Finally, after over a solid decade of false starts and delays of various natures, the sequel to Avatar, officially titled Avatar: The Way of Water, is due out this December. And to prove that it is really, 100%, no take-backs happening, a teaser trailer was released yesterday. It’s…fine.


On the plus side, and this is a HUGE plus, this teaser gives away virtually nothing. It’s just about tone and style and mood, all of which are evocative. The world of (quick google) Pandora is lush and vibrant, the new ocean stuff looks super vacation-inspiring, the scope looks as big as we expect from James Cameron, the cat people (another google) Na’vi look neat, and hey! There’s a family now. And here’s where it slides off the rails, because at this point in writing, and this is not a bit, this is what happened, I abandoned Google and hit up Wikipedia to read the synopsis of Avatar, a film I have seen and have no memory of. According to Wikipedia, the family in The Way of Water are the offspring of Jake and Neytiri, the characters played by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in the original film. And if you asked me for all the points on Jeopardy to name the leads of Avatar, the biggest movie of all time (unadjusted for inflation), I would not have been able to tell you. I do this sh-t for a living, and I remember NOTHING about Avatar.


People talk about Avatar’s invisible cultural footprint all the time. It’s the biggest movie ever—it wrested back its crown from Avengers: Endgame after a special release in 2020—and no one talks about it. At this point, Avatar is more known for not being known than it is remembered as a cultural milestone, which it absolutely was circa 2009-2010. But the minute it left theaters, it just faded from cultural memory, where it now occupies a dusty corner of curiosities, like one hit wonders and memoirs written by C-list actors. It’s not even a case like the Star Wars prequels, which lingered in cultural memory as objects of loathing, until recent revisionism partially revived their reputation. Avatar just vanished. It’s just not part of pop culture, despite how big it was when it came out.

The rebuttal to pointing out Avatar’s oddly nonexistent cultural influence is to say that James Cameron is a hit machine—as a director, his producing record, especially recently, is a little spottier. And that’s true! Who bets against James Cameron? No one in their right mind! But two things can be true, James Cameron can be a filmmaker of titanic reputation, and Avatar can be a movie that failed to leave a mark on the culture. Which is why the conversation about the Avatar sequels shouldn’t be about “who asked for them”, but about what happens after The Way of the Water? This movie will do well, I have no doubt. There is a curiosity factor, and it’s been long enough for nostalgia for the first film to set in. But what happens if Avatar 2 isn’t bigger than Avatar? I don’t think anyone—except James Cameron—really expects it to be, but what if Avatar comes back as a fully fledged franchise, and it…doesn’t dominate pop culture?


What is the conversation if Avatar becomes just another franchise, on par with the MCU, the DC films, Star Wars, Mission: Impossible, et cetera? In 2009, Cameron and Avatar owned the world, just like he did in 1997 with Titanic, but the world is different now. In 2009, nothing looked like Avatar. Now, everything looks like Avatar. Like the ocean stuff in this teaser looks very beautiful, but Atlantis in Aquaman is very beautiful, too, and I don’t know that I’m more blown away by what I’m seeing in this teaser than anything I saw in Aquaman four years ago. And some nerd can tell me all about the new technology Cameron invented to make the movie, and maybe he’ll revolutionize the process of underwater filmmaking, but my eyes are my eyes, and they can only process so much input. The great advancement of Avatar is stereoscopic 3D, which produces a more true-to-eye visual than traditional 3D cameras. That’s why Avatar looks so crisp and bright, even in high-input 3D action.

But the problem with the human eye is that it learns. Once we saw stereoscopic 3D, our eyes “remembered” it, and it never looked special again. That’s why the 3D fad died out just a few years after Avatar—it stopped being special. And now, 13 years past Avatar, we’ve seen so much technological splendor in cinema that NONE of it is special anymore, every high-tech movie looks the same, but it’s not the movies doing it, it’s our eyes. We see enough similar input and our eyes start shortcutting the input to memory banks in our brains that categorize broadly, which causes visual input to “flatten” over time. That’s why seeing a popular piece of art in person can be a let-down, your brain has already categorized all the posters and fridge magnets and doesn’t make the leap to “real” versus “reproduction” unless you tell it to via some other input, such as an emotional response that kicks your brain in the butt and tells it to separate the input of the real work of art from the magnets and what not. 


Avatar is like that popular piece of art. Exposure to a decade-plus of highly technical, CG-heavy blockbuster movies has flattened CG imagery in our minds, and if Cameron can’t deliver a moving emotional experience to separate The Way of the Water from the 20-plus CG-reliant films we’re going to see this year, it will flatten into the brain box along with all the other CG junk. And the thing about Avatar and its invisible cultural footprint? That’s a lot to do with how completely unmemorable the story and characters are. Anyway, I like this teaser a lot for not giving away the movie, but I think everyone needs to brace for a world in which we get a new Avatar movie every couple of years over the next decade and it’s just. You know. One more piece of the pop culture puzzle, not the whole game. 


Also attached - Zoe Saldana on the beach in Miami yesterday.