Avatar: The Way Of Water Footage Description: It's Finally Time To Return To Pandora [D23]

Over the 13 years James Cameron has spent making his "Avatar" sequels, the film industry has gone through all manner of drastic changes. In an era where superhero movies are some of the only sure-bets at the box office (and, even then, not always) and there are way too many new streaming options on a weekly basis, can the "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" and "Titanic" director hold onto his crown as the King of the World?

This is James Cameron we're talking about, so the answer is, "Most likely." It helps the first of his "Avatar" sequels, "Avatar: The Way of Water," appears to be as visually opulent as one might expect, with CGI water that somehow looks more "real" than the actual thing. "The Way of Water" also sounds inspiredly weird, even for the world of "Avatar," what with Sigourney Weaver playing a Na'vi teenager. Plus, you just know the oceans of Pandora are going to be teeming with bizarre lifeforms in the film, inspired by Cameron's real-world trip back to his home in the Mariana Trench.

Another thing "The Way of Water" has going for it is the power of the Mouse House and its marketing machine. That includes the D23 Expo, where Disney released exclusive footage from the film as part of its studio showcase for Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Studios. /Film's Ethan Anderton was on the scene.

'Come swim with us'

We've already caught glimpses of this return to the world of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and the Na'vi via the film's visually striking first trailer — and recently released concept art as can be seen above — but multiple new scene snippets were screened just for the audience at D23 today. Here's what we saw.

The first scene seems designed to show off all that gorgeous water animation Cameron's team has been working on. It follows a group of kids — Jake and Neytiri's children — playing in the seas of Pandora, taking in the wonders of sting ray-like creatures, squid, puffer fish, and more. The sequence shows impressive 3D and amazing CGI, although it's pretty much just kids swimming. "Come swim with us," one girl signs to the rest, and they go deeper underwater past coral and Pandora's teeming sea life.

The second sequence reintroduces Sigourney Weaver's Grace, who appears on a holo screen talking about the Na'vi. In a laboratory setting, the Na'vi kids hop on top of a tank and look at the Na'vi body within. "Hi ma," one says, and hugs the glass. The group, which includes one human boy, then gossips about the parentage of one character, with a teen Na'vi asking, "Who do you think knocked her up?" After some speculation, the human boy says, "Sometimes it's not great to know who your father is." The kids all look at him, concerned. Could this outcast be Quarritch's son?

Meet the Sullys

The third scene shows Na'vi soldiers in the forest at night, including Stephen Lang's character. This turns out to be a big fight scene, as the soldiers are revealed to be holding the group of Na'vi children and one human kid hostage. Neytiri and a group of heroic Na'vi sneak up on the group from behind the trees, and she shoots an arrow right at a soldier while another Na'vi hits a villain in the head with an axe. The kids pray to eywa to be rescued, one bites a soldier's hand to get away, and the scene eventually evolves into a full-blown firefight complete with tear gas, arrows, and gunfire. The snippet ends with Lang's apparently resurrected Colonel Quaritch taunting Neytiri, whom he calls "Mrs. Sully," and her calling him a demon and threatening to kill him as many times as she needs to.

The sneak preview continued with a fourth scene in the Sully family's home, in which Jake pleads with Neytiri to leave as Quarritch and his men are after them. The rest of the kids have apparently been rescued, but the soldiers still have Spider — who perhaps is the one human child. "Wherever we go, this family is our fortress," Jake says, but Neytiri explains that her dying father gave her his bow and told her to protect her people. The scene ends with the pair in an embrace.

New Pandoran tribes

Finally, the last two clips introduce a different Pandoran tribe, one with green skin. This group seems to live in a village of water-side tents, and Kate Winslet plays the matriarch who introduces the Sully kids to their culture — they talk about what sounds like the "Tunkan" way. The tribe leader, who seems like he may be Winslet's character's partner, talks about some sort of separation to the Sully Na'vi kids.

The last scene shows that those same kids have ended up taken in by this culture, as they learn to ride sea creatures with a small, whale-like body and a long neck. "If you want to live here, you have to ride," their teacher tells them. Cue more of Pandora's visual wonder.

What we know about Avatar: The Way of the Water

"Avatar: The Way of Water" has Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana reprising their roles from the first "Avatar" film as Jake Sully and Neytiri. Those two lovebirds will have a family of fellow blue-skinned giant cat-alien off-spring by the time the sequel picks up, along with two adopted kids in the form of the Na'vi Kiri (Weaver) and the human Javier "Spider" Socorro (Jack Champion). Also back is Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch, who's now strolling around in his own Na'vi Avatar imprinted with the human Quaritch's memories (there's a lot to unpack in that sentence, I know).

Judging by the early looks, "The Way of Water" will hit even harder on the big themes from its predecessor, which Cameron has tidily summed up as "capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, human rights abuses, and nature deficit disorder" with a dash of spirituality (not that this will do much to dissuade the clowns online who will inevitably whine about "Avatar" being woke now). The real question is, can it also give us a story with more personality and less reliant on regressive sci-fi and Western tropes? And maybe one people can actually remember this time?

"Avatar: The Way of Water" opens in theaters on December 16, 2022.

Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, "Avatar: The Way of Water" begins to tell the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.