Avatar: The Way of Water
- Director: James Cameron
- Writers: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
- Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Jack Champion, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss,
Thirteen years ago, James Cameron did what he always does and redefined the modern blockbuster with Avatar, a global phenomenon that would go on to become the highest grossing movie ever made. While that film’s story was never much to brag about – it was almost beat for beat the plot of Pocahontas in space – the visuals and the experience from Cameron’s pioneering 3D technology is mostly what got butts in the seats. Cameron has made some of the greatest sequels of all-time (Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens), so how will he tackle the first of many planned sequels for his passion project?
Before we get too deep into this, let me just make one thing clear: to not see Avatar: The Way of Water on the largest possible screen is to rob yourself of a portion of the experience. I’ve been staunchly against 3D films when it’s not necessary, but Cameron specifically designed the film to be seen in 3D, and the end result is one of the most immersive theater experiences you can have. There are too many moments to list here where Cameron fully flexes his visual eye, so many miniscule details at every frame that teem with life and imagination throughout the film’s 3-plus hours.
Unfortunately, the praise for the film essentially stops at the visual flair. Cameron’s weakness has generally been his screenwriting, and The Way of Water is no exception. While the film doesn’t feel as derivative as its prequel, a film of this magnitude, that’s been gestating for this long, should feel like it has more to say. The previous film left off with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine who learned the Na’vi ways through the Avatar program, essentially dead and resurrected as a Na’vi. The Way of Water kicks off with Jake fully ingrained to the Na’vi life, raising a family of four with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and one human child, Spider (Jack Champion), who desperately wishes he could be a Na’vi.
The tribe drives out the human military in the early moments of the film, but a new batch comes back to exact their revenge. It’s no spoiler to say that the villain’s motivation is barely revealed in the third act, and even then it doesn’t make them any more interesting. Cameron’s Terminators were more intriguing than the generic bad guys seen here.
Say what you will about the unimaginative script in Avatar, but it at least held a poignant message about environmentalism and respecting your surroundings. With The Way of Water, Cameron, who wrote the script with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, mostly seems content to expand the world of Pandora and all its mythologies. Jake, Neytiri, and their family have to flee their home in the mountains to the sea villages, where they have to learn their customs, and how they interact with the world around them. The second act of the film is largely plotless, as Jake’s children (played by Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, and Trinity Jo-Li Bliss; I would single them out but they’re largely indistinguishable from one another) encounter one wondrous being after another. There’s also a handful of subplots that feel under-developed, like a romance between Jake’s younger son and the daughter of the sea tribe’s chief, and an unspoken bond between Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, whose character died in the previous film but comes back in another form here. Don’t ask.) and the spirits of Pandora. Both of these feel like Cameron held back specifically so he could have material for the next entry in the franchise.
Believe it or not, this second portion is the best stretch of the film, as we see more and more imaginative sea creatures that interact with them. One of the children develops a relationship with an outcast whale-like creature, and in spite of the alien nature of it all, it’s never not convincing. Every moment of underwater photography feels groundbreaking (no pun intended), a giant step forward in the possibilities of computer generated imagery. And, much like the 2009 version, the third act of the film is another extended action sequence that utilizes every trick in Cameron’s bag that feels like an improvement on the original film – though there were a handful of bizarre frame-rate issues that felt out of place. Sure, there are plot holes and questionable decisions galore, but I found myself given over to the spectacle on display and enraptured by what Cameron and his team created with a few ones and zeroes.
James Cameron has proven throughout his extensive career that he’s adept at pushing cinema forward in new, exciting directions. It’s not an understatement to say that a new era was ushered in with Titanic, both in terms of story and craft. Audiences simply willing to turn themselves over to Cameron’s visual splendor will surely be blown away by everything they see in The Way of Water. But those that expect more out of blockbuster filmmaking in 2022, like nuanced characters, allegorical themes, or an intriguing plot, will likely be stuck. Whether those audiences will stick around for whenever Cameron releases the next Avatar installment is another question entirely.
Avatar: The Way of Water will be released in theaters nationwide on December 16.
- The original Avatar was nominated for 9 Oscars and was arguably the runner-up to Best Picture in 2009. Expect it to receive a nomination again, even with similar genre/blockbuster fare like Everything Everywhere All at Once and Top Gun: Maverick
- James Cameron fully deserves a nomination for Best Director, as he not only brings his vision to life, but advances the technology necessary to do so.
- Even if the film is blanked in every other category, if The Way of Water doesn’t walk away with the Best Visual Effects win, it deserves a full-scale Mueller-esque investigation.
- Best Sound is also attainable, though it’ll have to compete against another big, loud action film, Top Gun: Maverick, and All Quiet on the Western Front.
- Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is similarly spectacular, utilizing all of Pandora’s colorful and imaginative lighting.
- In spite of the film’s longer run time, I expect a Best Editing nomination. The film may be longer than the original, but it doesn’t drag, and the action sequences are tightly coordinated and easy to follow.
- I have no idea if Simon Franglen’s score will be “original” enough to qualify for Best Original Score, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with it when compared to James Horner’s score for the first film.
- Avatar received a nomination for Best Art Direction, likely because there were a number of real sets utilized. There’s much less, if any, this time around, so it’s a shot in the dark as to whether The Way of Water would qualify.
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