When James Cameron’s “Avatar” was released in 2009 to rave reviews and Roger Ebert called it the new “Star Wars,” the 3D experience was heralded as a breakthrough in audio-visual entertainment. But not long after, buzz began to dwindle, especially around the home release, and what was seen as the plot’s derivative moves, junky dialogue, and problematic caricatures were exposed more harshly without the flattering glow of a multi-dimensional theater experience. On some level, this made sense; the first “Avatar” is a fully experiential journey, with a simple plot about an Earthling who falls in love in an alien wonderland of bioluminescent fauna and tropically shaded dragons, abandoning his own humanity along the way. At its best, “Avatar” turned that premise into the feel of a waking dream, a first-person experience where the audience’s feelings are entirely in step with Jake Sully’s as he falls both for a beautiful new planet and the people who live there. In that sense, the hyper-immersive imagery and sounds didn’t just support the story; they became it.
If Ebert was right in comparing “Avatar” to “Star Wars,” “Avatar: The Way Of Water” is “The Empire Strikes Back.” Both are sequels that further master the technical possibility of special effects. Yet, unlike the whiz-bang hero’s journey of the debut, each sequel wields that cutting-edge film tech to power a smaller, more character-driven movie about heroes on the run, turning their every strength into a weakness. Where the first “Avatar” used its hypnotic visuals to suck you into a fully subjective story, “Avatar: The Way Of Water” is a more personal, introspective, morally interrogative sequel across a bigger ensemble of characters and on a smaller screen without the controversial variable frame rate, hyper-immersive 3D or multi-story screens, it’s only reinforced what a clear, well-told family saga this truly is, one born from Cameron’s own mistakes as a father.
Despite the back-and-forth debate during the pandemic, watching movies at home is a different experience than watching them in the theater, with different gains and losses. As critic Bilge Ebiri once told me, “I think it makes a difference when a movie is bigger than you. (…) your relationship to it changes.” He’s right. Seeing a movie in a great cinema is a full-body active experience, demanding attention for a locked-in running time, asking you to give yourself over to something larger. A bright projector bulb, well-calibrated speakers, and gargantuan screen can bring out the most of what we think of as the “cinematic” qualities of the medium, image, and sound edited through time, the equivalent of praying to God not in your living room but in a stain-glassed Cathedral.
Living room viewing may be getting better as TVs advance in quality and reduce in cost, but in a movie theater, the film has control over you, not the other way around. By contrast, home viewing can be a more passive, diminutive experience, one where you’re prone to easier distraction. Watching “straight to streaming” film releases during the pandemic was a fun experiment, but like many people, I sometimes found myself at a slight distance from movies or scenes I knew I might’ve loved on the magic of a big screen. Without the thundering bass and eye-melting luminosity of a great projector, the hot-and-mild response of the original “Avatar,” and other “experiential” movies like “Gravity” or even “Dunkirk” (my personal favorite by Nolan) demonstrate the movie you experience in a theater isn’t quite the one you watch on your couch, and sometimes ask for a different kind of engagement. Some would argue a “great movie” shouldn’t “rely” on the theater experience to work, but the difference is closer to comparing seeing a band live and listening to the studio album. And some bands play better live.To follow the metaphor, Cameron’s movies are some of the best stadium rock shows in the world. In theaters, “Avatar: The Way Of Water” was a technical tour-de-force that pushed the fidelity of computer-generated imagery further than any film I’ve seen before or since, earning a level of hyper-immersion that approached a mesmeric virtual reality. Cameron’s mastery of staging and visual geography is intoxicating and transportive front to end but is especially shown in his bravura set pieces. They unfold across land, air, and sea, showing breathtaking chains of cause and effect through epic action on a scale rarely seen this decade. A torpedo-sized arrow from above pierces through a helicopter window below, butchering its pilot; we cut inside a mini-submarine as water rushes in, just crushed by animated sea fauna beneath it; machine guns firing from above water-level leave bullet trails underwater, just missing Na’Vi swimming to safety. The final hour is a nonstop symphony of escalating multi-level action that celebrates everything big-screen storytelling can be, directed by Cameron with as much bite as the maw of a Pandoran shark.
At home, these set pieces still dazzle, but if there’s one clear benefit to couch viewing, it’s the possibility of a greater focus on story, theme, and character. It’s an oversimplification to say all movies that flex image and sound play better in theaters, while those focused on the dramaturgical thrive at home, but the latter is where “Avatar: The Way Of Water” finds its lasting resonance across all screen sizes and formats. Jake Sully and Neytiri are married with kids, Lo’ak, Neyteyam, Kiri, and Tuk, taking family selfies, having date nights, and teaching their oldest to fish. Their existence is idyllic, living out their days in an unspoiled cosmic Eden, lying in wait to be sullied once again by the Sky People, the Na’Vi label for human RDA forces. The “Sky People” stage a reinvasion, leveling forests in a sequence similar to the apocalyptic imagery in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” complete with mecha marching forth in its wake. They’re returning not just to colonize but to relocate all of Earth’s population to Pandora, setting in motion a web of interlocking, literate plot arcs on toxic parenthood, outsiders, and characters going through states of existential change.
Instead of a loving father, Jake’s become a harsh militant enforcer, bringing his sons on missions to attack RDA supply trains, chewing them out for disobeying orders in combat, blind to how they only want to please him despite the danger of a warzone. “This is not a squad; it is a family,” says Neytiri, showing how pernicious parenting pushes children to act out. They do, Lo’ak most of all, the troublemaker who tests the limits of what mischief he can make while secretly hoping to win his father’s love and respect. He can’t conform to Jake’s semper fi “obey/disobey” parenting, trying to find his own paths to follow the spirit of his wishes. “We can adapt,” Jake pleads to the Metkayina clan to accept them, without understanding his children are struggling to adapt too, only in ways he’s too blind to understand.Beneath the gargantuan budget for photoreal visual effects is a story that plays more like a relatable family drama than an action blockbuster, turning universal familial dichotomies into broad adventure pulp. Instead of a teenager who “falls into the wrong crowd” with kids who smoke or do drugs, Lo’ak bonds with a formerly murderous, sad space whale named Payakan, a Tulkun, telling him, “I know how you feel. I feel all alone too.” Neyteyam is the overlooked “good” son, but instead of taking extracurriculars and having a 4.0 GPA, he knows shortcuts to battle. Kiri, the moody art girl who feels perpetually like she doesn’t belong, doesn’t listen to “My Chemical Romance” or journal; she’s plagued by a mystical connection to Pandora and a possible “divine” virgin birth, also given to rolling her eyes when people annoy her. Spider reunites with his problematic absent father, Colonel Quaritch; only his dad’s old “consciousness” has been implanted into a cloned alien body after being killed fifteen years prior.
One of Cameron’s super-powers as a storyteller is taking uncanny story choices and making them feel so intuitive they begin to feel “safe” and “predictable,” reinforced by how his script slyly zigs when you expect them to zag. The plot pivots from a galactic conflict into a manhunt, like Darth Vader’s obsessive search for Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back,” with Quaritch back in an Avatar body stalking the Sully family from jungle to sea, pushing Jake and Neytiri to make hard moral decisions about how best to protect their children––not the stuff of the average superhero movie. It’s fight or flight, and Neytiri and Jake don’t agree. She urges action. “Demon, I’ll kill you as many times as I have to”//”We must hunt this demon. Trap him. Kill him.” Jake stresses caution and fear, taking refuge in the water-based Metkayina clan and knowingly endangering them in the process. When Quaritch sets fire to Metkayina villages in his search for the Sully family, Jake passively lets it happen. Is your greater responsibility the protection of your family, or your community? What puts your children at greater risk, running towards a problem, or away from it?
The most inventive of “Avatar: The Way Of Water’s” narrative gambles involves the new Quaritch, who is neither the villain from the first film, “I am not that man,” nor a completely new being. At once, he is the shadow of a paid-for-hire ex-marine and a struggling parent in search of a new identity, conflicted about how to raise Spider, if at all. Soon after capturing Spider, Quaritch intervenes in his surrogate son’s torture, creating a scenario where father-son bonding can masquerade as mission planning. “Just tag along,” giving way to language lessons, taming beasts, and traveling the waters of Pandora instead of throwing a ball around or attending little league. This Nouveau-Quaritch is a philosophical cousin to the androids in “Blade Runner,” whose implanted memories define them––until they don’t. One of the first images of Quaritch is of him looking out a spaceship viewport; his reflection is bifurcated between Pandora and the ship above, and his human and Pandoran identities are split in two. Later, he crushes his old human skull in his bare hand, Cameron’s sci-fi Hamlet, a character partly dead, partly alive. This Quaritch seems less hardened than the last, disturbed by the sight of Neytiri’s arrows that killed his former self, softened by his inherited paternity. “Avatar: The Way Of Water” is ripe with vivid metaphors like these, a visual language always reinforcing its characters and what’s going on inside them, whereas the visual approach of “Avatar” primarily reinforced the experience of watching the movie.
“A father protects; it’s what gives him meaning,” Jake justifies to himself as he’s forced his family to flee their home, a creed that applies to Quaritch as much as himself. “Avatar: The Way Of Water” pushes parents and children into extremis, eventually forced to reckon with impossible choices no two people might handle, or judge, the same way. The emotional finale hinges on a stand-off between parents––Quaritch holds Kiri hostage, while Neytiri has Spider under her knife––that ends with a villain reclaiming some of his humanity while a hero sacrifices some of her own. Quaritch relents, embracing his fatherhood, while Neytiri’s bloodlust and grief at the death of her son Neyteyam ignites a killing spree that ends with the destruction of her sacred family bow, an heirloom from her late father, the price paid for her unchecked rage. It’s an open question whether Neytiri would have followed through on killing Spider had Quaritch not released Kiri, but her pained eyes tell the truth, a mother whose every instinct to protect her child overwhelms her sense of justice and morality, nearly murdering an innocent boy in the process.With the ship finally sinking into the Pandoran sea, “Avatar: The Way Of Water” reveals itself to be an intimate but epic ballad on children saving their broken parents, rescuing them in body but also in spirit. Neytiri’s bloodlust diminishes as her daughter, Kiri, with the fairy wings of a sea creature on her back, lights their way to safety; through Lo’ak’s lesson in ocean philosophy, deep breathing, and with extra help from the “outsider” Payakan, Jake and his son swim to the surface, finally seeing his boy for the resourceful hero he always was; Quaritch’s act of saving Spider was returned to him, as Spider saves his life and deepens their complex bond. If Cameron made a familial sea epic modeled on his own family, he also made one about the need for hard-ass parents to learn and grow from their children, and that’s a lesson as mighty as Eywa’s heartbeat, resonating on any screen regardless of its size.
How many times did you see “Avatar: The Way Of Water” in theaters? Have you watched it at home yet? If so, what do you think of the viewing experience? Are you excited to see more “Avatar” films? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. Thank you!