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

The outspoken filmmaker James Cameron came to Disney’s fan convention, the D23 Expo — via a live video feed from New Zealand — with a conciliatory tone. “Hopefully you’ll see something today,” he said of his long-awaited and oft-delayed sequel to 2009’s “Avatar,” “and decide whether it’s all been worth it.”

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” a follow-up 13 years in the making, will at long last land Dec. 16. Cameron said actual production time on the 3-D film, which will take audiences back to the science-fiction moon of Pandora and its blue-skinned natives the Na’vi, was about five years. “The Way of Water” was filmed back-to-back with its follow-up, set to land in 2024.

So what did audiences see Saturday morning at the Anaheim Convention Center? A whole lot of technological beauty, and multiple scenes that went heavy on the “Avatar: The Way of Water” plot.

The good: There were audible oohs at the first of about six different snippets from the film, rumored to be around three hours in length. We started patiently, with Cameron exploring an intergalactic coral reef with a clear desire to enchant the audiences with alien fish. There were puffy, blue-and-white creatures, and others in fast-moving, glittery schools. The 3-D was calming, and Cameron let the camera linger as this moment was designed to let audiences enjoy — and get reacquainted with — Pandora.

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

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is set about 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 Sigourney Weaver as their adopted daughter, Kiri. Weaver in the first film played the scientist spearheading the program that allowed humans and Na’vi’s to interact, and while we will get glimpses of that character in “Way of Water,” the D23 Expo clips made it clear Kiri is a central character in the story.

“Avatar” centered on the conflict between humans and blue-toned, 12-foot-tall Na’vi. The two species are able to communicate via a program that creates avatars — genetically engineered anatomy that essentially allows human minds to control Na’vi bodies. Sully in the first film is a disabled Marine who comes alive when embodying a Na’vi. At D23 Expo, the cast and Jon Landau, Cameron’s producing partner, said a core theme of the second film is the length we’ll go to protect family.

“The whole movie deals with the protecting of family, and the protecting of familial love,” said Worthington. “On many levels — the communal family, the family that we choose. We’ve all gone through COVID and realized that the currency of love and being with your family is paramount to what life is and is worth fighting for.”

I was left wondering how it all pieces together, as we transitioned from the grandeur of a reef to a science lab, where we got glimpses of avatar bodies and hints at some drama when it comes to discovering Kiri’s parents. Before we got a handle on who’s who and how they’re related, though, we were whisked to a prisoner-of-war scene, where what appeared to be humans as Na’vi avatars had taken members of the Sully clan captive. A fight erupts, and “Way of Water” will be violent, as audiences watched an arrow shot from Neytiri’s bow pierce a skull. In Cameron’s world, even gunfire erupts in orange multicolors.

Things did get a bit more difficult to follow from there, as we were whisked back to an argument between Sully and Neytiri, with children peeping in through holes in their yurt-like shelter. Cameron’s camera showed us the fight from the view of the little ones, implying family conflict, and its affects across generations, will be a theme. While audiences got about eight minutes of footage, including a scene that showed the Sully family are still viewed as outsiders among their peers, what soared were the moments in which Cameron let audiences explore Pandora.

A closing segment, with the Sully family learning to ride a giant sea creature with an eel-like neck and long, flowing fins, showed that “Avatar: The Way of Water” will be able to evoke wonder. But for the film to reach the heights of its predecessor, Cameron and his team are clearly banking on the drama of a Na’vi family. “When we ended in part one, they choose each other and they fought together,” said Saldana, “so the continuation of that bond meant that they were going to grow as a family and have a family.”

When it was released in 2009, “Avatar” became an instant phenomenon, with audiences flocking to see its advancements in CGI and 3-D technology. The war-focused sci-fi adventure had large themes — anti-imperialism, the dangers of environmental waste and the need for conservation among them. The heart of the film, however, was the Sully and Neytiri romance, with Sully’s internal crisis between his attachment to her and his military duties driving the narrative.

“Avatar’s” success was buoyed by you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it word of mouth, as the film would go on to become the highest-grossing theatrical release of all time, bringing in more than $2.8 billion at the worldwide box office. It’s a title it lost only briefly to 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” The original “Avatar” is set to return to theaters Sept. 23.

At the time of its release, it was seen as a potentially culture-changing film in the same way as the original “Star Wars.” In his review, then Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote that Cameron with “Avatar” restored “a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long.”

While the film wasn’t without criticism — even Turan noted that it is “definitely not into breaking new narrative ground,” and some saw Sully as the embodiment of the “white savior” narrative cliche — its spectacle was too great to be denied. But has 13 years been too long to stoke audience passion again?

At D23 Expo, audiences were clearly ready to welcome back the cast, especially Weaver. The actor, who first worked with Cameron on the 1986 film “Aliens,” has since become a regular collaborator of the director’s, including in the 2021 National Geographic documentary “Secrets of the Whales.” Weaver drew a laugh from the D23 Expo audience when asked about playing 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 more recent years “Avatar” has probably become better known for its oft-delayed journey to return to the cinema than its initial spectacle. Cameron acknowledged as much Saturday morning. “Everybody’s been waiting a long time to finally see something,” he said.

An “Avatar” sequel was first announced in 2010, when Cameron said he planned to shoot the second and third chapters in the franchise back to back. The hope then was that the films would see release in 2014 and 2015. At the time, Cameron also stated they would be self-contained films.

Cameron has spoken regularly of his difficulties writing the projects, and as his ambitions for them grew, most news related to the films were announcements of release date delays. Until Disney’s announcement that the film would be released in December 2022 cemented “Avatar’s” return, that is. A total of five films are still planned.

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

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