‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Footage Debuts in 3D High Frame Rate at D23 to Mixed Results

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As the closer to Saturday’s lengthy, star-studded Disney Studios panel at D23 Expo, James Cameron, beaming in from New Zealand where they are working on the finishing touches of “Avatar 2” (out this Christmas!) and the cast (on stage in Anaheim) revealed a good chunk of footage from the new movie. It was overwhelming, in every way possible, as Cameron debuted the footage in 3D HFR to a noticeably muted response in the room.

“Since everybody’s together there, all our film fans and we’ve got the cast right there, why don’t we show you some scenes from the movie?” Cameron said, via satellite (or whatever high tech contraption he undoubtedly designed in a lab). “We’re going to hand out 3D glasses and you are going to be the first audience to get a sneak peek from a few scenes from ‘Avatar: The Way of Water.’” (Cameron also just remastered the original film for a splashy theatrical re-release next month.)

The footage that they screened does give a rough approximation of the story for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” as well as showcasing the technological advancements that Cameron and producer Jon Landau have been toiling away on for the past five years. (Cameron said they’ve filmed the next three movies and the first half of the fourth movie.) 3D glasses were indeed passed out and partitions were put up so that you couldn’t see more than one screen at a time (depending on where you were seated). It was very theatrical, perfect for a movie that demands to be seen on the largest possible screen.

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We’re going to run through the scenes that were shown as part of the presentation, and since the scenes were presented without commentary or context, they could very well constitute plot reveals. If you don’t want to know anything about your return trip to Pandora, turn back now. Consider this a slight spoiler warning.

The first sequence that was shown was done so for obvious reasons. We know that Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have a family in this new movie (more on that in a minute). And the sequence follows them as they visit a tribe of water-dwelling Na’vi. We see them all jump into the ocean and swim around playful fish and other marine life, as well as watch them interact with the water tribe. (It’s interesting because the water people are clearly Na’vi but they have different physical properties – their tales aren’t the catlike tails we saw in the first movie, they are flat and propel themselves through the water. They also have fin-like forearms.)

As to why this scene was shown first – it immerses you in the look and feel of “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The new movies were filmed in a high frame rate (48 frames per second instead of the usual 24 frames per second) and the footage was a mixed bag. It’s probably the first time a wide audience has watched a movie like this since Peter Jackson attempted it for the first “Hobbit” movie before backing off a bit on the sequels, and it’s unclear how widely available the film will be in 3D HFR. (A pair of Ang Lee movies, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “Gemini Man” also attempted introducing HFR to the marketplace with much less enthusiasm from audiences.)

You can see why Cameron wanted to utilize the higher frame rate – during this sequence you’ll be watching a character and then some weird alien-looking squid will flit by and it is startling. It’s like you’re looking at a fish tank. Especially with the added immersion of 3D.

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But the footage isn’t flawless. While a lot of this first section looked great, there were other times the high frame rate gave off the appearance of a giant TV on the Best Buy showroom floor with the motion smoothing not turned off. There is an uncanniness to the image that is hard to shake. In fact, it borders on uncomfortable. But perhaps, given the length of the movie (we’ve heard a running time and it isn’t short!), you will ease into the high frame rate look and just go with it.

The next scene we saw is one that isn’t showy at all, really. It’s a bunch of the kids sitting around what looks like one of the labs from the original movie. Sigourney Weaver’s avatar, who, we should remember was killed off in the first “Avatar,” is in one of those tanks. She doesn’t seem to be alive, but rather is in suspended animation. One of the Na’vi kids, also played by Weaver, is talking about how she doesn’t know who her father is. The other kids (one is Na’vi and one, named Spider, is human) are speculating on who it could be, joking that it was probably Dr. Norm (the dorky scientist played by Joel David Moore). Apparently Kiri is Dr. Grace Augustine’s daughter? Somehow? It was a little unclear.

Spider (Jack Champion) was born on Hell’s Gate, where the marines contracted by the evil RDA are set up, and alludes to the fact that his father is a very bad dude (our guess is his father is Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang). The scene is a little awkward, perhaps because of the stilted dialogue, perhaps because the high frame rate makes things aggressively realistic.

The third scene is the real moneymaker. This is the sequence set in the jungles of Pandora, at night, while it’s raining. The level of immersion provided by the 3D and the high frame rate couldn’t be more all-encompassing. Quaritch is back, even though he was brutally killed in the first movie by Neytiri. Now he’s an avatar/human hybrid, brought back from the dead by RDA. (Early press materials refer to him as a Recombinant.) He’s got the kids held hostage, including Spider and Kiri. But the Recombinants are no match for the Na’vi.

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A Na’vi sneaks up behind one of the soldiers and embeds an axe in their head, another gets an arrow through the skull courtesy of Neytiri. It’s shockingly violent. (The person next to me said “ouch!” every time somebody was murdered.) And there’s a great moment when Quaritch is hiding behind an overturned tree trunk and he looks over to see a giant arrow sticking out of a soldier near him, just like the one that felled his human form. He mentions that he knows it’s Neytiri because the giant arrow is her calling card. He draws down on Neytiri and the scene ends.

The fourth scene we saw is a domestic dispute between Jake and Neytiri. Clearly the bad guys still have Spider. And he is arguing that they need to move (presumably to join the water folk near the coast). She is saying that she wants to stay there. That her father gave her his bow and arrow and said to protect their home. At the very end of the scene Jake embraces Neytiri and says the line that is part of the already released trailer: “Wherever we are, our family is a fortress.”

For the penultimate scene we see that Jake and Neytiri are at the water people’s village. But the water people aren’t happy. One of Jake’s kids is a killer (presumably offing one of RDA’s zombies) and the chief of the water people is saying that they can’t be accepted because killing only begets more killing. It looks like they are about to be kicked out. But, of course …

The final scene was also chosen for a clear reason: it’s meant to echo a sequence in the original film. Just as Jake learned to ride the wild banshee (eventually linking up to one he called Bob), so too will Jake’s family have to bond with the underwater version of a banshee. To ride and respect and harness their power to win the upcoming war. It was a really lovely scene and, while familiar, reminded you of what made the original “Avatar” so powerful all those years ago. (Think about this: the first film was released the year after the Marvel Cinematic Universe was initiated. And we’re just now getting the first proper “Avatar” sequel. Dang.)

Ultimately, the footage was extremely impressive although the audience’s response was muted. When the footage stopped rolling, there wasn’t really any applause or excitement. You couldn’t feel the temperature of the room had changed or the frequency of vibrations altered. It was good to be back on Pandora but also, thanks to the high frame rate and 3D, discombobulating.

This “Avatar 2” footage was simultaneously dazzling and puzzling but even if it looked a little wonky, the presentation didn’t lessen the excitement for “Avatar: The Way of Water” and its upcoming Christmastime release. Cameron is a restless innovator. And we are more than ready to go on the ride.

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