Even the trailers for Avatar 2 are designed specifically for the large screen

In 2022, Tom Cruise rescued the movies. Now James Cameron wants to save them again again

“Go back to Pandora.” This, in its most basic form, is the pitch for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. The latest teaser makes no mention of “the saga continues.” There is no mention of “the Na’vi have returned.” There is only one simple appeal: Remember that incredible destination we brought you 13 years ago… Wouldn’t you want to return?

Despite the fact that the film has been in production for eons — and that Cameron created a writer’s room to generate ideas for this and three other Avatar sequels — The Way of Water still has an exceedingly unclear plot. The film “begins to chronicle the narrative of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their children), the peril that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they experience,” according to Disney and 20th Century Studios.

The trailer just hints to this. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that Jake’s daughter Kiri (played, improbably, by septuagenarian film legend Sigourney Weaver) receives a lot of attention, and that there’s a teen-romance plotline, as well as some conflict between rival Na’vi tribes and some war-with-humans stuff.

Despite running two and a half minutes, the Avatar: The Way of Water trailer is even more stripped down than most early teasers — and it goes against the grain of modern blockbuster marketing, which loves to build out plot and motivation, preview narrative and comedy beats, and drop lore Easter eggs for fans to pore over.

Cameron’s method, on the other hand, is nearly entirely focused on feelings. The trailer isn’t even very action-packed, but there are a few thrillingly dynamic images. Instead, it emphasizes grand, sweeping images while immersing the audience in Avatar’s distinctly strong sapphire-and-emerald color palette, which is significantly brighter than anything else in modern film (outside animation, at any rate). Although it debuted on Good Morning America and online on Wednesday, this is a trailer designed to be watched in cinemas, which is exactly what the majority of moviegoers will be doing when they sit down to watch Black Panther: Wakanda Forever next week.

It’s a running gag that Avatar, the most successful picture of all time in terms of worldwide box office, leaves no cultural legacy. True, 13 years later, I can’t really recall what happened in it. But I recall well how I felt when viewing it, and it’s this sensation that the new trailer plays on.

Cameron is a cinematic populist with an uncanny sense of what viewers want to watch. He’s pushing into a pure and often unpopular utopianism with Avatar: The Way of Water. The desert wastelands of Dune, the dank miserablism of The Batman, the coolly desaturated hyperrealism of Christopher Nolan’s flicks are all examples of visual grandeur these days. Meanwhile, Marvel films are more concerned with the characters than with their sometimes blurry backgrounds.

Even the trailers for Avatar 2 are designed specifically for the large screen
Even the trailers for Avatar 2 are designed specifically for the large screen
Even the trailers for Avatar 2 are designed specifically for the large screen
Even the trailers for Avatar 2 are designed specifically for the large screen

When was the last time a movie transported you to somewhere truly fantastic and beautiful? Avatar: The Way of Water appears in the teaser to be an immersive natural-history documentary about an extraterrestrial world. That sounds like a wonderful location to spend a few hours in the dark.

Cameron, like every other director working outside of the large IP manufacturers, is fighting to overcome the “I’ll simply watch it at home” mindset and attract people into cinemas. With him, as for Nolan and producer-stars like Tom Cruise, it’s more than just filling seats to recuperate the expenditure; it’s an article of religion. With Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise established his case with nostalgia, clear narrative, and practical spectacle.

Cameron’s turn has come. He’s putting every technological resource at his disposal to bear on the task of attracting audiences, from 3D to IMAX to high frame rate. (With all of its variants, The Way of Water is supposedly being released in more formats than any other film.) However, while the technology is sophisticated, the pitch is straightforward. He knows that Avatar was viewed by half of the globe, and that nothing like it has been seen since. This is their chance to feel that way again, and they won’t be able to do so at home.

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