Avatar: The Way of Water
After thirteen years audiences are invited to return to Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.
Avatar is an interesting piece of cinema history. It shattered box office records which would suggest it’s popular and beloved but it has very little in the way of a cultural footprint. Whenever it’s brought up many will tell you they don’t like it but its financial performance cannot be ignored. My personal view of Avatar is that it’s visually stunning and captivating in ways that manage to cover up the predictable story. It’s unquestionably notable for pioneering technology that hasn’t been used with the same skill or sophistication since and James Cameron promises to continue pushing the boundaries of the technologically possible through the sequels. The most prominent questions now that The Way of Water has been released are whether it was worth the wait and whether it’s any good. It’s not a simple answer and some water puns in the following review are accidental though many are deliberate.
Avatar: The Way of Water picks up some time after the events of the first movie. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are now parents and living in harmony with the world around them. Narration catches the viewer up on several years of life events while establishing a baseline for the audience to regard as the norm before the lead family become outsiders in surroundings unfamiliar to them. A The Hunt for Red Octoberesque trick used to explain why the viewer hears English while the characters speak Na’vi is one example of how the movie eases its audience into the world of Pandora whether they are introduced to it for the first time or being reintroduced years later. It’s an accessible opening that focuses on familiar emotional touchstones like familial relationships and parental responsibility. It’s sedate, idyllic and a comforting reminder of everything that Jake fought to preserve in the first movie.
The Sully family’s peaceful existence doesn’t last long and is threatened by the return of Humans to Pandora, once again looking to deprive the world of its boundless resources in the most environmentally destructive way possible. Large-scale environmental destruction is shown upon their arrival, unsubtly establishing that Humans are the bad guys. The face of the evil Humans is Quaritch (Stephen Lang); his memories and personality resurrected in a Na’vi body along with a group of bland Marines given the same treatment. Quaritch acts as a relentless pursuer over the runtime of The Way of Water, unwavering in his personal vendetta against Jake Sully and showing no regard or respect for the world around him. As with the first film, he’s not especially deep or interesting but Stephen Lang’s performance makes this one trick character at the very least fun to watch. He is also a formidable presence which helps increase the tension throughout. Cameron clearly has no interest in the existential implications of copying someone’s memories and using them to create a clone in an alien body as it’s an idea that receives almost no attention.
Initially, Quaritch is a catalyst for the Sully family to leave the lush forests and deposit themselves into self-imposed witness protection hiding among the Metkayina; an amphibious tribe who have the same kind of deep connection to the water as Jake and Neytiri’s people have to the forest. This is where the opening creating a baseline becomes important as it locks the audience perspective on the Sully family who are outsiders to the Metkayina and have to learn their ways. It allows the viewer to follow them as they learn and understand how different this way of life is to what they came from. It’s a clever narrative trick that allows for easy immersion.
Immersion is what this film is all about. This deserves to be viewed on the biggest screen possible and it’s one of the rare instances where 3D is essential for the first viewing. Avatar: The Way of Water is nothing short of a technological marvel with its stunning visuals and incredible design work expanding the world of Pandora in breathtaking ways. Underwater sequences are perfectly rendered to the degree that it’s nigh impossible to comprehend how such a visual feat is possible beyond actually filming on an alien planet. The creature design is as inventive as it was in the first film and the Metkayina are visually distinct from the Sully family which implies an evolutionary path befitting their surroundings. Their cosmetic differences also add to the notion of the Sullys being outsiders in an obvious yet effective way.
The Way of Water also boasts creative action that makes excellent use of its setting. Water-based weaponry used by the Human antagonists in conflict with the water-dwelling flora and fauna is an impressive twist on what the first film did in its forest setting and there are a number of genuinely arresting set-piece moments where James Cameron’s command of suspense and tension are used to great effect. Much is made of the contrast between the natural and the man-made to craft these sequences and present them as unique even though they’re familiar as far as blockbuster set-pieces go. James Cameron has a talent for repackaging things audiences know well in ways that seem unique. It all contributes to the deliberately overt environmental message geared towards the preservation of the oceans by characterising the Humans as monstrous figures who don’t care about their rape of the natural world.
Despite the technical brilliance on display, the film suffers massively in the storytelling department. The first film is widely criticised for its derivative and predictable story but one thing it does really well is using the perspective of Jake Sully. His logs documenting his experience deliver insight into what he thinks and how he feels as he progresses along his character arc ending in absolute loyalty to Neytiri and her people. The Way of Water lacks that perspective as it dilutes it through Jake and Neytiri’s children who are in theory taken on the same journey as they learn the ways of the Metkayina. There are a few problems with this, chief among them is that none of the children have much in the way of depth so there’s very little to latch onto. This makes it far more difficult to find a narrative and emotional throughline because there are too many characters with thinly established individual traits with nothing to achieve beyond learning everything they need to know to be a productive member of Metkayina society. None of the Metkayina characters stand out so there’s only a surface-level look at their society as opposed to the detailed and intimate coverage of the Omatikaya in the first film.
In the first film, Jake spent much of its running time learning from Neytiri which provided plenty of opportunity to learn about both of them as characters. Neytiri was the focal point of Omatikaya culture with other less-featured characters appearing to support her and supplement Jake’s journey. The Way of Water chooses to have a group of Metkayini teach the Sully children with hints at individual relationships forming but a lack of commitment to truly developing them so the end result is a largely shallow experience as far as characters are concerned. Character arcs are suggested, developed to some degree and entirely dropped over the course of the film, with one particularly egregious example being impossible to ignore. Things constantly come up that prompt immersion to be broken as questions are invited that the film is unable to successfully dismiss.
Another issue is that the Sully children don’t have as much to learn as Jake did in the first film. They have all been raised to respect the forest and already understand the need to live in harmony with nature so all they have to learn is the mechanics of how the Metkayini live their lives as the spiritual side of it is already part of who they are. This is likely a deliberate choice to help manage the large cast and accelerate the learning process by focusing entirely on how the people live rather than the underlying philosophy but it creates the drawback of a lack of heft because the Sully children don’t have to internalise and entirely new philosophy which makes for a by the numbers learning experience.
Jake and Neytiri fade into the background for the bulk of the film’s running time which both works and doesn’t. The problem with sidelining them is there’s very little time spent showing their difficulty acclimating to a new way of life though it would be repetitive to have Jake the focus of a similar journey to the one experienced in the first film. Focusing on the children helps to enhance the sense of wonder as the younger perspectives naturally lend themselves to being captivated by the world around them. Narratively, The Way of Water is repeating what the first film did but framing it through the lens of cherubic wonder makes it feel fresh.
In general, The Way of Water looks to cast a spell over its audience with its state-of-the-art visual effects work drawing the viewer in to experience what is put in front of them. This approach goes a long way towards making its shortcomings irrelevant because of the first-rate presentation but the lack of depth is frustratingly evident. The spell isn’t as powerful as it needs to be as the film provides plenty of opportunity to question on its internal logic. Avatar: The Way of Water is a must-see for its technical accomplishments but has very little beneath the surface.
A must-see for its technical accomplishments but has very little beneath the surface. The opening of the film impressively establishes a baseline for the Sully family that enhances the notion that they are outsiders when they have to learn the ways of the Metkayina. A resurrected Quaritch acting as a catalyst for them leaving their home works on a plot level but the character but he isn’t especially deep or interesting though Stephen Lang’s performance in the role is strong. The film is definitely immersive and deserves to be viewed on the biggest screen possible in 3D. The underwater sequences are stunningly rendered and the design work is mind-blowing. It also boasts some creative set pieces that make great use of the setting. The Way of Water suffers massively when it comes to storytelling and characterisation. It dilutes its perspective through the Sully children while none of them have much in the way of depth. This makes it far more difficult to find a narrative and emotional throughline because there are too many characters with thinly established individual traits. None of the Metkayina characters stand out either. Focusing on the children helps to enhance the sense of wonder as the younger perspectives naturally lend themselves to being captivated by the world around them but it also means that Jake and Neytiri fade into the background. Narratively, The Way of Water is repeating what the first film did but framing it through the lens of cherubic wonder makes it feel fresh. The spell the film casts isn’t as powerful as it needs to be as the film provides plenty of opportunity to question on its internal logic. Avatar: The Way of Water is a must-see for its technical accomplishments but has very little beneath the surface.
- taking a time to establish a baseline with the Sully family to enhance the notion of them being outsiders
- stunning visuals and unquestionable technical excellence constantly on display
- creative set pieces
- using the setting well
- framing the film’s perspective through the lens of cherubic wonder making the storytelling feel fresh
- too many characters and a lack of focus meaning there is very little to latch onto
- thin characterisation across the board
- character arcs that develop to some degree before being dropped
- constantly inviting the audience to question what is being presented
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