Avatar: The Way of Water – Film Review

It took a while but I eventually got around to watching that obscure little indie movie about blue cat people.

I’m of course talking about James Cameron’s epic return to Pandora, which by now has raked in over two billion dollars worldwide and proven once again that one should never bet against the king of box office. Back in 2009, I was one of the many people dazzled by the visual magnificence of Avatar, but thirteen years on, I was inclined to side with the naysayers: would the promised string of sequels to a film that didn’t seem to leave much of a lasting cultural impact come too late? Was it going to be more of the same, just with a lot less impact? Who even cares about the 3D anymore?

I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Avatar: The Way of Water may not have the sheer novelty of the original while possessing most of its flaws, but once again, I was entranced by Cameron’s beautiful, fully realised world that he clearly intends to spend the rest of his filmmaking days in. Though I may never wish to rewatch it at home unless I can somehow double the size of my TV screen, as a pure immersive cinematic ride I can think of few recent films that matched it.

The sequel is more of an ensemble film, as we catch up with the now full-time Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their children: a young daughter Tuk, teenage sons Neteyam and Lo’ak, and an adopted daughter named Kiri mysteriously born to Sigourney Weaver’s character from the first film. Their peaceful life is shattered when the dreaded “sky people” return, including the old foe Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose memories and personality were conveniently backed up just before his death and now placed inside his avatar Na’vi form. Normally I’d roll my eyes at a recycled villain, but Na’vi Quaritch is a fun entertaining baddie who’s also capable and menacing, and even throws in a surprise or two.

Hunted by Quaritch and his squad, Jake decides that the family must seek refuge in a different part of Pandora, among the Metkayina water clan of Na’vi who are quite different to their forest kin. This is where the film truly comes into its own, as it ditches the already-familiar forests for the element that has always had a special pull on Cameron, i.e. water. All I can say is that the new Little Mermaid has its work cut out if it doesn’t want to come off as a cheap and nasty imitation, because the underwater world of Pandora is beyond stunning.

I wouldn’t have thought that the series could replicate the fish-out-of-water story, but by cleverly switching up the environments, the movie pulls it off. There are some breathtaking sequences as Jake’s kids learn the ways of their new home, with the marine flora and fauna so marvellously rendered you forget that none of what you’re watching is real. There’s such a powerful sense of awe and wonder at the natural world that I wasn’t even annoyed by the not-so-subtle Save the Whales messaging in the second half of the film. Whatever you might say about Cameron’s later films, they are not soulless Hollywood conveyor belt “products”.

The decision to let the viewer experience this new corner of the world through the wide-eyed perspective of children pays off, as does grounding the story in something as relatable and universal as having to negotiate your way in a new neighbourhood with not-so-friendly local kids, or the pain of feeling different or inadequate. Though her introduction into the story is a tad awkward, Kiri is an especially intriguing new character, with unexplained powers and origin that will clearly be of major importance in the future films. The new burden of fatherhood adds a welcome new layer to Jake Sully, who was a fairly bland protagonist in the original Avatar but now has extra responsibilities and relationships to juggle. Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri meanwhile reminds you that Cameron always had a thing for ferocious mothers during the final climactic battle.

You don’t have to look for flaws too hard. Cameron’s ear for dialogue hasn’t improved in the last thirteen years, ranging from serviceable to pure cringe (though on the bright side it felt refreshing to watch a deeply earnest blockbuster that doesn’t constantly bombard you with quips and jokes). There’s not that much to the story and some concepts that get introduced I found just plain dumb. The movie wastes interesting character actors like Edie Falco and Jemaine Clement in poorly defined roles, as a general in charge of invasion on Pandora and a marine biologist who reluctantly shares a ride with greedy whale hunters, respectively. The jury’s still out if the character of Spider – a human boy half-adopted by Jake’s family – really works.

Still, against my scepticism, the three and a bit hours simply flew by as I forgot all about the outside world and let myself be transported by a spectacle in a way that’s increasingly rare these days. I wouldn’t have believed it a few weeks ago, but now I really do look forward to more Avatar sequels, and the story developments teased in The Way of Water.

P.S. I cannot stand the high frame rate and unfortunately the IMAX 3D version of the movie had a few moments that made me queasy, and not just because I felt like I was watching a video game. Not enough to ruin the experience by any means, but please please keep this silly gimmick the hell away from the movie theatres.

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