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Avatar 2’s first trailer is missing the magic of the original movie

The Na’vi are neat, but Pandora is the real star of this series so far

The floating islands of Pandora from Avatar (2009) Image: 20th Century Fox

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After 13 long years, and endless delays and date shifts, it’s finally time to return to the world of Pandora with the follow-up to Avatar. The first trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water will play in front of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and that’ll be the only official way to see it for at least the next week.

The sequel brings back Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoe Saldaña as his Na’vi lover Neytiri, and the first trailer, strangely enough, focuses on them instead of on the beautiful alien world of Pandora. Avatar 2 is set for release on Dec. 16.

Disney provided an advance look at the trailer ahead of preview screenings of Doctor Strange 2. Attendees of CinemaCon, an industry event for theater owners and operators held last week in Las Vegas, also got to see the first Avatar 2 teaser in advance.

The first trailer for Avatar 2 is largely wordless, carried instead by the soaring music you might expect if you remember the first movie well. Its primary focus is on the Na’vi and the Avatars, the Na’vi bodies genetically engineered by humans and operated via remote brain interface. The trailer features numerous shots of Na’vi in close-up, riding alien animals, walking with humans, and standing in or running through human-made structures. In other words, the trailer doesn’t feature nearly enough of Pandora.

When the original Avatar was released in 2009, the blue CGI Na’vi characters looked great, with stunning facial expressions and surprisingly believable movements. But its real enduring power lay in the beauty and majesty of Pandora’s digital landscape. After all, the planet was so gorgeous that some people reported feeling deeply depressed because they couldn’t live there themselves. It’s even the basis of a wildly successful Disney World location.

Avatar’s earliest trailers focused on the beauty of Pandora’s flora and fauna. There were floating islands covered in vibrant flowers and massive trees, strange alien creatures that seemed like crosses between panthers and lions, and huge flying beasts that took the characters — and more importantly, us — on a soaring journey, to tease some of the planet’s breathtaking terrain.

The first trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water misses out on that majesty. By spotlighting the characters, the trailer reduces Pandora to a banal backdrop that could be any forest or ocean on our own planet, apart from the emphasis on four-finned or four-winged creatures. There are brief shots of numerous new characters, who all look great once again. These characters are frequently riding creatures, but the camera is tightly focused on them, obscuring their mounts and leaving the watery expanses of Pandora’s new regions looking bland.

The good news is that what little we do see of Pandora’s new, mostly aquatic regions still looks incredible. The digital rendering is even more impressive than in the first movie, and it seems clear that there will still be plenty of glamorous shots of the planet. But it’s harder to get excited about returning to the world of Pandora when we barely get to see it. And it’s not like the trailer focuses on plot instead of environments — there are no clear story elements here, apart from a single voice-over line from Jake about how family is a fortress.

Along with some other returning cast members, like Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi, Avatar 2 will add a variety of new actors and characters, including Kate Winslet and Michelle Yeoh. Some of the actors have told stories about their experiences shooting the movie, which sounded like an absolute nightmare.

To help prepare audiences for Avatar: The Way of Water, Disney is re-releasing the original Avatar in theaters, starting on Sept. 23.

Director James Cameron has said in the past that he plans to make as many as five Avatar films, and has even apparently shot several of them. As of right now, the movies are scheduled to come out every two years from now until 2028, so Disney will have many more shots at making trailers that focus less on unnamed characters doing unclear things, and more on the world that the filmmakers are inviting us to revisit.

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