There are few absolute rules to live by in Hollywood but one of them is to never doubt James Cameron. Cameron made 2 of the top 3 highest grossing films of all time in Avatar and Titanic; a fact that’s all the more impressive considering his 2 films were his own original ideas and not sequels to established properties.
When the first Avatar was releasing in late 2009 I broke the rule and doubted the movie would be a success. Did we really need another white savior movie only with giant blue aliens? The answer was a resounding yes but I was vastly overlooking the main appeal of the film which was the experience. Avatar was shot using motion capture and 3D cameras, a 3D technology that was never utilized to that point. The movie was the ultimate tortoise only making $77 million on opening weekend but going on to make well over $2 billion worldwide.
Despite being the most financially successful film of all time, Avatar has been continuously dunked on ever since its release. Questions of why the film hasn’t remained in the cultural zeitgeist since its release and the validity of a sequel have been ever present. Can Big Jim prove them wrong once again? Let us dive into Avatar: The Way of Water.
Sailing to Innovation
The big driver for Avatar’s success was the 3D which immersed the audience in Pandora giving them something they’ve never experienced before; to the point where there are thousands of people out there with legitimate “Post Avatar Depression” (look it up if you don’t believe me). Circling back to the question of why Avatar doesn’t have a bigger cultural impact than say, Star Wars or Stranger Things, I attribute this simply to the fact that you literally cannot experience Avatar at home the same way you do in a 3D movie theatre. It’s simply not comparable.
With Cameron’s need to innovate the medium on each of his film releases, how does he raise the bar once again with Avatar’s first sequel? UNDER. WATER. MOTION CAPTURE. Holy cow I never in a million years would have thought of that but of course Jim Cameron did. Underwater scenes in all movies are notoriously clunky, particularly with big budget fair like Aquaman and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. You’ll never be able to look at those movies the same again after experiencing the imagery in The Way of Water; the fluidity and immersion is unparalleled.
Outside of inventing a way of doing mo-cap underwater, Cameron also pushed it further with the 3D tech on this film. Peter Jackson and Ang Lee have both tried and failed to get the world onboard with Higher Frame Rate 3D technology. In their use of HFR, which captures images at 48 frames per second instead of the traditional 24, it gives the picture on screen a hyper realism that wipes away a lot of the movie magic illusions that makes things seem real on screen. Cameron of course has found a way to make scenes shot with this tech make more sense (it helps that all his environments are computer generated) which really magnifies the experience particularly in the depths of the ocean.
Earlier this year Disney rereleased the original Avatar in IMAX 3D which I attended and was wholeheartedly blown away by the experience. Having such a fun time seeing a movie I thought was okay before, but in its proper format, had me quite hype for this new film. Enough to the extent that I didn’t care what the movie was about, I was going merely for the immersive experience. That being said the tech isn’t enough to drive your choice on committing 3+ hours of your time as I thought it would.
It’s all about FAMILY
The Way of Water takes place 15 years after the evil human soldiers got the boot off Pandora and Jake Sully decided to leave his human body behind to live the rest of his days with Neytiri as a Na’vi. The couple has been quite busy since then now having 5 children in their ever expanding family, 2 of which being adopted. Their first adoptee is Kiri, a 14 year old Na’vi that came out of Grace’s (Sigourney Weaver) avatar from the first film, post death? The second is a white Rastafarian kid named Spider who was abandoned on Pandora when the humans were kicked out because baby’s can’t survive in cryo. I don’t know which is weirder, but both of their setups are “yada yada’d” in the first few minutes. I will say 73 year old Sigourney Weaver pulls off a 14 year old alien surprisingly well.
I’ll stop here and simply say I’m not going to write much about the specifics of the story in this movie. James Cameron is a notoriously weak screenwriter, with his success coming from the visuals and action, not from the dialogue and original beats. So I’ll leave that to the viewer to discover on first watch. It’s basically business as usual here with a fairly lean plot, leading to the atmosphere and action driven pieces he excels at. The opening 45 minutes is very sweaty. Outside of the aforementioned yada yada’s on key plot points, the opening act is used to basically try and bring back all the characters we saw die in the last one; along with explaining what the Sully’s have been doing for 15 years.
Our villains from the first film are back in fantastical ways to ham it up once more. My biggest issue with the movie in general is the motivations for the conflict, seemingly for the most part it’s a revenge tale for them and I have no idea who is funding all this mayhem to go after 1 family. Who gives a shit about unobtanium that is sooooo last movie?
My second biggest gripe is the character of Spider, along with his dreads, he wears a loin cloth for the ENTIRETY OF THE FILM. The clunky Jim Cameron dialogue and zingers do him no favors, and the script just has him making puzzling decisions. Spider is played by young actor Jack Champion (coolest name of all time?) who apparently was growing so rapidly it caused issues during the pandemic shutdown and returning to filming. The kid is also jacked as all hell and I found it distracting from how young he was supposed to be.
“We’re jammin’, jammin’ , And I hope you like jammin’ too”
My final complaint is a familiar pet peeve of mine and it’s that the movie is too damn long. Clocking in at whopping 3 hours and 12 minutes, you definitely feel it more than the many other 3 hour films released this year. There’s plenty you could cut from the 2nd and 3rd acts and tell the exact same story, but ironically that’s where we get to the really good stuff.
Jim’s Gonna Jim
The second act we get Cameron indulging on his 2 greatest loves in life: deep sea ocean and nature preservation. This section of the film is focused on all of the many Sully clan kids as well as the children of the water Pandora tribe, which I could not tell you their names at this current moment nearly a week after seeing the film. The pacing of the film comes to a halt but it’s worth it as I found this to be the most immersive portion of the whole experience. Undoubtedly this is also setting things up for future sequels with the kids becoming bigger parts of the narrative. You’ll fall in love with the whale you meet during this act with excellent use of the 3D mo-cap technology at its finest.
Lastly of course, Big Jim gets to flex his muscles and go back to his roots of making the most amazing action spectacles around. The final showdown goes on for what seems like an eternity but it is a master class in how to make action, along with some intense moments of emotional heft. He really hits it out of the park here and no matter how indulgent it may be, I must respect it.
Overall I’m always going to say every Avatar film is a must see, simply because you literally will not be able experience anything like it. If you’re going to see it then you MUST see it in a theater with bare minimum 3D to get the true feel of the film. The visuals and technology is stunning enough to warrant a watch, I just wish the rest of it was a bit tighter in more than one sense. I give Avatar: The Way of Water 7/10