letting the audience explore Pandora.

A final segment, in which the Sully family learns to ride a giant sea creature with an eel-like neck and long, flowing fins, revealed that Avatar: The Way of Water will be able to cast wonders. But in order for the film to reach the heights of its predecessor, Cameron and his crew are clearly betting on the drama of a Na’vi family. “By the time we finished part one, they chose each other and fought together,” Saldana said, “so continuing that bond meant they would grow as a family and start a family.”

When it was released in 2009, Avatar became an instant phenomenon, with audiences flocking to see its advances in CGI and 3D technology. The war-oriented sci-fi adventure had big themes – anti-imperialism, the dangers of environmental waste, and the need to protect the environment. The centerpiece of the film, however, was the romance between Sully and Neytiri, with Sully’s inner crisis between his attachment to her and his military duties driving the narrative.

The success of Avatar was fueled by word of mouth as the film became the highest-grossing film of all time at the global box office, grossing over US$2.8 billion. It’s a title it only briefly lost to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. The original “Avatar” is set to return to theaters on September 23.

At the time of its release, it was viewed as a potentially culture-changing film, just like the original Star Wars. In his review, then-Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote that with Avatar, Cameron “brought back a sense of wonder to the cinematic experience that has been lacking for far too long.”

While the film wasn’t without criticism — even Turan noted that it’s “definitely not about breaking new narrative ground,” and some saw Sully as the embodiment of the “white savior” narrative cliché — its spectacle was too great to deny it. But was 13 years too long to reignite audience passion?

At D23 Expo, audiences were clearly ready to welcome back the cast, particularly Weaver. The actor, who first worked with Cameron on the 1986 film Aliens, has since been a regular collaborator with the director, including on the 2021 National Geographic documentary Secrets of the Whales. Audience laughter when he was asked to play a young Na’vi member of the Sully household.

“Only Jim is crazy enough to have written this character for me,” Weaver said.

Still, in recent years, “Avatar” has probably become better known for its often-delayed cinematic return than for its original spectacle. Cameron confirmed this on Saturday morning. “Everyone has been waiting a long time to finally see something,” he said.

An “Avatar” sequel was first announced in 2010, when Cameron said he plans to film the second and third chapters of the franchise back-to-back. The hope at the time was that the films would be released in 2014 and 2015. Cameron also stated at the time that they would be standalone films.

Cameron has regularly spoken out about his difficulties writing the projects, and as his ambitions for them grew, most news surrounding the films has been announcements of release date postponements. Until Disney’s announcement that the film would be released in December 2022, Avatar’s return was cemented. A total of five films are planned.

“Avatar” has never fully left the public consciousness. Disney, long before its 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox was complete, opened a land themed around the film at its Animal Kingdom Park at Florida’s Walt Disney World in 2017. The country is set significantly after the events of the film, when humans and Na’vi coexist peacefully and are equally dedicated to restoring and preserving Pandora’s natural habitat. Sully and Neytiri’s characters do not appear in the land as it uses the film’s setting as a chance to explore ecological issues.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-10/d23-avatar-footage-unveiled-james-cameron What we learned about new ‘Avatar’ movie from D23 expo footage

Sarah Ridley

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