Avatar: The Way of Water preview screening provided by Disney
In a year where caped crusaders have played second fiddle to F18’s and dinosaurs, Avatar: The Way of Water sees James Cameron swimming in his exclusive pool of opportunity; a sandbox style, open world, video game feeling film that is as hearty as it is beefy. Cameron, unsurprisingly, is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what a high concept blockbuster looks like. Setting the trend with The Terminator (1984), he’s always been out to entertain first, and worry about everything else second. The Way of Water speaks to that sentiment and culminates in a sensory experience unlike any at the cinema this year.
This is, after all, a film that —like the original Avatar (2009) before it— places an emphasis on out-of-body living, on connecting with the surrounding world and learning how to nurture and care for it. Cameron, an environmental activist in his own right, made Avatar and has pursued these sequels in part because he sees them as an opportunity to raise more awareness about our own world and environment.
In The Way of Water, he follows similar concerns to that of the first film, but trades the fullness of the foresty terrain, for the breadth and depth of the oceanic surroundings. The Na’vi continue to thrive, with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now leading the tribe alongside his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They also have a few mini-Sully’s of their own: two sons —Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton)— and a daughter, Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They also care for Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who has a connection to Weaver’s character from the first film, but one that is kept intentionally vague.
The actual events of the film take place some 10 years after those of the first one. Humans continue to arrive to Pandora to harvest resources, and are even continuing to create avatars of their own. One of those is Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang), whose DNA and memories have been imbued in one of the lab grown blue beings to the point where he acts and talks like the Colonel in the first film, but he’s not him per se.
In essence, the stakes feel similar: Jake and co are on the backfoot while the Sky People pursue and hunt them. Sometimes the actual motive behind this continued hunting isn’t explained all that clearly — the Colonel seems to have retained the same grudge for Sully in his avatar form as he had in his human form, but beyond that, the plot plays out like a game of hide and seek. Most of that hiding happens in the distant islands far off the mainland, where other tribes reside and have grown and learned the way of water. A good chunk of the film is spent leading up to Sully’s retreat into this unseen part of Pandora, but once out in open waters, the film opens up both visually and sonically.
Cameron has a penchant for anything aqua related, and it shows in these deep diving areas. The flora and fauna pop in ways that make one believe this world is tucked away somewhere in our own oceanic backyard. Maybe seeing all of this unfold through Cameron’s other love, 3D, might have heightened the immersion? But there is an evident care for this world that entraps and allures you, and makes you believe it’s real, if but for a split second.
It helps that the frame rate is bumped up to 48fps at certain parts. Character movements are crisp and almost life-like, where there is a fluidity to the motion. This is especially noticeable in the underwater portions of the film that are as visceral as they are breathtaking, with colours popping out like a Van Gogh painting as you try and absorb each section of the frame.
Cameron makes it easy to care for these characters, who have more nuance splashed across their digital faces and more realness behind their big anime-like eyes, than any of the beings before and since Avatar. The technology is a large reason why this film works, because there just hasn’t been anything like it in cinemas previously, Avatar included. The film’s weakest link tends to be anything that isn’t digitised to the gills, like the Tarzan-esque boy Spider (Jack Champion) who was left an outcast and was essentially adopted by the Sully’s. While the film justifies his presence, it’s more jarring to spend time with anything that isn’t wholly CGI.
Cameron’s brilliance ultimately rests in his unmatched understanding of scale — of how to get all of his story points in a basket while showcasing them in the biggest way possible. He swiftly transitions from moments of bonding and connection between tribes and creatures, to large battles sequences involving these tribes and creatures as they glide over the ocean. You might not end up caring for the whale like Tulkin beasts that end up playing a more vital role in the plot than anything else, but it’s enough to believe that Cameron does. It’s a large reason he takes so long with these films, and especially with The Way of Water, as he finds that balance between telling a story about big blue people and everything in between that’s worth caring about, with the trailblazing action and scenery on display.
Even if the plot is very akin to that of the original film, The Way of Water is a sum of all of Cameron’s experiences and experiments up until now, where he pours his heart and soul into each and every frame, as though this could be the last ride in Pandora even with most of the sequels penned and planned out. The Way of Water hits like a tidal wave, and it’s worth getting drenched for.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens nationally from the 15th of December, 2022.