James Cameron’s follow-up to the highest-grossing movie ever shows us that we truly haven’t seen it all.
It’s been 13 years since the original Avatar came out and the movie industry, for better or worse, has changed drastically. These days, the idea of wide scale, CGI action blockbusters have become a normality, to the point where it’s hard to imagine how movie-making technology can advance even further. Enter James Cameron’s follow-up to the highest grossing movie ever, Avatar: The Way Of Water, to show us that we truly haven’t seen it all.
Avatar: The Way Of Water starts off a little clunky, as it takes its time to catch us up to speed on what’s been going on in Pandora and with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The two have started a family, with three children, and two adopted children – one the Na’vi daughter of Grace from the last film (both Grace and the daughter are played by Sigourney Weaver), and a human child named Spider (Jack Champion), the son of the big bad from the last film, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Except, plot twist: Quaritch is also the big bad of this film as well. His memory has been put into an Avatar and is set out to kill Jake Sully, causing the Sully family to take shelter in another part of Pandora, the water-based Metkayina tribe.
As much as the first act is filled with exposition dumps, the family dynamics – which are essential to a good chunk of the emotional core of the film – felt very rushed. We get the one-dimensional idea of what most of the kids are dealing with: the one son dealing with being an outcast, the adopted daughter coming to terms with her family tree, and the other two kids are just present. It’s when they arrive at the Metkayina tribe when I finally got very invested.
Cameron wisely shifts focus away from Jake and Neytiri for the most part, and chooses to primarily focus on the kids and the way they adapt to this new way of life. A really large chunk of the film is dedicated to watching them adapt and this was hands-down the high point of the film, especially from a visual standpoint. Everything underwater not only looked stunning, but watching the kids learn how to operate underwater with some really creative ideas was a wonder to watch.
Now with a film with this much reliance on visual effects, it’s inevitable that some technological issues will come up. Indeed, the film’s high frame rate resulted in moments where the frame rate dipped in distracting ways. Also, Sigourney Weaver’s voice coming out of the 12 year-old girl does lean into some uncanny valley territory sometimes. A lot of the visuals range from hyper-realism to a great looking next-gen video game cutscene.
But the majority of the visuals are genuinely stunning to look at. It’s clear why James Cameron took so long to make this film, from a technological standpoint. The stuff they did with the water is borderline perfect. Not just how beyond stunning and magical it looks as they interact with the environment underwater and the lighting that gives it such an infectious look, but even the way that the water drips off the motion capture characters looks so realistic in a way that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like it on film.
These moments in the water have a sense of calmness and humanity that made me so in love with these moments. The Metkayina people and their land contribute to the wonderful world building that, even more than the first, makes it seem like we’re not only experiencing a different world, but a whole new universe. Every so often, they cut back to the big bad military guys, and the immersion is lost a little bit until they go back to the water. This is an action movie after all; those moments are, to an extent, essential.
The villain is far and away the weakest link of the film. There’s an attempt at character building with Quaritch and his son, Spider, but their relationship is very unclear. There’s no clear motivation for Quaritch’s actions outside of “Let’s get Jake” and the screenplay commits a cardinal sin of villain writing: he knows he’s the villain. He says and does things that show that he knows he’s the villain of this story. There can be some internal conflict that Cameron might bring back in the future sequels, but in this film, there’s nothing of the sort.
The final act of this film is truly Cameron at his best. It’s essentially one long action film that starts in the day and ends the next morning, and it’s beyond gripping. There was maybe one moment that made me chuckle and go “Again?” But it’s a thrill-ride of a final act. It’s obviously visually impressive but it also has a lot of epic and creative action set pieces and moments where you’re genuinely fearing for the fate of our heroes. There’s a sense of magic in this final act that only Cameron seems to be able to bring out, and it’s truly a feat to watch.
Avatar: The Way Of Water was well worth the long wait. Even beyond the technical achievement that James Cameron pulled off, somehow topping the already massive feat of the original, it feels like Cameron listened to the complaints of the first film and at the very least made an effort to address them, even if it’s still got some serious room for improvement. But I’m nonetheless delighted to be back in Pandora and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Likely: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Production Design
Should be Considered: Best Original Song
Where to Watch: In Theatres
Critic and journalist student from Toronto, Canada
Favorite Actor: Brendan Fraser