As far as we know, there’s no such thing as time travel in the Avatar universe, which is weird because there was a distinct whiff of 2009 coming off this week’s industry reports about a screening of the first trailer for the newly titled Avatar: The Way of Water. The Hollywood Reporter said delegates at CinemaCon in Las Vegas were wowed by the movie’s impressive 3D and high frame rate, which 20th Century Fox and Disney will be rolling out across the globe when the movie finally hits multiplexes in December. You’d think not more than a couple of years had gone by since the release of the original Avatar, at a time when it felt like the entire film industry was about to go through a radical journey into high-end stereoscopy and accelerated frame rates. Unfortunately for Hollywood, it has actually been more than a decade since we last hung out with Jake Sully and his Na’vi comrades from him. Are we expected to get excited about this stuff all over again?
The problem with 3D is that it has had more comings than Jesus caught in a time loop. There was the original 1950s phase, then that brief period in the 1980s when Jaws 3-D landed at cinemas, and finally around 2009 when james cameron seemed to think stereoscopic film-making was about to become more popular than the Beatles. In between now and then we’ve also had 3D TVs, which ran out of steam around 2017 amid a chorus of unbothered shrugs. As for higher frame rates, Peter Jackson was forced to dull down his Hobbit trilogy after viewers complained they didn’t really need to see Bombur’s blackheads in such excruciating detail when viewing An Unexpected Journey at 48-frames per second.
Cameron would argue, and has many times, that the problem with such highfalutin tech is that only he is capable of executing it properly. As a result of Avatar, every studio started releasing movies in 3D because Hollywood worked out that it could add a premium to ticket prices for those screenings. Most of these films, unlike Avatar, were shot in 2D and then converted in postproduction, a method some studios claimed made no difference to the finished result.
This wasn’t always the case. Anyone unfortunate enough to view 2010’s Clash of the Titans in stereoscopy will be well aware that some conversions made for an experience roughly equivalent to having your eyes put through a meat grinder repeatedly for 90 minutes-plus. Others just gave people a headache.
Perhaps Avatar: The Way of Water will turn all this around, and we’ll suddenly start reaching for the 3D glasses and willingly paying that extra £3 all over again. But it seems unlikely. The problem for Hollywood is that Avatar movies seem to come along only once a decade (Cameron says Avatar 3 will arrive in 2024, but we’ll believe that when we see it), which means we’re probably going to have to sit through a hell of a lot of bad or pointlessly 3D movies before the next one comes out.
Having said all this, there’s something ineluctably attractive about the idea that you’re about to witness a movie that will look and sound better than anything ever seen in the multiplex. This is precisely why Avatar broke the world record for highest box office gross in the first place – it certainly can’t have been for its original storytelling – and why Greenwich Imax is usually a lot more packed out than the Odeon in Beckenham, despite tickets at the latter costing about a quarter of the price.
Avatar: The Way of Water promises to envelop us once again in the gloriously trippy flora and fauna of Pandora. This time we’re told we will be visiting a coastal Na’vi tribe and be introduced to various new water creatures, all of whom we can assume will still have those swishy USB-compatible tails that allow them to connect to Jake and Neytiri. We’ll also discover (I hope) how the bejesus Sigourney Weaver’s Dr Grace Augustine and baddie Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) are still alive, despite both having been conked in the previous movie. We might even find out why, on Pandora, Kate Winslet had to learn to hold her breath for seven minutes under water, despite playing a Na’vi through (we presume) motion capture. It’s all going to be splendid.
Will it reinvigorate the 3D/high frame-rate revolution once again? Let’s face it, the chances of this happening are about as high as Quaritch coming back as a sentient tree. On the other hand, this is a world where Gaia actually is a sentient tree that can be tapped up for a quick chat about the weather whenever you fancy it, as well as a world in which mountains float. Stranger things have happened.