Avatar: The Way of Water
Cameron returns to the silver screen with another visual marve
James Cameron is one of the most successful directors of all time. He’s directed two of the top three highest-grossing films of all time (Avatar (2009) #1, Titanic (1997) #3), has invented new movie cameras and processes, and has led audiences to expect nothing less than spectacle from a film bearing his name. After a 13-year absence from the silver screen (he’s worked on multiple documentaries in this time including the Emmy-winning Secrets of the Whales (2021)), he’s returned with yet another epic visual showpiece, a sequel to his, and the world’s, most successful film: Avatar.
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) is the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 movie. We find our hero Jake (Sam Worthington) fully inhabiting his blue alien Na’vi body. He’s built a family with the, now, queen Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). However, when a familiar enemy comes chasing them, they are forced to flee their forest tribe and find haven with the water-dwelling people of their planet Pandora. There, they will discover a new culture and way of life.
Cameron had wanted to hold back on the making of The Way of Water because the technology for visual effects was not quite at the level to incorporate wet environments. This wait, however, has been worth it. Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual marvel and spectacle that illustrates the next step in CGI effects, much like the first Avatar proved. The wonder that appeared on my face as I saw how the hair effects worked underwater, flowing locks with the currents, would have been something to behold. Likewise, the effect of a wet skin, or of liquid slowly drying in the sunlight is astounding. Sensing the potential and ability of his visual effects artists, Cameron stages much of The Way of Water in wet environments, not only within this seafaring village, but within the rain and in sinking ships as well.
The first Avatar film was heavily criticized for essentially recycling white-savior anti-colonialist stories such as that of “Pocahontas” or Dances with Wolves (1990). While this sequel certainly doesn’t dispel the derivativeness of its predecessor (there are heavy parallels to “Tarzan” now), Cameron curiously chooses to deemphasize plot. This is one of the film’s greater strengths and faults at the same time. The strength comes in Cameron being able to simply dispel story structure and rollick within alien habitats and explore the connection with nature in greater depth. The weakness in this lack of plot comes from the fact that the narrative thread that strings the film together is too generic. Many plot points are easily predicted, and the dialogue is mostly blockbuster stock. This waters down character motivations and it even weakens the cause and effect of scene structures.
Cameron brings back much of his original cast, with no regard to whether they had been killed off in the first film or not. Stephen Lang is a welcome return in the villainous role, even if his return is sloppily executed. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver is always a blessing for any film she’s in, and she inhabits one of the more curious casting choices in recent cinema. Given that many of the characters are entirely CGI, Weaver has been cast to play Jake and Neytiri’s teenage daughter. Weaver does a fantastic job at capturing teenage mannerisms and angst through her motion-capture performances, despite being middle-age, and subsequently delivers one of the more transcendent performances of the entire film.
As with many of Cameron films, The Way of Water is ten to twenty minutes too long, with a final battle sequence that, while satisfying, seems to be twisting itself around in order to not resolve itself too quickly. This is largely excusable, due to the fantastic staging of action and hypnotic visual effects. The Way of Water also leans more heavily on the climate destruction morals, and less on the neo-colonialist themes of the first film. This proves prescient to current societal priorities and gives The Way of Water an added depth and emotional stakes. Ironically, it’s much harder to see animals suffering on screen than fellow humans or humanoids, and their mistreatment proves a greater motivator to action than that of a fellow character.
In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water proves to be yet another must-see cinematic experience from Cameron. If only to presence the incredible visual world that he has created. The Way of Water also is a fabulously affecting moral lesson on the need to connect and preserve natural habitats. The plot and narrative of the film are its weaker elements, largely abandoned for much of the middle act, and too generic when surfaced. However, Cameron’s greater vision and ability to transport you to Pandora remains as intact and intriguing as in 2009.