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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