‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ – James Cameron Wows Us Yet Again

It is surreal that “Avatar: The Way of Water” has finally arrived in movie theaters after having its release delayed so many times. The original “Avatar” came out in 2009, and since then we have been promised a number of sequels which never quite made it to the silver screen regardless of what James Cameron promised us. This got to be aggravating for everyone including myself as I kept rolling my eyes whenever Cameron said the sequels would be coming out soon. Like many, I wanted to just yell out, “release them already!” But while so much has happened between 2009 and 2022, it suddenly feels like it was just yesterday when we first visited Pandora and all those blue people, and I was reminded about how wowed I was by everything Cameron put on display.

Well, I can certainly see why Cameron kept us waiting for years and years as he wanted to break new cinematic ground, and he has done so with again with this long awaited sequel. While “Avatar: The Way of Water” may not have the most complex of stories or characters, and his films rarely do, he succeeds in giving us one hell of a cinematic experience as he spends a lot of the 192 minutes wowing us in ways I thought he was no longer capable of. Like “Top Gun: Maverick,” I cannot wait to see it again.

Over a decade has passed since the Na’vi repelled the human invasion of Pandora, and Jake Sully is now the leader of the Omaticaya tribe. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are now parents to four children; two adventurous sons and two girls who are so fascinated by the world and creatures constantly surrounding them. But like all happily ever after endings, this fairy tale eventually comes crashing down in a nightmarish fashion.

The Resources Development Administration (RDA) has now returned to Pandora, but instead of obtaining that brilliantly named mineral called unobtanium, they are this time intent on inhabiting the planet as Earth is now in its death throes because there were never enough people there who realized climate change was real. And in this futuristic time Cameron has thrust us into, manifest destiny has taken humanity from conquering planets to taking over galaxies because, you know, heaven forbid adults get given the same kind of boundaries children are and eventually benefit from. Once again, humans are out to, as George Carlin once said, free the people and whip a little industry on them.

Fearing the worst, Jake and Neytiri flee the Omaticaya tribe along with their children and take refuge with the Metkayina reef people in hopes they will never be found by the RDA. The family, however, has trouble fitting in as they are tree people while Metkayinas are water people. This leads to a lot of awkward situations between everyone as the kids hate being uprooted and are not sure how to act around those who know the water more than what is above it.

It is when “Avatar: The Way of Water” goes into the waters of Pandora that it really takes off. The underwater footage is nothing short of amazing as we are taken through the many depths of the planet and are introduced to various aquatic creatures who must be seen to be believed. A good portion of the footage was shot in a higher frame rate (HFR) which gives the visuals a clarity which makes them look even more astonishing than they already are. I have not always been a big fan of HFR as it can make things look a little too crystal clear, and Cameron knew not shoot the whole movie in this format as the audience could have been easily alienated, but he makes HFR work to not just his advantage, but the audience’s as well.

Now much has been said about this sequel’s making and of how the actors spent many minutes underwater. As the Na’vi children are made to experience the underwater realm, “The Way of Water” could almost be seen as an advertisement for free-diving. Spend just a minute or two in the shallows or the depths is not enough to take in the last frontier left to explore on Earth or any other planet, but we are also reminded of the dangers of staying underwater for too long, and Cameron knows we know this, so he squeezes ever last ounce of tension to make this clear.

Cameron also gets to deal with themes which have been prevalent throughout his movies and documentaries to where I am quickly reminded of a line from “Aliens” uttered by Sigourney Weaver where she pointed out the difference between humans and certain extraterrestrials:

“You know, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other for a goddamn percentage.”

 Indeed, we are given plenty of proof here of how marine life can be far more intelligent than humanity, and it makes the humans decimation of such sea creatures in scenes which reminded me of similar ones in “Jaws” even more painful. Clearly, these fish hunters never took the time to watch “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” at least once, and the fluid they remove from these creatures is treated as being even more profitable than unobtanium. All I can say about this fluid is that it’s the kind which would just fly off the shelves in Beverly Hills. I mean, heaven forbid anyone allows themselves to age gracefully, you know?

The inhabitants of Pandora also get to talk to whales in this movie, something which I am sure would make Doctor Doolittle infinitely envious. Now on paper this may have looked incredibly silly, but I never found myself laughing at those scenes where the characters could talk to the animals. That, and maybe I just want to believe deep down that we can do this for real someday if we haven’t already.

As complex as the visual effects are, the same cannot be said about the movie’s story or screenplay. Even with several other credited writers, nothing here sounds like it could have come out of a David Mamet play. Then again, Cameron has not always been known for giving such complexities when it comes to his screenplays. What you see is what you get, and it is up to the actors to bring to life even if the dialogue is not particularly great.

Speaking of the actors, their performances are mostly excellent, and the best ones come from those who will not simply let the effects teams do all the work for them. This is especially the case with Zoe Saldana who puts every single ounce of her energy into Neytiri to where the motion capture, visual effects and her performance all combine to create one big passionate fireball of energy. The same goes for Kate Winslet, reuniting with Cameron for the first time since “Titanic,” who portrays the pregnant Metkayina free diver Ronal with a passion to where it took me forever to realize it was the Oscar winning actress of “The Reader” who was playing this character.

I also have to say how envious I was of Sigourney Weaver here. Not only does she reprise her role of Dr. Grace Augustine, but she also portrays the daughter of her Na’vi avatar, Kiri. Weaver portrays Kiri with all the innocence a child could have as she comes into contact with things she is ever so quick to learn from and use to her advantage.

But my favorite performance of all comes from Stephen Lang who returns as the nefarious Colonel Miles Quaritch, albeit in Na’vi form as he died in the last movie. With his mind implanted in this avatar with memories of his past life, Miles has not changed one bit as he seeks bloody revenge on Jake Sully for what he sees as betraying his own kind. But thanks to Lang, he gives us an antagonist who is never one-dimensional as his goals are led by a patriotic duty which, while misguided, fuels his heart in ways nothing else can. Still, he lets us see another dimension hiding within Miles as he comes to meet the son he left behind on Pandora, Spider (Jack Champion), who has long since become accustomed to the environment he has been living in.

Everything in “Avatar: The Way of Water” leads to an adrenaline-fueled climax which echoes the most intense moments from one of Cameron’s more underrated works, “The Abyss,” as Jake and company are forced to literally keep their heads above water as they fight off those who exploit their planet for their own greedy purposes. When it comes to Cameron, he never lets us down when it comes to infinitely exciting third acts.

No, this is not a perfect movie, and it does not surprise how many detractors out there are quick to point this out. But still, Cameron still knows how to create a cinematic spectacle which is best experienced at a theater near you. Furthermore, no other filmmaker out there can make 3D seem like much more than a mere gimmick than he can. Regardless of how annoying it was to wait this long for an “Avatar” sequel, I think it was worth the wait. But more importantly, I am relieved we will not have to wait all that long for the next installment, and I cannot wait to see where these characters will go next.

Just remember this quote when you come out of “Avatar; The Way of Water:”

“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all.”

That quote is from “Whales Weep Not” by D.H. Lawrence. And yes, I got that quote from a pivotal scene in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

* * * * out of * * * *

James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – A Cinematic Spectacle Like Few Others

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2009.

“That is our (USA) job around the world; run in, free some people, and whip a little industry on them. So they can enjoy the benefits of industry that we have come to enjoy (cough).”

-George Carlin from “Class Clown”

“Some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one. I’d hoped that we had learned from our mistakes but it seems that some of us haven’t.”

“Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.”

“How many people does it take, Admiral before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE, ADMIRAL?!”

-Patrick Stewart and Anthony Zerbe from “Star Trek: Insurrection”

We waited for this one almost as long as we waited for the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy,” and now it is here. James Cameron has been at it again, making the most expensive movie ever, but this is nothing new and I am so burned out from hearing all the gossip about his movie budgets. The naysayers were out in full force proclaiming this would be a disaster as its release was delayed a number of times. But “Avatar” once again shows there is no one more equipped than Cameron to change the way we look at movies. With his latest epic, he has achieved the impossible and completely blurred the line between what is real and what is a special effect, and I could never tell the difference from start to finish.

You have to give a lot of credit to this ambitious director for being ever so patient. Cameron waited years for the technology to catch up to where he could tell this story most effectively, and he even invented a new camera with his brother to make the most convincing 3D movie we could ever hope to see. So many others would be in a hurry to get a movie up on the screen to where nothing but shortcuts are taken, but “Avatar” had a two year post production period (the longest ever) to get every little detail covered. This movie needs to be seen on the big screen as it was made for it. Waiting for a physical or digital release to watch it on would be tragic.

“Avatar” stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully. Jake is a former marine who is now paralyzed from the waist down, and he does not ask for sympathy or pity. He ends up being recruited for a mission on Pandora, a moon on the far reaches of space. This mission was originally meant for his brother, but he passed away before he could take it on. Pandora is inhabited by very tall blue creatures called the Na’vi, and avatars of them have been created so that humans can walk among them undetected so they can be studied more closely.

Of course, these avatars are also being closely observed by the military as they plan to infiltrate the Na’vi and force them off their sacred land. For what reason? So that the greedy corporation (is there any other kind these days?) can get at the mineral called unobtanium (nice play on words). This mineral represents an enormous cash cow for soulless investors back on Earth, and it also serves as a much-needed source of energy it desperately needs. In the future, it appears humanity has extended the manifest destiny policy from other countries to the far reaches of space. I mean, heaven forbid we allow other cultures to handle their precious resources without our unsolicited advice! Do we ever learn?

Anyway, the story of “Avatar” has been told many times before; a disillusioned military officer comes face to face with people he has been fighting, and soon he becomes enamored with their lifestyle and code of honor to where he is integrated into their society. This has been the basis for “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai” and even “The Emerald Forest.”. We know the setup and how it’s all going to go, but Cameron still makes it work by having us invest emotionally in these characters. By doing so, all the action and the visuals presented to us become all the more enthralling.

Seriously, Cameron has been one of the very best storytellers in movies for decades now. This at times gets lost on people because his dialogue can be quite cringe inducing. You want to go up to him and make him realize people don’t talk to each other the way he thinks they do. It constantly reminds me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas about his script for “Star Wars”:

“You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”

For what’s it worth, however, Lucas makes Cameron sound like David Mamet.

Regardless, the strength of the story he has concocted makes the visuals on display all the more exhilarating. My big issue with most effects driven movies is you can tell when you are watching a CGI effect. All this does is completely take me out of the movie to where I roll my eyes and wonder why Hollywood regularly underestimates audiences.

Now at the start of “Avatar,” when Jake is looking at the creature he will be, you can definitely tell what is real and what is computer generated. But as the movie goes on, I honestly couldn’t figure out which was which. I tried, believe me I tried to see the difference, but there was just no way. Plus, the motion capture they used on the actors is astonishing. The avatars are made to look like the actors playing them, and the movements are so amazingly lifelike to where it makes every other 2009 movie see, like it was made back in 1987. That description may be stretching it a bit, but I couldn’t resist.

The art direction in this movie is incredible, and the color blue (my favorite) is used quite a lot. There are other astonishingly breathtaking visuals like the floating mountains which looked quite real…. Damn it! I am running out of words to describe what I saw. You have to see it for yourself.

As Jake Sully, Worthington keeps him from being a complete cliché and infuses him with a nobility which has served him well in life. But one of the most welcome actors here is Sigourney Weaver who is appearing in her first Cameron movie since “Aliens.” Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the Avatar program. While the military wants to use her work for their own manipulative methods, she uses them to help gain the trust of the Na’vi and study their world for peaceful and scientific purposes. She is the classic Cameron female character; tough as nails, controlling, and never ever a pushover Apparently, Weaver based her character on Cameron to an extent. To steal a line from “Up in The Air,” Dr. Grace Augustine may very well be James Cameron with a vagina.

Another classic Cameron female is played by Michelle Rodriguez, still looking as hot as she did in “Fast & Furious.” Her character of helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon is somewhat similar to Jeanette Goldstein’s character of Vasquez from “Aliens”; a badass soldier who is as tough as the men, maybe even tougher. She’s certainly a lot more morally conscious than the majority of the marines in the film, and Rodriguez makes sure you never forget that.

You also have Giovanni Ribisi playing Parker Selfridge (yes, his last name rhymes with selfish), the corporate manager in charge of the mining operation on Pandora. Like Paul Reiser’s character from “Aliens,” he is only interested in making a gigantic profit which will set him up for life. I love how Ribisi plays Parker as a pragmatic ass with absolutely no moral scruples whatsoever as this character is ever so gleeful about what is in store for him once this mineral is sufficiently mined. The way he sees it, what’s the big deal?

But one of the best performances comes from Stephen Lang who plays the brutal Colonel Miles Quaritch. Despite some of the ridiculous dialogue which comes out of his mouth, Lang completely makes Miles into a soldier you would be incredibly foolish to mess with. Like Tom Berenger in “Platoon,” his face is deeply scarred, and he does nothing to hide that. Miles simply sees it as an illustration of how nasty the moon of Pandora is. His flaw, however, is that he cannot see who the Na’vi really as his anger against them has long since powered by an everlasting fear which he cannot overcome.

Now let’s talk about the Na’vi, those big blue creatures who are tall enough to play for the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. They could have made or have broken “Avatar.” Cameron has said he thought about the story long before he began working on “Titanic,” and that he even thought about these characters when he was a kid. Now having an original race of people who speak their own language may work well on “Star Trek,” but in other shows and movies, it looks more comical and ridiculous than was originally intended. This is not the case here.

This brings me to the performance of Zoë Saldaña, who you may remember as Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” She plays Neytiri, Princess of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya. Neytiri is the first real Na’vi to come in contact with Jake Sully, and she later falls in love with him. In essence, a lot of “Avatar” rests on her performance, and she succeeds in making you believe in this race of beings to where you see them as more than just an amazing series of special effects. This ends up making it easier for other actors like Wes Studi and CCH Pounder to portray their characters without having to expend too much effort in helping you buy into these extra-terrestrials. Saldana sets up the groundwork, and everyone follows her from there.

“Avatar” deals with many of the same themes Cameron has dealt with throughout his career: military intervention into a foreign land, machines versus nature, love found between beings from different worlds or societies, how scientists and those with curious minds seek to understand the aliens and make peace with them, and how corporations will do anything for a profit. The parallels between what the military forces are doing in Pandora and our wars in Vietnam and Iraq, not to mention our current escalation in Afghanistan, are clear as day, and it does make the movie feel timely.

But one of the especially interesting things here is how Cameron utilizes a lot of the technology which was on display in his previous films. Those armed walkers Colonel Quaritch uses look to be an upgrade of the driver Weaver used in the climax of “Aliens” (which the Wachowski brothers all but ripped off for “The Matrix” sequels). The mind devices used to control the avatars looks a lot like the head pieces used in “Strange Days.” The scenes of humans interacting with otherworldly creatures bring to mind similar scenes from “The Abyss.” And you have characters who go from being antagonists to becoming the good guys (“Terminator 2” was a classic example of this). With all this in mind, I thought Cameron was running out of new ideas, but I love how he combines them all up to good use in “Avatar.”

But enough of me babbling about “Avatar.” Whatever weaknesses this movie may have are undone by its well-earned achievements. Once again, see this movie in a theater! I don’t care if you hate going to the movies. “Avatar” is a great and reinvigorating reminder of how sitting in a darkened movie theater can be so thrilling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find an IMAX theater playing this movie that is not sold out for weeks in advance. Seeing something like this on the silver screen once is never enough, ever.

* * * * out of * * * *