'Avatar: The Way of Water': A Spectacular Cinematic Epic
When I saw Avatar in theaters back in 2009, I remember being blown away by what James Cameron had created. The visual effects, use of 3D, and the specific details of the world of Pandora truly impressed me, and it was something unlike anything I've ever seen before. However, I wasn't too crazy about the general plot, as it did feel a tad derivative, but with Cameron's steady directorial hand, it didn't bother me too much. While I remember really liking Avatar at the time, I never revisited it until just recently. I was too worried that it wouldn't hold up as well watching it at home, and my interest in the film and waned quite a bit with time. When James Cameron announced that there would be four sequels to Avatar, I wasn't sure how to take it. On one hand, I was worried that four sequels was way too many, and that there wouldn't be enough to sustain the franchise for that many movies. On the other hand, James Cameron is at the helm of these films. If anyone can pull off making four sequels to a film about blue humanoids and have them be successful, it's James Cameron. It's been a long road to get to the first of these sequels, Avatar: The Way of Water, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was going to be worth the 13 year wait between films. But somehow, someway, James Cameron has done it again, and delivers an innovative, beautiful, and exciting film that builds off what he set up in the original Avatar, and improves upon it greatly.
The Way of Water picks up several years after the events of the first film, where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have settled into their life together on Pandora and have started a family. All is well for the Sully family, but when a familiar threat re-emerges, they leave their home to explore other regions of Pandora, and find themselves working together to protect their planet from an army of humans who seek to destroy it.
Unsurprisingly, this film looks amazing. I saw it in 3D with High Frame Rate, and I was stunned by how clear and gorgeous the images were. It made me feel like I was fully immersed in the world of Pandora, and my jaw dropped several times due to how great the visual effects looked. It may have taken James Cameron and company 13 years to get this film made, but if it meant making sure the technology they needed to pull this off and make the film look as breathtaking as it does, it was definitely worth it.
The 3D and HFR is especially effective in the underwater sequences, which are a major highlight of the film. James Cameron is always great with using water in his films, but this film sees him working on a whole new level. The vibrancy and color of the waters and reefs of Pandora is so arresting, and it is an excellent expansion of what we saw in the first film. The forests of Pandora are beautifully designed, but I was fully captivated by the seaside region that this film introduces. Between the gorgeous look of it, the new creatures we meet, and how great all of the underwater cinematography looks, I was blown away by all of the scenes that take place here. On top of this, the film introduces some new creatures that I liked quite a bit. The design of them is so striking, and they fit into the world of the film so well. I was especially intrigued by the tulkuns, whale-like creatures that play a major part in the back half of the film. The design of them is so fascinating, and through one of the tulkuns, we get a lovely plotline involving one of Jake and Neytiri's kids befriending one of them. It's hard to put into words how the water sequences affected me, but to put it simply, I was astonished by them.
Of course, one of the film's biggest weaknesses lies in its script. This is also not much of a surprise, as the first film lacked in this department as well. However, I will say that the script for The Way of Water is an improvement over the first film. It helps that he has brought in other writers, namely Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, that likely helped him focus his vision in a way that is more compelling and engaging. Cameron isn't necessarily a bad screenwriter, but it has also never been his strong suit. He tends to rely on clichés quite a bit, and this film is not immune to that, but compared to the first film, this feels more like its own thing, and builds off of it quite nicely. The characterization is definitely stronger this time around, even if it isn't particularly deep, and the addition of the children works far better than I was expecting. Beyond that, the storytelling is pretty standard at best, but the rest of the film is so solid that it didn't drag it down too much for me. Plus, it's a blockbuster movie, so the fact that the writing isn't of the highest caliber isn't all that surprising. It would be nice if the script was a bit stronger, but I can't complain too much.
One of the highlights of the first Avatar movie was James Horner's great score. Sadly, Horner passed away in 2015, but his friend and fellow composer, Simon Franglen, has taken over for him. Franglen maintains Horner's sensibilities, and repurposes some of his original score, but he also puts his own touch on it as well. It is quite soothing at times, but it underlines the tension in the battle sequences so well and got me hyped up. Franglen is set to be the composer for all of the Avatar sequels, and this film shows that he more than well-suited for the job.
Circling back to the film's script, the structure of the film mostly works, but it is a bit clunky in the beginning. Much of the film's first act functions as a way to catch the viewer up in case they forgot what happened in the first movie, as well as setting up some exposition. It does drag on a bit for the first hour of the film, but once we get to the first big action setpiece, the film begins to take off. The second act, which immerses us in the world of the reef dwelling Metkayina clan, is quite intriguing, but it is the film's third act that really makes this film shine. In true James Cameron fashion, most of the third act is a massive action spectacle, and it weaves in some of the familiar themes and trademarks that he has dealt in over the course of his career. Themes like environmentalism, family dynamics, maternal rage, and more all come into play in the last section of the film, and are deployed perfectly. The whole last hour of the film gripped me and I was astounded by it. It is a brilliant hybrid of land and underwater combat, and brings the whole film together. The last section is so thrilling that it almost makes up for the lower points of the film up to that point. It shows that while Cameron might not be the most skilled writer, he is one of our most gifted visual storytellers, and a master of spectacle.
Most of the characters we see are giving motion-capture performances, and I must say that these are some of the better mo-cap performances I've ever seen. Sam Worthington was a weak link of the first film, but he is so much better this time around. It helps that he is able to play Jake Sully as a more assured, confident leader in this one, and it feels much more in his wheelhouse compared to what the first film is asking of him. Zoe Saldaña once again is great as Neytiri, even if she isn't as much of a focus in this film. She makes every moment count, however, and she is excellent in the film's third act. One of the biggest surprises, however, comes in the form of Sigourney Weaver. It's no surprise that Weaver is really good in this film, as she is a legend of her craft, but it is surprising that she is as good as she is when playing a teenager. She is extremely good in the first film as Dr. Grace Augustine, one of the scientists researching the Na'vi people, but this film sees her taking on the role of Jake and Neytiri's adopted teen daughter, Kiri. I was a little worried that this choice would be distracting, but it works far better in execution than I would have ever guessed. A lot of this is due to Weaver's immense talent as an actor, and she plays the wonder and drive of her character so beautifully.
While I have some of the same issues with this film that I had with the first film, I must admit that I was enchanted by Avatar: The Way of Water. It is a highly innovative film, and is easily one of the greatest technical achievements ever put on film. It may be lacking in the writing department, but this is the type of spectacular filmmaking that reminds me why I love movies. The visual effects are incredible, and the technological advances that went into this film further cement James Cameron as one of our finest cinematic craftsmen. I went into this film feeling skeptical about the future of the Avatar franchise, but after seeing The Way of Water, I am beyond excited to see what Cameron and company have in store for the rest of the sequels. As for this film, it is a significant improvement on the first film in almost every single way, and had me wondering just how they pulled off some of the more extreme aspects of the film. It's certainly not perfect, but it is the exact type of massive, exciting, and mindblowing film that I just can't resist.