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Blue Na’vi aliens walk through water against a fantastical backdrop of floating rocks Image: 20th Century Studios

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Even Avatar 2’s trailers are uniquely built for the big screen

Tom Cruise saved the movies in 2022. Now James Cameron wants to save them some more

“Return to Pandora.” This, in all its simplicity, is the sell for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. The latest trailer does not tease “the saga continues.” There’s no mention of “the Na’vi are back.” There’s just a simple appeal: Remember that amazing place we took you to 13 years ago... Wouldn’t you like to go back?

Despite the fact that the movie has been in development for eons — and that Cameron assembled a writer’s room to draft the storylines for this and no less than three additional Avatar sequels — The Way of Water still has an extremely vague logline. According to Disney and 20th Century Studios, the film “begins to tell the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.”

The trailer barely expands on this. If you are paying attention, you can spot that Jake’s daughter Kiri (played, astonishingly, by septuagenarian screen legend Sigourney Weaver) gets a good deal of focus, and that there’s some kind of teen-romance subplot, as well as some tension between different Na’vi clans and some war-with-humans stuff.

Despite running a full two-and-a-half minutes, the Avatar: The Way of Water trailer is even more stripped back than most early teasers — and it runs strongly 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.

In stark contrast, Cameron’s approach is almost purely vibes-based. The trailer is not even heavy on action, although there are a few thrillingly dynamic shots. Instead, it foregrounds majestic, sweeping imagery, and bathes the viewer in Avatar’s unmistakably intense sapphire-and-emerald color palette, which is far brighter than anything else in modern cinema (outside animation, at any rate). Although it premiered on Good Morning America and online on Wednesday, this is a trailer that has been built to be seen in theaters — which pretty much the entire moviegoing public will soon be doing as they sit down to watch Black Panther: Wakanda Forever next week.

It’s a running joke that Avatar, the most successful film of all time at the global box office, leaves no cultural footprint. It’s true that, 13 years on, I can’t really remember what happens in it. But I remember vividly the feeling of watching it, and it’s this feeling that the new trailer is tapping directly into.

Cameron is one of cinema’s great populists, with an unerring intuition about what audiences want to see. With Avatar: The Way of Water, he’s leaning into a pure and typically unfashionable utopianism. These days, visual grandeur usually comes in more spartan and dystopian forms: the arid wastes of Dune, the dank miserablism of The Batman, the coolly desaturated hyperrealism of Christopher Nolan’s films. Marvel movies, meanwhile, tend to be more focused on the characters than their often indistinct backdrops.

A blue-skinned Na’vi father teaches his son to hunt with a bow in a lush forest area Image: 20th Century Studios
A huge crowd of blue-skinned Na’vi worship a glowing purple tree Image: 20th Century Studios
A Na’vi rides a giant flying fish, holding a spear, as vast alien whales leap from a seascape Image: 20th Century Studios
Two Na’vi stand silhouetted in front of a burning forest Image: 20th Century Studios

When was the last time a film took you somewhere purely amazing and beautiful? In the trailer, Avatar: The Way of Water looks for all the world like an immersive natural-history documentary about an alien world. That sounds like a lovely place to lose yourself for a few hours in the dark.

Like any filmmaker working outside the major IP factories, Cameron faces a fight to overcome the “I’ll just watch it at home” culture and get people into theaters. For him — as for Nolan and producer-stars like Tom Cruise — this is about more than just about putting assess in seats to recoup the budget; it’s an article of faith. Cruise proved his point triumphantly this year with the nostalgia, clean storytelling, and practical spectacle of Top Gun: Maverick.

Now it’s Cameron’s turn. He’s bringing every technical resource available to bear on the challenge of getting audiences to turn out, from 3D, to IMAX, to high frame rate. (With all its variations, The Way of Water is reportedly releasing in more formats than any film before it.) But while the tech is complex, the pitch is very simple. He knows half the world saw Avatar, and he knows they’ve seen nothing like it since. This is their chance to have that feeling again, and there’s no way they can have it at home.

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