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The long-awaited sequel to 'Avatar' is more than 3 hours long

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

"Avatar: The Way Of Water" hits theaters this weekend, poised to become one of the year's biggest film releases, a sequel to the 2009 film "Avatar," the highest grossing Hollywood film in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER")

BRITAIN DALTON: (As Lo'ak) The way of water connects all things...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DALTON: (As Lo'ak) ...Before your birth and after your death.

SCHMITZ: But questions remain about this movie and the "Avatar" franchise. Why hasn't it attained the pop culture stature of "Star Wars" or "Star Trek?" And what about questions of cultural appropriation? Here with a few answers is NPR's media analyst, Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

SCHMITZ: You've seen the movie. Can you tell us a bit about the story and why it's three hours and 12 minutes long?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, director and franchise creator James Cameron doesn't often make short movies. That's the short answer on that one.

SCHMITZ: No, he doesn't.

DEGGANS: But, you know, those who know the original film are going to remember it's set in the future on a planet called Pandora that's populated by these 10-foot-tall species called the Na'vi, who breathe an atmosphere that humans can't. And in the first film, we see humans put their consciousness inside bodies like the Na'vi. They're called avatars, if you get it.

SCHMITZ: That's right.

DEGGANS: And by the end of the first movie, our hero, Jake Sully, a human played by Sam Worthington, helps stop these other humans that want to pillage the world of its natural resources. Now, in this new film, Sully's raised a family. He's settled into life within the Na'vi tribe, and the humans come back. They've got this special strike force to capture him. And as Jake and his family run to a new part of Pandora, we get to explore the world with them. We meet an entirely different kind of Na'vi tribe. And that's about all I can say without dropping major spoilers.

SCHMITZ: That's where you stop. OK. So the first film made nearly $3 billion. That's with a B. But it doesn't seem to have resonated in the zeitgeist like "Star Wars" or "Star Trek." Do you agree? And do you have any theory why that is?

DEGGANS: I do agree. Part of it is that the original film, it was visually spectacular, but it also had a pretty predictable and unmemorable plot. And also, the film is pretty violent. It's not particularly kid friendly. And I think a lot of franchises that endure in the way we're talking about, they have an appeal to kids so that part of the audience feels like they've grown up with it.

SCHMITZ: Right.

DEGGANS: And finally, outside of the Na'vi, there aren't many memorable characters, no one like a Darth Vader or a Mr. Spock to really focus the film's popularity.

SCHMITZ: Well, speaking of characters, there was some controversy when the original "Avatar" was released that I remember. You know, this culture of the Na'vi seemed taken, you know, directly from Indigenous and particularly Native American cultures. Is that any better in this sequel?

DEGGANS: Not really. I mean, at times, I think the Na'vi can feel like a collection of tropes about Indigenous culture. Their primary weapons are bows and arrows. They have a connection to the planet's animals, nature and a great spirit. This sequel continues the story of a white male hero who joins the Indigenous people and then leads this fight against a brutal invasion from his own people. But there are Indigenous people who've said they see themselves in the culture of the Na'vi and appreciate seeing the struggle against colonization depicted in a big-budget movie.

SCHMITZ: The ultimate question here is pretty simple. I mean, is the movie any good?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Yeah, well, you know, I was blown away by the visuals, especially in 3D, which is just like jaw-droppingly immersive. And I also think the plot is stronger than the first movie. But there's this element of appropriating Indigenous culture, which feels a little odd to me, even as I cheer for the Na'vi to defeat the evil humans.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR critic and media analyst Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.