The trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water makes one feel like the movie was made in a different universe—one where none of the political or cultural events that occurred between the first Avatar and now happened.
The first Avatar opened to an enthusiastic reception in 2009. Although the film hasn’t had a lasting impact on popular culture, at the time there were news articles aplenty about people who wanted to disappear into the film and identified with the struggles of the Na'vi, the fictional Indigenous tribe (its name means “the people”) that populates the fictional planet of Pandora. Although people also noted the racial sketchiness of its plot—it was essentially Dances With Wolves in space, i.e., a movie about how native peoples are noble savages who are closer to the earth than white people are yet need a white man to lead them—we had just elected a black president; racism was over, and therefore this movie’s well-intentioned but problematic anti-racism message felt less objectionable than it does, say, now.
After two terms of President Obama, Black Lives Matter, a Trump presidency, and a cultural swing toward the right, a sequel to Avatar is being released, with many more being threatened. Watching the trailer, it’s painfully clear how out of touch the world of Pandora now feels. Every time I see the individual strands of hair that make up a Na’vi dreadlock, I just think, Who asked for this?
The entire aesthetic of Avatar has not changed a single iota—up to and including the aesthetics of the Na’vi, which now are much more recognizable as a pastiche of indigenous cultures that exist in the real world. This trailer coming out at the tail end of Horizon Forbidden West’s relevance as a video game does not do it any favors, as they are aesthetically so similar, and similarly uninteresting and confusing. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that people unfamiliar with Avatar have laughed at the trailer in theaters, and I don’t blame them. If you weren’t around for the original surge of Avatar-fever, watching a nine-foot-tall blue guy whip out a submachine gun on the back of an alien pterodactyl looks absolutely ridiculous, the racial politics of the situation aside. (If nothing else, the CGI that James Cameron has been spending all this time spinning up already looks horribly dated.)
It is impossible to predict if audiences will line up to see The Way of Water in the same way that they did to see Avatar, which earned $2.87 billion and set several box office records, including being the highest-grossing film of all time. But these records, too, have changed. In 2019, Avengers: Endgame surpassed Avatar’s all-time box office, and the blockbuster landscape has not yet broken free from Marvel’s hold on it.