The most unsurprising news in the world is that James Cameron can still make a movie people want to see in a theater instead of at home. Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t just a sequel to Cameron’s 2009 masterclass in adapting new entertainment technology while simultaneously marketing it to new audiences. It’s a statement about how the ongoing evolution of cinema’s sight and sound has no reason to end if there are enough artisans dreaming up whatever can come next. In that respect, The Way of Water is yet another leap forward in big screen spectacle, this time with even more feeling.
Over a decade has passed since Avatar, so it makes sense that the sequel would pick up a similar amount of time later. Sam Worthington returns as Jake Sully, now a full-fledged Na’vi on the planet Pandora, easing into his home life with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their growing family. But with these new responsibilities comes a sobering sense of dread that Jake might lose everyone if he remains the reckless “hero” he once was in order to save the Na’vi from his fellow humans.
“This family is our fortress.”
When Earth’s invaders return to Pandora for a second shot at colonizing the planet, Jake and Neytiri seek a way to avoid conflict altogether for the sake of protecting their children. Especially as they happened to have raised future protagonists of future Avatar sequels (about three more are supposedly in the works). This of course means their offspring are as headstrong and rambunctious as their parents. Their eldest son, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), is the calmest and most rational of the group, quite unlike his younger brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), a rebellious teen with a lot to prove.
This is where Avatar: The Way of Water finds its real depth. Rather than repeat the same story as the original — itself a repeat of several other prolific stories — the film centers its themes around the fragility of family during a time of war. We get to experience how frantic it can feel when children become old enough to set their own paths and take their own risks.
Avatar: The Way of Water gets its title from the Sully family’s journey to a different part of the planet in search of refuge. They take on the ways of a sea-based tribe focused more on finding life under the ocean. This makes Pandora feel entirely new again as the characters explore dazzling environments under the surface of what they already know. Hints of more spiritual awakenings come through Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the unexpected Na’vi offspring of Dr. Augustine, who died in the last film.
“The Way of Water connects all things.”
Kiri is most likely the stealth heart of the Avatar franchise moving forward. It’s with her that the film opens new threads of what’s possible on this planet and where Cameron’s overarching story appears to be going. The Sully family also has their own goofy neighbor kid, Spider (Jack Champion), the human son of the last film’s primary antagonist, Colonel Miles (Stephen Lang). With all these new developments and arcs to juggle, it’s no wonder The Way of Water floats by at a staggering 192 minutes.
But this is time well-spent for film lovers in search of visual splendor the likes of which they’ve never seen before. Avatar: The Way of Water is truly a technical marvel in every sense of the word. The 3D motion capture evokes a sense of immersion that rivals some of cinema’s most innovative and eye-opening advancements. It boasts an attention to detail behind even smaller details that completely sell Pandora as a living, breathing environment that could truly exist. The best part is that all this wizardry also serves the story just as well, transporting audiences and maintaining the empathy they need through believable, jaw-dropping special effects that won’t let them go.
It’s one thing to experience a war sequence, for example, where the stakes are high because you care about the characters’ well-being. It’s another thing when the world you’re stepping into is so visceral and next-level dimensional, that you can almost get lost in the movie as an avatar yourself, inhabiting the same space and reality of what’s depicted onscreen.
“I see you.”
Cameron co-wrote the film with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, with Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno sharing story credits as well. But there’s the sense that Avatar: The Way of Water exists under a singular, uncompromising vision. Part of that vision, however, is to keep the plot as basic and fundamental as possible. It’s elemental, without being elementary. A sound strategy if your aim is to make sure people connect to this more with their heart than their brain. Sure, a true masterpiece would land both, but let’s just say Cameron knows what sells.
At least The Way of Water finds more inventive set pieces and modes of conflict than the last round. The editing and pacing of certain story beats are frequently haphazard and hard to overlook, but then again, Cameron and his team will plunge you into an underwater labyrinth or send you on an emotional rollercoaster of a gunfight that essentially resets your expectations all over again. Especially if you don’t mind the high frame rate, or in some cases find it viscerally astounding when otherworldly characters move in otherworldly ways.
The bottom line.
Cameron has done it again, no surprise there. What’s uplifting about all this, really, is that the director of The Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic still loves what he does so much that he puts himself in the actual movie. He’s basically Jake Sully, a caretaker of his films like actual children. The first Avatar gets plenty of grief from American critics who don’t think the film deserves its massive popularity as the highest-grossing film of all time, simply because it ostensibly lacks intangible pop cultural relevance, at least out here in the western part of the world.
He has every reason to retreat and put his head down for the sake of reflection on what he’s accomplished and what he has yet to discover. We’re certainly fortunate that he’s still this invested, and that he’s nowhere near done with taking the huge risks that few other filmmakers have the opportunity to take. Audiences won’t just see Avatar: The Way of Water this weekend. They’ll see a filmmaker still finding ways to top not just the film industry, but the medium itself. And it’s glorious to witness.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theaters on December 16. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of 20th Century Studios.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER - 8/10