‘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 * * * *

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ – Seriously Folks, The Thrill is Gone

Terminator Dark Fate theatrical poster

Hollywood is one the few places on this planet where you can look at $29 million dollars and say, that’s it? This was the reaction many had when the opening weekend numbers of “Terminator: Dark Fate” were revealed to the world, and to say they were below expectations is putting it mildly. Many will pontificate over why this sixth installment bombed at the box office, but I think it comes down to the inescapable fact that the “Terminator” franchise has long since lost its capacity to wow and thrill us in the same way the first two movies did, and even series creator James Cameron, who returned to executive produce this sequel, cannot put it back together again. While you can retcon the hell out of “Halloween” to keep it going, “Terminator” is now way past the point of self-termination.

I finally got to check out “Terminator: Dark Fate” after finding some time to tear myself away from work as I was not going to let anything deter me from seeing it on the big screen. The truth is, it is not a bad movie and it has a good story and a game cast of actors who bring their all to the material. But it does not take long to see this sequel tread familiar ground as the story remains the same even if the major players have changed, and the feeling of déjà vu is more prevalent than ever before.

“Dark Fate,” as you all know by now, is a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it ignores all the other movies which followed it. The movie begins with Sarah Connor suffering a tragedy much like the one Ellen Ripley suffered at the beginning of “Alien 3.” While she and her son were able to stop Judgment Day, they could never stop fate. The movie then jumps ahead 22 years when an advanced Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) appears in Mexico City with a mission to kill Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who works at an automobile industrial plant. But when Dani arrives at work, she finds her job is being taken over by (surprise, surprise) a machine.

Another person arrives from the future, and her name is Grace (Mackenzie Davis). At first she appears human, but then she is shown to have superhuman strength and fighting abilities much like the average Terminator, and seeing her kick human ass is quite the sight. We later learn she is indeed human but has been augmented to become more like a cyborg, and her mission is to protect Dani from Rev-9 as Dani is set to play an important role in the future.

Sound familiar? Of course it does because this was pretty much the plot of the first two “Terminator” movies. Part of me wants to forgive this as it sets up how Skynet was completely destroyed and has since morphed into another artificial superintelligence system called Legion, and this shows how history, more often than not, repeats itself. Heaven forbid we ever learn from our mistakes, you know? We are certainly reliving a past we have not learned from right now as certain impeachment hearings have a certain Nixon feel about them. Like Snake Plissken once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

But while the first few minutes tread very familiar ground, “Dark Fate” really comes to life when Linda Hamilton enters the picture as an older but still battle-ready Sarah Connor. It is the first time Hamilton has appeared in a “Terminator” movie in 28 years, and it is great to have her back as she makes this iconic character of hers as badass as ever, and she has some terrific dialogue to boot. With her face weathered from years of struggle and loss, Hamilton quickly reminds us how brilliantly she embodied this character all those years ago, and with the character evolving to another level here, she shows how one with such a hardened heart can rediscover their humanity even after suffering the worst life has to offer.

And yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, and he gets to take his iconic character of the T-800 in yet another interesting direction. In “Terminator: Genisys,” he played the cyborg as one who has existed long enough to where he is no longer under warranty. In “Dark Fate,” this T-800 starts off as a cold-blooded assassin who, after a particularly shocking act, ends up developing a conscience and even becomes domesticated. Schwarzenegger gives another inspired portrayal here as he plays it straight and never for laughs, and this makes his performance all the more enjoyable. It is not the first time he has given a terminator this much heart, but his work here is particularly moving in a way it has not been for some time.

Mackenzie Davis, so luminous in “Tully,” is a powerful presence as Grace, and there is no doubt she gave her all in this role as watching her dominate the action scenes here is both physically and emotionally exhausting, just as it should be. Natalia Reyes does strong work in taking Dani from being an innocent person thrust into a situation no one could see coming to someone who accepts a role she is expected to fulfill. As for Gabriel Luna, he is good as Rev-9, but he is nowhere as menacing as Robert Patrick was as the T-1000.

Directing this installment is Tim Miller who helmed the first “Deadpool” movie, and he certainly has an interesting visual style which benefits this franchise to a point. At the same time, he is not able to bring the same visceral energy Cameron brought to the first two “Terminator” movies. Looking back, none of the other directors were able to either. Some came close, but Cameron is a rather unique filmmaker as he has given us some of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping motion pictures we could ever hope to watch, and his vision of “The Terminator” is a personal one which no one can easily duplicate.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” simply feels like the same old thing with little in the way of anything new. It’s not a bad movie and it definitely has its strengths, but it serves as proof that this franchise has truly hit a dead end and really needs to be put to rest. The last few “Terminator” movies have come to us with the promise of a trilogy and of filmmakers more or less telling us that, this time, we are going to get it right. Well, this is the latest installment to see its hopes for a trilogy dashed yet again as Arnold’s dialogue of “I won’t be back” proves to be quite prophetic.

Still, we do learn of one advantage of being a terminator which the other movies never showed us: they can change diapers without complaining. If this does not impress you, what will?

* * ½ out of * * * *