Review - Avatar: The Way of Water
James Cameron is kind of the king of sequels. Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day should be at the top of any list championing the best sequels ever. Both of those films also feature incredible technological advances. Avatar: The Way of Water, his sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time, definitely pushes forward with special effects innovation. The 3D, underwater effects and the overall scale of the film are jaw-dropping. The story, however, is simple, almost too simple for a film over 3 hours.
Avatar was criticized for its lack of narrative sophistication and its white-savior narrative. Unfortunately, the sequel doesn't course correct these issues. Cultural appropriation, silly-sounding dialogue, and too many new characters who get zero development bog the film down. Put that aside, and you have a visual spectacle that mesmerizes you often. You can feel Cameron's passion for the details of this world in every frame, almost to the point of being a distraction. I have to admit I missed the occasional passage of dialogue because I was too focused on everything interesting filling the frame. In this way, The Way of Water fulfills its promise. It is a film demanding the best theatrical experience you can find. I suggest seeing it at a theater using the high frame rate that Cameron wanted. While the higher frame rate, 48 fps, looks odd at times, it keeps the 3D in sharp focus even while the camera whips around.
While the film successfully shows off the power of excellent CGI and technical skill, the story's effectiveness will depend on how invested you are in the fate of large blue people. The story draws from Westerns. Picking up more than a decade after Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) began living permanently on Pando with the indigenous Na'vi, the film is largely one big chase. Sully and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have raised a family, including two teenage sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton, their tween sister Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver in what might be her strangest role ever). They are joined by Spider (Jack Champion) a human child orphaned by the military. He is more Na'vi than human in many ways however, it is easy to see where the conflict will arise from him straddling these two races. The identity of his dad isn't much of a mystery but I won't be spoiling anything.
Jake is now the leader of the Omaticaya clan, who lives in peace in the forest. When ruthless General Francis Ardmore (Edie Falco) sends in forces to kill Jake, he realizes he needs to move his family away to protect the clan. Strangely, once the mission is launched, Falco disappears from the film. In her place as the film's primary villain is a Na'vi avatar of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). The details of how this is possible are vague but soon we have a group of marines posing as Na'vi on the hunt for Jake Sully and his family.
From there, the film is largely a cat-and-mouse game with Jake hiding his family among the water-based Metkayina clan. Chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his distrustful wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) offer them sanctuary but are aware of the risk he poses. There is a theme about the Sullys being half-breeds that never comes around to anything substantial. In fact, many of the film's themes and plotlines feel like a setup for the next set of sequels Cameron has planned. There is a frustrating sense lack of resolution on many things here.
While I believe Cameron thinks he is paying tribute to Maori body art and the haka ceremony with the Metkayinas, it can't help but feel a bit like cultural appropriation. While the entire world of their ocean-based existence is vividly drawn here, one has to feel like he is just pulling from indigenous peoples as he sees fit for his grand vision of Pandora.
As mentioned the dialogue is often simplistic and silly. "Water has no beginning and no end" is said by many characters. What does that even mean other than it reflects the odd nature of The Way of Water? It is a sequel without a beginning or end. Cameron's passion comes through however and the sheer spectacle on screen often makes it easy to look past the film's issues. However, what are you left with then? The Way of Water often feels like an odd mixture of an amusement park ride and a nature documentary.