‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’ Promises A Refreshing Escape From Nostalgia

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James Cameron’s Avatar is often the subject of derision; it seems like a thousand thinkpieces have been written about the film’s failure to make an impact on pop culture; SNL’s “Papyrus” sketch seems more fondly remembered than the film.

But the teaser for the long-delayed Avatar sequel, The Way of Water, has managed to attract more than 148 million views, according to Disney, surging ahead of the recent Star Wars films. It seems that the premature death of Avatar has been greatly exaggerated; indeed, audiences have good reason to anticipate Cameron’s big passion project.

First, Avatar is an original sci-fi story, as opposed to another cynical piece of nostalgia bait. I’m sick and tired of seeing mediocre franchises from my childhood endlessly rebooted, stripped for spare parts and resold to me (and my kids) as some kind of sacred, life-affirming experience; Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park were fun movies and all, but I never expected their moldering corpses to be shuffling around in the twenties – it’s time to move on!

The dystopian future of Ready Player One, a virtual reality hellscape with nothing to offer but stale pop cultural references from decades past, is already too close to the current reality for comfort.

Sure, there’s no shortage of original content out there, on the small screen, but sometimes I want to take my kids to see a big-budget blockbuster in the cinema, with no lightsabers, superheroes, or recycled IP.

Star Wars has been coasting on the memory of the original trilogy ever since The Force Awakens, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become an assembly line of diminishing returns, forever teasing future cameos, tie-ins, and spin-offs; at this point, I can’t pretend to care if a background character from an obscure 70’s comic is due to debut in a post-credits scene, two sequels down the line. Morbius and Moon Knight can go ahead and team up with Howard the Duck – unless Taika Waititi is involved, I don’t want to hear about it anymore.

Avatar, on the other hand, has no cinematic universe to maintain, no fond childhood memories to mine; it’s a passion project from an impossibly determined director, whose past successes have afforded him the clout to realize his vision. There aren’t many creatives out there who can secure the budget to create an entire ecosystem for their story from the ground up, and push the boundaries of CGI along the way.

The franchise has been gobbled up by Disney in the years since that first film, but there are no signs of Cameron having to compromise with the Mouse House; after all, even the most distinctive Marvel movies are limited by the rigid formula of the MCU.

Lastly, while Avatar gets a lot of flack for the simplicity of its story (it’s often compared to Dances With Wolves, or Fern Gully), the movie at least had a positive, timely message. Avatar fiercely condemned the military industrial complex and framed ecological preservation as a heroic duty; sure, the white saviorism and fetishization of tribal life was pretty clunky, but I’ll take it over Marvel’s empty jingoism anyday.

It was considered absurd at the time, but Avatar seemed to infect some viewers with a kind of malaise, as they left the theatre disappointed, not in the quality of the film, but by the fact that it was fiction – some fans really wanted to live on Pandora.

I’m not sure how many people really felt that way – probably not enough to merit the amount of media attention they received – but the story reflected the cultural moment. Avatar was viewed as a major game changer, a leap forward in visual effects (that still holds up against today’s blockbusters), and a powerful piece of escapism.

It’s true that Avatar didn’t come close to impacting public consciousness the way A New Hope did – but The Way of Water might just be the beginning of something special.

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