- Avatar: The Way of Water
- Directed by James Cameron
- Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
- Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver
- Classification PG; 192 minutes
- Opens in theatres Dec. 16
James Cameron is a filmmaker who thinks big, and thinks of himself.
If every successive Cameron movie has been about finding new ways to push the limits of cinematic technology – to say nothing of the budgets and patience of his film-studio minders – then they have also each been about referencing, reworking and rescaling their own director’s best ideas.
The watery aliens of The Abyss begat the liquid-metal T-1000 of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, just as the destruction of crucial city infrastructure in True Lies begat the capsizing of an ocean liner in Titanic, and the exoskeleton armour of the Marines in Aliens begat the real-steel machinery powering the less heroic soldiers of Avatar. When Cameron picks up a camera, he is also picking up pieces of his own gigantic ambitions, stacking them on top of each other until he reaches a limit that only he is aware of, and stopping only just before his cumulative effort topples over and destroys him, and perhaps his audience, too.
Which is what makes Avatar: The Way of Water the ne plus ultra James Cameron experience. It has aliens, armies, robot suits, sinking ships and enough aqua to drown the entirety of the film industry three times over. If the director had to spend 13 years of his life producing this improbable sequel, then it was time (and money; so much money) well spent. The Way of Water is the kind of tremendously entertaining, spectacularly ambitious, not-a-little-bit-silly epic that only James Cameron can, and should, make.
If it has been, say, a decade-plus since you last watched the first Avatar, don’t worry darling: the sequel’s first 10 minutes recap the big-picture events of its predecessor, if not the plot-hole details. How did human soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) become a 10-foot-tall blue alien, again? Does it matter what happened to his human body? Wait, what happened to Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character Dr. Grace Augustine in the first movie, and why/how is her Na’vi avatar mysteriously pregnant? Did that happen in the first movie and I forgot? Um, let’s just fast-forward to the basic plot, which is, in typical Cameron fashion, pretty basic.
After the Earthlings/”sky people” left the planet Pandora after the events of the first film – cast out by the indigenous Na’vi as punishment for colonizing their land in search of something called “unobtanium,” which is a word thankfully not uttered in the sequel – all seems peaceful for Jake and his warrior-mate Neytiri (Zoe Salanda). After settling down in the forests of Pandora, the pair start a half-alien/half-human family, which comes to include rambunctious sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Aonung (Filip Geljo), curious young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and the teenage Kiri (Weaver again, but digitally de-aged), who the clan adopted after she was born from the dead (?) avatar corpse of Dr. Augustine. Yes. Just go with it, okay?
Also hanging around is Spider (Jack Champion), a teenage human boy who was left on Pandora after the military vamoosed at the end of the first film, and is depicted here as half house-cat and half feral jungle boy in the Mowgli mold. All is well and good in the loving Sully household for a decade and a half until those pesky sky people return, including a Na’vi clone of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the military bad guy who Jake turned on, and helped kill, in the first film. Again, just go with it.
What happens next – over the course of three hours that don’t fly by so much as they float gently – is a deft mix of world-building, YA-primed drama and extravagant set-pieces, every moment infused with a sense of Cameron-sized shock and awe. As the Sullys run from Quaritch’s murderous forces, taking shelter among the sea tribes of the Na’vi, Cameron gets to indulge his lifelong fascination and reverence of all things oceanic. The film delights in dipping in and out of the water, introducing all manner of alien fish and plant life, with the entire third act hinging on the emotional/spiritual/existential importance of Pandora’s superintelligent whales. The Way of Water is, in many ways, Cameron’s Free Willy – if Willy spoke in a language subtitled in the Papyrus font, and he took pleasure in killing scores of avaricious humans.
With only a sprinkling of live-action performers onscreen at any one time – mostly Champion and bit appearances from Edie Falco (Quaritch’s boss), Jemaine Clement (a morally conflicted marine biologist) and Joel David Moore (reprising his role from the first movie as a Na’vi-sympathetic scientist) – much of Cameron’s film bridges a strange, ultimately beguiling gap between the real and digital worlds. Worthington and the rest of the cast were filmed via motion-capture technology, even during their underwater scenes, and the result is both discombobulating and entrancing. Especially when the film is viewed under Cameron’s ideal conditions: in IMAX 3D, with a variable frame rate of 48fps (or frames per second; the norm is 24fps).
Already, there are chirps that much of The Way of Water’s action – indeed, the whole thing – feels like sitting an inch in front of an HD television with the motion-soothing settings cranked way up. Or perhaps it is akin to overdosing on extended scenes from a PlayStation 9 game that doesn’t yet exist in our reality. Those aren’t unfair arguments, especially when the film takes place in the forests, labs and airships of Pandora. But when the movie moves under the sea to embrace Cameron’s fetish for all things liquid, the decision to go 48fps creates an otherworldly sensation that is intoxicating. (Godspeed to any adventurous viewer who watches this movie under the influence. Or worse: on their phone.)
Like every other Cameron film, the screenplay lacks genuine depth, while also delivering some all-time groaners of dialogue (not to mention teenage talk that might have seemed of-the-moment during the first Avatar but now seems hopelessly out of touch, bro). The story’s main conflict is also mechanical – the military spent who knows how much to resurrect Quaritch solely to settle a grudge match with Sully? – and there seems to be little evolution from the first film’s “Dances with Wolves … but in Space!” themes.
But the performances are all leagues above the first entry, with Worthington (whose human form isn’t glimpsed once this time) far sturdier in the protective-dad role than he was in white-saviour mode. The Na’vi kids are all strong, too – good thing, as Cameron is stuck with them for the next four or five or six or however many films – and even though I had no idea until the end credits rolled that it was Kate Winslet playing sea Na’vi matriarch Ronal, Cameron’s one-time Titanic star aced the blue-skin challenge that I suppose all of his former leading ladies must now take on. (Linda Hamilton, I eagerly await your turn in Avatar 5.)
The film’s MVP, though, has to be Weaver, who plays a teenage alien girl with such an effortless, natural mix of adolescent confidence and self-consciousness that the whole thing feels supernatural. Even her character design balances something organic and artificial – it is just right and extremely unsettling and mightily impressive. I mean, yes, I guess this is exactly what I would imagine Sigourney Weaver might look like were she 13 years old, blue and seven feet tall. Good, weird, freaky, job, everyone.
As ever, there will be James Cameron skeptics. After all, despite the first Avatar being the highest-grossing film of all time, the conversation leading up to The Way of Water’s release has pivoted around the question of “Why???”, as if audiences don’t already lap up sequels to third-tier comic-book characters with gleeful abandon. Certainly with its runtime, visual language and do-goodery vibes, the film has set up its own challenges for an easily exhausted and deeply cynical audience. But once you sink (I guess dive/swim/plunge/choose your own method of submersion) into Cameron’s world, you will be rewarded with the work of a master filmmaker trying to, and succeeding in, one-upping himself. It takes a heart of stone and an eye of ice to enter Pandora and not be at least a little moved, inspired, transported.
May James Cameron continue to think bigger of himself and his audience for decades to come.