‘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.”

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Exclusive Interview with Eliza Coupe about ‘The Last Time You Had Fun’

The Paley Center For Media Presents An Evening With

Eliza Coupe has left a strong impression on audiences on the TV shows “Happy Endings” and “Scrubs,” and now she makes her jump to the silver screen in the comedy-drama, “The Last Time You Had Fun.” In it, she plays Ida, a woman who is going through a lot of problems and is estranged from her crazy husband Jake (Jimmi Simpson). She ends up going out with her sister Alison (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), and in the process they meet the recently divorced Clark (Kyle Bornheimer) and his lawyer friend Will (Demetri Martin). From there, they jump into a limo and drive around Los Angeles with the hope of rediscovering the fun they once had in life before becoming adults.

I spoke with Eliza about “The Last Time You Had Fun,” and we both agreed it deals honestly with the struggles and disappointments of adulthood. She explained about how being divorced herself inspired her to play Ida, what it was like to work on a film with a very short shooting schedule, and of filming a scene in the Los Angeles ocean which did not look the least bit warm.

The Last Time You Had Fun poster

Ben Kenber: This is a good movie in how it deals with the responsibilities and frustrations of adulthood where you find yourself wondering if happiness is even a reality at some point. What parts of the script spoke the strongest to you when you read it?

Eliza Coupe: Well, I was actually going through a divorce when I decided to take this part. Part of me was like I don’t even want to go near this part because of that, and the other part of me was like well, maybe this would be like in therapy where people act things out with puppets, so maybe I should go to do this. This was live-action stuff so I was like, I’ll do it. Actually, I could relate so much to the character. My ex-husband and I are on great terms and he is not like Jimmy’s character. It was the whole thing of she knows that it needs to end but it can’t, and when do you know that it’s over. When you’re going through a divorce it’s like you have those thoughts all the time of I guess this is really it, and you just keep going back and forth. Because it’s a marriage you’re like, I’ve got to make a decision. So, I could really relate to the kind of indecisiveness and denial that she was in.

BK: it’s nice to know that you and your ex-husband are on good terms.

EC: Yeah, I just sent him a birthday card actually (laughs).

BK: What would you say that challenges or difficulties were for you in playing a character who appears to be emotionally unstable?

EC: What’s funny was that I welcomed it because I have done so much comedy. My characters are broken but they hide it really well. Obviously, anybody who’s that uptight or an A-type or alpha, they’re hiding some serious hurt, but she wore it on her sleeve. Part of the scene where my character calls her estranged husband outside of the limo, that was actually a much bigger scene. They cut it down and chopped it up a little bit, but when I did that one I had to get really emotional and I was actually, when we shot it, really sobbing. I haven’t had to do that on TV so it was difficult to get to that place, but it was also cool and I was excited to do it. It’s tough to pull that off.

BK: I imagine the shooting schedule for this movie was really, really short.

EC: Um yeah, and it was all nights. It was so brutal and I am such a morning person and I go to bed around 8 PM on a normal day when I’m not working. I changed my clock around.

BK: Did working that fast or at night help you in playing Ida?

EC: I think for sure. When you shoot so quickly and you have to get it all in, I think your adrenaline takes over and I’m pretty sure that every actor goes into flight or fright because it’s like look let’s get this done. You forget to eat, you forget to do anything, you’re not sleeping and you’re just doing it and you have to live in it. Honestly for this character, I was glad to not have to live in that for so long and I was happy that it was such a concentrated amount of time. When you’re tired and you’re kind of strung out and sleep deprived and all that stuff, it only adds to your acting. Even if you’re very sane and very mentally healthy you will fall apart if you don’t get sleep or if you’re on a weird sleep schedule, so it played a great role in my character.

BK: Director Mo Perkins said directing four people in one scene was a lot harder than directing just two. Did being in the scene with that many people present any challenges for you as well?

EC: I don’t think so. I guess I was kind of used to it because I come from ensemble comedies and that’s how it always was. Also, those three other actors were so fun and we had so much fun on camera and off-camera to where it felt like camp. It was the shortest summer camp where we had so much fun. At the end of the shoot we got each other these presents that were these inside jokes, and how we developed inside jokes in a matter of what felt like 15 days (it was longer than that, but it felt like that), it was just amazing. To be able to play off them in a scene, it just added to it because they were all kind of just going through the shit together.

BK: I have to ask you about the scene where the four of you jump into the ocean. I imagine the ocean was colder than it looked.

EC: Oh my God. It was 3 A.M., it was down by LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and it was so fucking cold. Seriously, I think Dimitri and I both were like, we’re not doing it. There were moments where I’m like okay, I guess I’m going have to ruin this entire movie because I’m not going in there. Of course, we knew we were going in there, but your brain takes over in a way where you’re like, I’m not doing this. Actually, it was 48 degrees. I’m from New Hampshire and I was a total pussy. I was like this is insane, and getting in that water was the most guerrilla style filmmaking because we had a camera guy out there and there was a bag around the camera so that it wouldn’t get wet. The waves were crazy and he had to go out past the break of it. We would go running into the water and I’m topless, and I’m thinking they’re going to cut around this because in my contract they can’t show anything. But I was full on just boobs everywhere and they all saw every bit of me, but I didn’t care because I was so cold. It was the craziest experience, and then there was a stingray in the water and Mary Elizabeth ended up having a nice dance with the stingray. She was just like, “I just danced with a stingray in the water. I was just swimming around with it,” and I was like that’s great. My nipples are freezing and I’m going to die. We all went back into this crazy warming hut that had 20 heaters in it, and none of us cared about how the others were. It was like get me warm now! I can’t even go into the ocean in Maine because it’s so cold. I’m not an ocean person, but that’s a whole other issue.

BK: I read that the lifeguards on the set gave you a strong warning about the stingrays in the jellyfish that were out there in the ocean, so the fact you all still went in there speaks a lot to your bravery.

EC: Yeah, we were all making jokes afterwards. To this day we still all text each other that Mary Elizabeth got pregnant from Ray the stingray, so it’s just an ongoing joke and that now I’m dating him. Ray needs to take up a special thanks, but I guess he didn’t make it into the credits.

BK: I understand Ray the stingray actually appears in this movie.

EC: Mary Elizabeth says that it did. She said, “Did you see?” Crazy.

BK: According to your bio you studied at The Groundlings as well as Improv Olympic…

EC: Which is hilarious because I did not (laughs). Here’s why that says: I took one class at The Groundlings and actually that’s where I became friends with Nasim Pedrad, Mikey Day and Taran Killam. We all took the same classes together, and then I didn’t get moved forward because I wasn’t funny enough. I needed more work so I said fuck you (laughs) and moved back to New York. Before I did that, I paid to put up a one person show at Improv Olympic. After I moved to New York I rewrote the whole thing, and that’s where everything started. I put it up at UCB (Upright Citizen’s Brigade), but I actually never took classes there either. This is why in the comedy world everybody hates me because I’ve actually performed at all these theaters, but I’ve never taken any classes at any of them.

A big thanks to Eliza Coupe for taking the time to talk with me. “The Last Time You Had Fun” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Above photo courtesy of Getty Images.