Avatar: The Way of Water (Review) – The Visuals Keep It Afloat

DIRECTOR: James Cameron

CAST: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, CCH Pounder, Matt Gerald, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Chloe Coleman, Trinity Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, Duane Evans Jr., CJ Jones, Jack Champion, Joel David Moore, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement

RUNNING TIME: 190 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: Jake Sully (Worthington) and his Na’vi family must protect their planet from the returning human invaders…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

James Cameron is nothing if not ambitious. The guy will spend years and hundreds of billions of dollars developing invigorating new filmmaking methods that end up pushing several boundaries all at once, all for the sake of looking incredible on the screen, and more often than not it really works for him, especially with audiences who have made not one but two of his films enough money to rank as some of highest-grossing movies of all time. However, therein also lies his greatest flaw: because he is so committed to exploring and showcasing all these technological possibilities, his storytelling methods remain simplistic at best with plot and character beats that are either resoundingly familiar or greatly lost within the visual indulgence. It’s no coincidence that his best film to date is one of his shortest: The Terminator, at only 107 minutes, manages to balance both effects and riveting storytelling without falling too much into either category, but since then for the filmmaker it’s been all about pushing the envelope to a point where the letter inside hardly matters anymore.

This brings us to Avatar, which to many is an apt summary of Cameron’s style-over-substance approach to filmmaking. Of course, it hardly matters what critics thought, since to this day it remains the highest-grossing film of all time worldwide, but even thirteen years on from its release it is still a divisive film, with most agreeing that while the visuals are undeniably spectacular, the familiar plot, thin characters, and overly-blatant environmental message bring it down several pegs, or at least enough to prevent it from becoming the universally-beloved sci-fi epic that its box office intake suggests. Nonetheless, Cameron remains dedicated to bringing audiences more of the world of Pandora whether they asked for it or not, and with Avatar: The Way of Water – the first in a long-in-development series of sequels – he manages to deliver exactly what most are probably expecting from an Avatar sequel: plenty more of those amazing visuals, but somehow an even thinner plot and set of characters across an all-too epic running time.

The sequel begins some years after the events of the first film, wherein human soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) – after bonding with the extra-terrestrial Na’vi species via a telepathically-connected “avatar” – ended up driving away those pesky “sky people” from destroying the native tribe’s forest home. Now, he and his Na’vi partner Neyteri (Zoe Saldaña) have started a family, including sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Brittain Dalton), adoptive daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who was mysteriously birthed from the avatar of Jake’s deceased friend Dr. Grace Holloway (also Weaver), and a young human named Spider (Jack Champion) who was left to be raised on the planet. However, the family’s happiness is short-lived as the humans they drove away make a decisive return to Pandora, accompanied by a squadron of new avatars with the memories of dead human soldiers, led by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who wants Jake and his people dead at any cost. To protect themselves, the family migrates to a clan of sea-diving Na’vi, who take the Sully squad in and show them how to adapt to the water environments around them, from deep-diving to bonding with the numerous underwater creatures – which should come in handy when the humans come searching for them.

Just like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water is all about showing the viewer new and exciting things that high-level computer graphics can produce, not to mention representing a fascinating new leap forward in terms of filmmaking technology. Utilising new methods of underwater motion-capture, Cameron and his army of effects artists have created a real visual spectacle whenever we are taken into the watery depths of this planet. It is utterly beautiful to look at, with each new creature looking alarmingly more real than the last, to a point where you know you’re looking at an effect but are still so taken aback by how textured and detailed each crevice and wrinkle looks that you almost end up fully buying the illusion. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter (replacing the first film’s Osar-winning DP Mauro Fiore) brings out such vibrant colours at every turn, whether we are tracing through the blue and luminous oceans or trekking through the luscious green forests, or even admiring the bright teal skin of this new deep-diving clan compared to the usual darker-blue get-up of Sully and his family, further ensuring that our eyes are constantly fixated on something interesting which, as per most James Cameron movies, is mesmerising in its production values alone.

It’s a shame, then, that also much like the first film, Cameron isn’t able to completely replicate his filmmaking passions for his narrative. While the plot is slightly less familiar this time round, there is the feeling that Cameron’s script – for which he shares credit with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote some of the recent Planet of the Apes movies – is much looser in actual plot, with long stretches that go by that are just these characters exploring the ocean environment that don’t exactly add to the overall story. As for the characters, they’re fine enough to root for, but there’s little else to most of them that’s enough to establish a genuine emotional connection with them; it’s saying something when a giant whale-like creature, who ends up forming a Free Willy-style bond with one of the main protagonists, ends up being one of the most developed personalities out of everyone. The fact that there is such a thinness to this plot and its characters makes the three-plus hour running time feel so much longer, because beyond the beautiful visuals there’s not much to keep you completely invested, so when a big emotional scene happens, you aren’t feeling much other than the physical strain of keeping your bladder in check (that, incidentally, seems to be the real way of water in this scenario).

The film really does bring out the strongest and weakest components of James Cameron as a filmmaker: it’s visually flawless, but narratively it leaves a lot to be desired, which makes it an ambitious but ultimately indulgent slice of technological pioneering. Here, as with the first Avatar, you really do feel Cameron’s passion for bringing this world and its inhabitants to startling life, and to see someone like him double down on what he wants to ultimately achieve for the sake of a big-screen experience is entirely admirable. However, it’s the kind of film that spends so much time on its own beauty that it largely forgets to give itself (ironically enough) a human element, leaving the viewer stuck with stories and characters that are simplistic to a fault. In that regard, I don’t see anyone who didn’t like the first film, even when it originally came out, being won over this time round; likewise, I can see why those who have stuck with it since 2009 will consider it an even greater triumph for Cameron and overall filmmaking. No matter what, you can definitely count on this movie making a ton of money, enough to justify all those other sequels that are still in active development (though whether it can make as much, or even surpass, its title-holding predecessor at the worldwide box office, will be an interesting race to keep a close eye on), and to further ensure that we’re staying in this world for some time yet.

For my money, though, Avatar: The Way of Water is fine enough – but for something that supposedly cost up to $400 million to make, and took years upon years to develop and execute all these dazzling new technologies, it really should be better than “fine enough”. Maybe the next trip to Pandora, currently due in 2024, will give us a little bit more than just pretty blue people to look at.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Avatar: The Way of Water is a technologically ambitious but narratively thin sequel to James Cameron’s top-grossing sci-fi epic, which offers some absolutely gorgeous visuals that are best experienced on the big screen, but a plot that’s somehow thinner than before and characters who, while passable, aren’t memorable or interesting enough to carry the lengthy three-plus hour running time.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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