Avatar: The Way of Water is a film 13 years in the making! But was the last decade of James Cameron’s life worth your while? Read on to find out…
Jake Sully and Neytiri live an idyllic life on Pandora. They’ve spent the past 13 years in peace, and built themselves a family. But they’re forced to run from their home when humans return to colonize the planet and take revenge on Jake for his betrayal.
Avatar: The Way of Water is somehow a gamble for its producers. On the one hand: it’s the long-awaited sequel to the highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation). Yet few people talk about Avatar anymore– and they’re often retroactively critical of it.
I’m known to be tough on James Cameron. I appreciate his passion and craft, but I’ve never loved his films. Still, my theatre featured a packed audience: of all backgrounds, sexes, and ages. Something about Cameron’s world resonates with people. Maybe the silent majority really DO like Avatar and I’ve just spent the last 13 years in an echo chamber of negative discourse. I’ll be happy if I’m proved wrong.
Let’s get an obvious question out of the way: do you need to watch Avatar 1 to enjoy Way of Water? I’d say yes. There’s enough lore carried over from part 1 that you’d likely get lost if you came into WoW cold. The first Avatar explains Na’vi culture to its audience surrogate while WoW thoroughly expands upon that knowledge.
Speaking of lore, James Cameron’s admirable world-building skills craft an elaborate and ever-growing fantasy world. I can see this being the kind of franchise where devotees tirelessly learn its intricate details. I probably won’t be one of them, but Pandora has that level of potential.
Avatar broke new technological ground in 2009 and wowed its audiences with refreshing 3-D technologies and cutting-edge CGI. But expensive, visual-effects-heavy blockbusters are the new norm for movies. Average people are numb to fake spectacle. It’s why we crave a return to practical action– ala Top Gun: Maverick. So The Way of Water billing itself as a technological leap forward is a risk. What more could we possibly be offered in 2022?
I can’t answer my previous question definitively, but my first response is to say: more of the same, only better. James Cameron and ILM masterfully pushed the limits of modern VFX technology in The Way of Water. Avatar 2’s CGI is arguably the most impressive I’ve ever seen! Nearly every shot in this film is a VFX shot, and 90% of them were photo-realistic in action.
Especially impressive were the underwater environments– which they darn well better have been, seeing as that was a selling point! Never before this have I seen characters move so realistically and immersively through water. My eye was genuinely fooled into thinking this could be a real ocean, and not merely a green screen.
The same idea goes for the Na’vi characters and their actors’ motion capture. Humans take a backseat to the Na’vi in The Way of Water (like, the backseat of a bus-length vehicle), so they NEEDED to look good. Motion capture, as impressive as it can be, has always been uncanny valley. Franchises like the new Planet of the Apes films came the closest to bridging the gap, but The Way of Water looks even better! We are now in an era of cinema where a fully alien world appears as realistic as ours, and its largely not off-putting.
The High Frame rate used in WoW, however, is weird and hurt my brain. The effect produces such lifelike movements that my senses have a tough time adjusting to the visual stimuli. I’m used to films which use half the frame rate– to create a greater separation between movie-worlds and our reality. To lose that separation is simultaneously more investing and more uncomfortable.
Pandora is a gorgeous, wonderous world, which Cameron and co. brought to life in spectacular fashion! And they know it too. So many shots are drawn out wide-angles of the landscapes and creatures, which force us to admire them. And I do. But, as beautiful as this world is, such shots were abundant enough to kill The Way of Water‘s flow.
The Way of Water is a true epic! Its plot explores Pandora from its forests to oceans to human settlements, and examines the cultures which reside in each of these places. So it’s no wonder this thing is over 3 hours long. But it’s a relatively slow-paced 3 hours. Don’t go in expecting tonnes of action. Way of Water is essentially a nature documentary with characters. I appreciate much of what Cameron wished to show us, but The Way of Water ran too long for what it was.
The Way of Water‘s story structure flaws are actually opposite to most films. The vast majority of movies have weak second acts, because writers don’t know how to pad the bits between their start and end. But The Way of Water‘s first and third acts bored me far more than its second! The first was all exposition, and the third was big CGI battles for which I had little investment. But the second is where characters are built, the world is explored, and the most fascinating elements of the film are shown.
The Way of Water features some cool action. The visuals in these scenes are as pretty as the rest. But Cameron’s direction sometimes lacks a sense of geography. We see a bunch of cool shots play out, but don’t always understand where they happen in relation to everything else at the same moment.
Let’s talk about the plot in general now: I liked it on the whole, but it’s deeply flawed. The story of a family’s bond through turbulent times is one to which many people can relate (or fantasize about). The Sully clan’s relationships are well-developed and progress nicely for the most part. But The Way of Water features tonnes of contrived plot-points meant to set up future films or force the plot of THIS film.
What pissed me off most: important characters are sidelined or developed poorly. Neytiri, most disappointingly, has little to do (though Zoe Saldana exhibits her raw emotions to great effect). The character of Spider especially frustrates, as he makes key plot decisions which appear nonsensical. And the characters, though they are decently founded, don’t grow or change so much as adapt to their surroundings.
Sigourney Weaver turns in The Way of Water‘s stand-out performance as Kiri. What’s weird is that Weaver’s supposed to be the teenage daughter of her character from the first film. And this performance would probably be impossible without motion capture! Weaver convinced me so thoroughly that she was a teenage girl, I didn’t even realize for half the movie that it was her in the role.
Everyone else’s acting was solid. Sam Worthington’s performance made me care about Jake Sully a bit more this time around. And Britain Dalton’s Lo’ak shows potential for future entries of the franchise (though he’s good here too).
Some people will claim the Na’vi and humans are too simplistic: all good and all evil respectively. These claims are generally well-founded, but miss some of the nuances. The humans are cartoonishly awful (except for Spider and the marine biologist guy), but they also have a sympathetic reason for their actions this time; and the Na’vi, while generally idealized, suffer from prejudices and xeonophobia.
I actually look forward to more Avatar films. And that shocks me, ’cause I went into The Way of Water thinking James Cameron’s goal to make another 4-5 of these was crazy… But he’s clearly passionate about this world, and creating technological innovations in their production. I respect that and wish to support him for the film industry’s future.
Avatar: The Way of Water is flawed, but a visual masterpiece which is Worth a Watch on the biggest screen you can find!
IN-DEPTH ANALYSES OF THE ABOVE, AND MORE, ON THIS EPISODE OF CLOSE UP:
Is James Cameron overrated, or perfectly rated? What did you think of Avatar: The Way of Water? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,