'Avatar: The Way of Water' review: James Cameron delivers another visually stunning epic
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios /Disney
How’s the saying go? Never bet against James Cameron?
It’s insane that after directing two of the highest grossing films of all time and delivering arguably the greatest sequels ala “Aliens” and “T2: Judgement Day,” people would still doubt the king, but the chatter around his long-gestating return to Pandora in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” wasn’t so much around the quality of the film, but if people actually “cared.” Considering the only cultural impact “Avatar” has mustered is a theme park within Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it’s a valid argument, and while plenty has changed since 2009 when “Avatar” revolutionized modern 3D capabilities and showed the full potential of motion capture performance (apologies to Robert Zemeckis’ run with “The Polar Express” and, uh, “Beowulf”), that might be the films greatest asset beside Cameron himself.
The main thing that’s changed are audiences' appetite towards both the theatrical experience and what movies they go to see. Unlike the Marvel and “Star Wars” brands, and even DC Comics, Cameron doesn’t listen to outside noise and let it compromise or distract from his vision. He tells you what you want and serves it up on a silver platter, no questions asked. Which brings us to “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a cinematic roller coaster that’s so breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and innovative beyond comprehension, you forget that you’re witnessing history. It’s truly an astounding achievement with a filmmaker oozing every fiber of his soul onto the screen.
Costing somewhere in the realm of $350 million dollars with the plan to release at least four sequels in the ensuing years, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” boasting a 3hr and 10 minute runtime, is alot of movie, but I’m not sure you could find the cinematic equivalent of a film where you could practically see every penny (I suppose there’s a case for the first “Avatar”). Whereas the Marvel movies stick to plain color palettes and jarring interconnected timelines, the world of Pandora is far more intricate, fascinating, and explodes with vibrant colors. The best thing about “Avatar” is that it hasn’t congested the airwaves in the way superhero movies have. I’d even argue the biggest change from 2009 to now is that “Avatar: The Way of Water” feels like a throwback to the glory days of grungy blockbuster filmmaking that’s now been devalued for streaming fodder. If “The Way of Water” proves anything, it’s that our television screens will never come close to replicating the total immersion Cameron manifests here. Whatever the price of your local IMAX or 3D ticket, pay it and don’t ask questions. Just thank me later.
The film picks up years after Jake Sully (Sam Worthington - returning) has become the leader of the primitive Na’vi race, a society of 10-foot tall, human-like creatures with blue striped skin who are connected to the world around them in a variety of different ways. He’s married to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who together have a litter of children: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), plus an adoptive daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver - playing a 14 year-old in one of Cameron’s more creative ideas). If “Avatar” was about corporate greed’s disregard for indignious species and environmental awareness, “The Way of Water'' is about the strength and resilience of a family under siege.
I won’t reveal how Stephan Lang’s stern and villainous Colonel Quaritch has been resurrected from the dead (except when it happens you’ll go, that makes sense!) but he’s on a mission, at the behest of the government, to bring in Sully. In the years since Quartich and his crew failed to seize Pandora’s prime resource (who remembers Unobtanium?). Sully, along with his Na’vi legion of loyal followers and their insane technological advances, have thwarted the government’s attempts to infiltrate Pandora airspace. But the rebellion hits a snag when Quartich’s relentless revenge puts Jake’s family in danger. This forces Sully, Neytiri and their children to head into witness protection, leaving behind the forest for a life at sea.
It’s here where “The Way of Water” dives into the depths of Pandora’s oceans and reaffirms Cameron’s spiritual connection to aquatic sea-life and water in general (“The way of water connects all things. Before your birth and after your death”). The Sully family seek refuge within the Metkayina clan, a species of Na’vi who oversee the vast spread of Pandora’s oceanography and aren’t the same shade of blue, which immediately helps differentiate how enveloped and detailed Cameron was, when he started on this journey (you’ll be happy to know the Papyrus font is back in full force as well).
Tonowari and Ronal, leaders of the Metkayins clan played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet, agree to house Sully and his family if they contribute, which forces tension between teenagers Neteyam and Lo’ak and Tonowari’s offsprings Aonung (Filip Geljo) and Rotxo (Duane Evans Jr.). There’s a daughter, Tsierya (Bailey Bass), a freediver who locks eyes with Lo’ak because this can’t be a James Cameron movie without some type of romantic courtship. But even if the script, co-written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver with story credits by Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno, fumbles some of this earlier exposition, when Cameron, who waited years for technology to catch-up so he could actually film motion capture sequences underwater, “Avatar: The Way of Water” becomes a visually stunning epic.
There were several moments, during the underwater excursions as Sully’s kids earned their stripes among the tribal clan, where I would lose major plot developments or lines of dialogue because I was enamored by a fish swimming nearby, or a floating plant. Every microscopic detail has been accounted for, and the insane 3D effects aren't gimmicky or added for the sake of a quick buck, but with purpose. It helps that the primary narrative is compelling and the saga of the Sully clan, specifically Jake’s strict relationship with his children, gives “The Way of Water” an edge its predecessor did not. Is it better? In terms of scale, scope, and immersion, absolutely.
The third act rivals Cameron’s own “Titanic” in terms of intensity, where the stakes feel sky-high and the tension is palpable. There are secondary characters, including snarky marine biologists played by Jeamine Clement and Brendan Cowell, a general played by Edie Falco, and a young human kid nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who’s got a much more sizable role than what you’d assume, don’t always hold their own in the grand scheme of Cameron’s epic vision, but something tells me they’ll play bigger roles in future installments, Likewise for Winslet, who isn’t given much despite interviews stating she was the only actress able to hold her breath underwater for seven minutes.
Yet once again, Cameron retains his crown and silences naysayers by delivering on the extraordinary promise made during our first trip to Pandora. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is the movie going event of a generation that never overstays its welcome. In fact, I could have sat and watched for hours. Like “Avatar” changed the cinematic landscape and ushered in a new wave of insane 3D technology, “The Way of Water” pushes the limitations beyond what most assumed possible. But if anybody could do it, it was Cameron, a filmmaker with enough juice in Hollywood to get any sized budget he wants, joining a select club of filmmakers who still dream the impossible and always puts the moviegoer first.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER opens in theaters Friday, December 16th.