Film Review – Avatar: The Way of Water
Avatar: The Way of Water
If there’s one thing James Cameron cannot be accused of, it’s taking the easy route. Whether it’s killer aliens, cyborgs from the future, or the sinking of an unsinkable ship, Cameron has always strived to push the limits of movie showmanship. But it’s not just the special effects that drive him. He is keenly aware of how spectacle can immerse an audience into his stories. Avatar (2009) was seemingly the pinnacle of his ambition, but even that wasn’t enough. Thirteen years later comes Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), the next step in what might be the biggest undertaking any filmmaker has ever shouldered. If there was ever a director who had the fortitude to pull off such a risky goal, it’s Cameron.
So here we are, back on Pandora, amongst the blue skinned Na’vi race. A lot has happened since Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) became permanently entwined with his Avatar host. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are now with children: Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), and adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Tagging along is a human named Spider (Jack Champion) who has taken on the Na’vi language and customs. There are also a few familiar faces that return, including Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who – after some convenient narrative somersaults – finds himself in his own Na’vi body but with the same hate in his heart.
The direction (Cameron) and writing (Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver) toss us back into the world of Pandora with ease. The narrative takes little time in re-establishing many of the core themes: environmentalism, preservation, animal cruelty, the balance between humanity and nature, etc. It’s interesting that Cameron – whose persona is so linked to the advancement of technology – has assigned militarized humans (or “Sky People”) as the central antagonists. When they return to Pandora with their bulldozers, helicopters, and weaponized exoskeletons, Jake must make the choice between facing his adversaries or doing what is best for his family.
Cameron’s strength has never been in developing nuanced, morally complex characters. He’s much better at painting them in broad strokes. He gives them easy to understand motivations then pits them against insurmountable odds. The Way of Water is no different. Quaritch and his cronies are clearly the bad guys, with Jake, Neytiri and the Na’vi as the protagonists. Even when deeper themes are explored (the roles of fathers and sons are a recurring subject), they are lightly brushed upon and resolved with little fuss. What Cameron is more interested in is the detail of this world. He spends a large amount of time showcasing the ins and outs of Pandora, and how characters interact with it. This time, we go from the air to the sea, where Jake and his family meet a new clan of water based Na’vi. Amongst the new faces is the leader Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet).
The second act drags a bit as the narrative introduces us to life on (and in) the water. But my god, what gorgeous scenery. All the water sequences – from the rock structures below and above the surface, the culture of the Na’vi, to the beauty and tranquility of the whale-like creatures – everything rendered with tangible weight and believability. Russell Carpenter’s camera lingers on these shots almost gratuitously, always calling our attention to something new and wonderous. The writing doesn’t stop to explain how all this works, it simply allows it to exist and trusts that we will come along for the ride. Although the middle of section of the film accounts for much of its three-hour runtime, I can understand why Cameron would want to spend so long just checking everything out.
In the age of the superhero blockbuster, where every release feels increasingly bland and uninspired, Cameron stands on a plateau by himself. He is one of the few major players that can meld big budget endeavors with legitimate artistry. He is the ultimate perfectionist, willing to wait for years until he has the tools capable of executing his vision. The level of dedication shows on the screen. There were times I nearly forgot that everything I was seeing wasn’t real. I marveled at how the mountains, trees, and warcraft weren’t photographed in real life. The way water crashed into bedrock, or how aircraft carriers ebbed with the waves, all had to be planned and stylized down to the pixel. While the wide, sweeping shots and pulse pounding action are a sight to behold, the true craftsmanship appears in the smaller elements. Look at some of the closeups of the Na’vi characters. Notice the way sweat beads down their faces, how their hair flows in the wind and in the water, or how light reflects off skin to show every wrinkle and crease. These features are realized so exquisitely that it looks like make up and costuming rather than computer aided imagery.
That is where Cameron operates like a magician – by making us believe in something that isn’t really there. He taps into our imaginations, making us buy into his trick by sheer force of will. There had been a lot of talk online about Avatar not making a significant cultural impact. With The Way of Water, Cameron has put that debate to rest. He has taken a story that is easy to understand, characters that are easy to root for, and places them in set pieces that are nothing short of spectacular. Cameron draws comparisons to the great epic filmmakers of Golden Age Hollywood but goes one hundred steps further. This is only a small sample of the grand epic he has in store for us, and I can’t wait to see where this mad genius takes us next.