THE STORY – Jake Sully and Ney’tiri have formed a family and are doing everything to stay together. However, they must leave their home and explore the regions of Pandora. When an ancient threat resurfaces, Jake must fight a difficult war against the humans.
THE CAST – Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang & Kate Winslet
THE TEAM – James Cameron (Director/Writer), Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 192 Minutes
In 2009, James Cameron introduced us to the world of Pandora. This beautiful but deadly alien planet served as the setting for “Avatar,” the film that kick-started the return of 3D to cinema and broke all kinds of box office records. It also sparked a fanatical devotion among certain moviegoers, who were so entranced with the digitally-created world of Pandora that they became depressed that it wasn’t a real place where they could live. The film was an environmentalist/anti-colonialist parable in which humans were the enemy, unconcerned with blowing up the sacred trees in which Pandora’s Na’vi people lived and worshiped their deity Eywa. While the film’s sci-fi spin on “Dances With Wolves” received some criticism for the obviousness of its dated story, it was universally praised for its groundbreaking visual effects and clean action direction.
Thirteen years later, Cameron is taking us back to Pandora for the sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The film represents a decade of behind-the-scenes work: innovations in visual effects technology, digital cinematography, and performance capture, in addition to untold millions of dollars in production costs. Every cent and every second spent on making this film can be seen onscreen. “The Way of Water” is the magic of movies made manifest, a three-hour-plus epic that brings us to a new world and makes it thrillingly tactile in ways that no other film has done before. In other words: James Cameron has done it again.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” begins fifteen years after the first film’s events. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now living as a Na’vi, has started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). When the humans who were forcefully evicted from Pandora at the end of “Avatar” return with vengeance (and profit) on their minds, the Sully family is forced to go on the run and seek refuge with a water clan, the Metkayina. Here they learn how to swim, forage from the ocean, and bond with the sea creatures until the humans inevitably catch up with them, and they must face the evil earthlings in combat once again. In many ways, this is just the same story as “Avatar” all over again. However, Cameron has given this sequel a stronger emotional core by centering it on the Sully family, with Jake figuring out what kind of a father he wants to be, how to balance his family’s well-being with that of the larger community, and how to keep his loved ones safe. That core is so strong that it is able to power the entire three-hour and twelve-minute-long film, even though the film’s best scenes primarily have very little to do with moving the plot forward. Instead, they focus on further immersing us in the world of Pandora, specifically the culture of the Metkayina.
While we’re still on Pandora, the environment where the Metkayina lives couldn’t be more different from that of the forest we spent so much time in during the previous film. All the sense of awe inspired by the first film stays intact here, not just because of the advances in digital technology but because the film immerses us into a culture in a completely new environment, with new wildlife, new foliage, and new craftwork by the Metkayina. It looks just as beautiful as the forest, if not more so, with cinematographer Russell Carpenter lighting everything with a gorgeous, ethereal glow that emphasizes the incredible work of the visual effects artists. Just like the previous film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” blends live-action performances and environments with performance-capture technology and digitally-created sets. Even more so than the first, it does not feel like it takes place in an environment that was computer-generated at all. In fact, in high frame rate 3D, the world of Pandora feels so real that you want to reach out from your theater seat and touch it, especially with one of the new underwater species we meet, giant whale-like things that look for all the world like real, ancient creatures from the deep. The work on the underwater environment itself is incredible – Cameron’s decision to shoot the motion-capture performances underwater instead of completely digitizing it reaps incredibly beautiful rewards – but the effects work on the animals themselves is so strong, so lifelike that you will spend much of the film in disbelief that Cameron didn’t somehow transport an entire film crew to an actual alien planet and shot the film there.
To watch “Avatar: The Way of Water” is to be enchanted by a master filmmaker at the absolute height of his powers. Cameron has always been one of Hollywood’s best directors of action, and that’s still true today. The action sequences here are of an old-school style of filmmaking that Hollywood has largely jettisoned in favor of short shots, fast cuts, and sensory overload. Not so here. Cameron takes his time to set up the environment, the players, and the stakes in every scene and lets the action play out in long takes that always let us see what is happening, to whom, and where they are in relation to everything else that is happening. While the action sequences aren’t as clever as in many pure action films these days, Cameron understands that film is primarily a form of visual storytelling and treats his action scenes as just another vehicle for telling his story. Because of this, they’re clearly shot, cleanly cut, and overall arranged in a way to get your adrenaline pumping. As good as he is at directing action, though, it is clear that his heart is really with the natural world of Pandora. As the Sully family learns the ways of the water tribe, Cameron films their journey with a sense of childlike wonder and awe that effortlessly transfers to the audience. This is a stupefyingly beautiful film, both visually and in terms of character and theme. As the Sullys integrate themselves into this new environment, they learn more about themselves and what values are important to them. While dialogue has never been Cameron’s strong suit (and some of it is incredibly grating here), he still manages some touching lines about the importance of family sticking together and supporting each other. He is also a wiz at story construction, and while you could watch “Avatar” and “The Way of Water” next to each other and have the major plot beats occur at the exact same time in each, he has the formula down to a science, and it works. The big emotional moments happen at the exact right point in the narrative to have maximum impact, and thanks to Cameron’s powerful storytelling abilities and the skill of his cast, it works every time.
The cast will always get short shrift when talking about a film like this, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Saldaña once again gives the overall strongest performance, tapping into something elemental in her portrayal of Neytiri – every emotion feels perfectly pure, coming from a deep place inside her with no filter. Worthington may be hampered by Jake’s general blandness as a character, but he’s a rock-solid anchor for the family and the film. The real surprise, though, is that the Sully children are among the most endearing characters in the whole film, with not a single annoying child performance among them. Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, and Trinity Jo-Li Bliss are all fantastic. Sigourney Weaver, digitally de-aged as a Na’vi offspring of Dr. Grace Augustine’s lifeless avatar whom Jake and Neytiri adopt, is not always able to make her voice sound like a teenager. Still, she gives a performance of transportive wonder as the Sully most in tune with nature and will be pivotal in future sequels.
Once again, James Cameron has set a new standard for blockbuster-style filmmaking: “Avatar: The Way of Water” creates a world that is all too easy to get lost in, populates it with engaging characters, and takes the time to let us get invested in them. This is unquestionably a long film, but it’s paced so well that it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is. Cameron achieves a near-perfect balance between action sequences, character beats, and moments of pure aesthetic beauty that allow the film to breathe, giving the audience much-needed moments of respite whenever the film threatens to become overwhelming. The film’s mind-blowing technical aspects are sure to dazzle even the most jaded moviegoers, but the heart at the story’s core is what truly lifts “The Way of Water” above your average blockbuster. Technical wizardry is nice, and all, and neither high frame rate nor 3D have ever looked better than they do here, but that would not be so meaningful without a strong story to prop it up. It’s easy to question why anyone would care about an “Avatar” sequel over a decade later, but when the result is as well-constructed and heartfelt as this, it’s even easier to say that the wait was worth it.