The Way of Water Marks Cameron’s Triumphant Return to Pandora
It’s been 13 years since James Cameron’s Avatar was first released to theaters and subsequently became the biggest box office hit of all time. There has been much discussion over the last decade-plus as to whether or not this science fiction action spectacular has left any cultural footprint or if all its thunder has been silenced by the consistent worldwide success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When it was announced Cameron would be bringing not one, not two, but four sequels to theaters over the course of the next decade, Hollywood pundits, bloggers, and a large collection of critics were quick to wonder if the time for a return trip to the planet Pandora and its Na’vi inhabitants had come and gone. Audiences don’t care about Avatar anymore. No one can remember what a Na’vi is. Jake Sully isn’t a memorable hero. The interstellar Dances with Wolves meets Ferngully scenario has only grown sillier and more problematic over time. The sequels are destined to fail.
There is a Hollywood industry axiom the individuals spouting all of those statements seem to have forgotten: When he’s behind the camera, never bet against James Cameron.
This adage holds with Avatar: The Way of Water. Not only is this sequel a technical marvel — Cameron once again invented new technology for the express purpose of bringing mind-blowing visuals to life and to create an immersive, one-of-a-kind 3-D experience unlike any that’s ever been attempted — it is also one of the single most thrilling big-budget Hollywood experiences I’ve ever witnessed. Not since George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has an action-packed visual extravaganza forced me to sit up so straight in my seat. It’s stunning stuff, and I can’t wait to head back to an IMAX screen and watch the whole darn thing again.
It’s not a perfect ride. Far from it. Much like Titanic and the first Avatar, Cameron’s melodramatic proclivities reminiscent of George Cukor, David Lean, Douglas Sirk, and Vincent Sherman are on full display. Goofily cheesy bits of dialogue lead to sudden, unintended bursts of laughter, and this epic’s emotional displays are shamelessly broad. There is nothing subtle about any of this, and the personal interactions between the characters are as obvious as they are forgone.
And so what? It works. Cameron and his crack story room team of Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno know what they are doing. They ground the characters in familiar, universally timeless archetypes. They’ve transformed Cameron’s original world into a family survival saga that’s reminiscent of authors like Johann David Wyss (Swiss Family Robinson) or Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), setting all the incredible whiz-bang in a recognizable, relatable milieu.
Picking things up almost two decades after the events of the first film, The Way of Water begins with former jarhead-turned-Na’vi-chieftain Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the devoted and loving parents of four children: eldest Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), adventurous second son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), youngest Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and teenage adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). She is the child of the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine’s Na’vi avatar, and both Jake and Neytiri have accepted her into their family with selflessly loving arms.
After a quick reintroduction to the world of Pandora — which includes a few returning characters like human scientist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Neytiri’s fiercely protective mother Mo’at (CCH Pounder) — things switch into high gear with the re-arrival of the “Sky People,” human terraformers who aren’t just interested in mining the distant, Earth-like moon for unobtanium this time around. Instead, they need to make the planet inhabitable for humankind, and if that means eliminating the Na’vi then so be it.
This puts Jake and Neytiri right in the center of the conflict. But unlike the first war, where the Na’vi were victorious, this time the humans have an unexpected ace they are eager to unleash on Pandora’s indigenous creatures. Even though he was killed during the final battle, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) still makes an unexpected return to duty. His DNA was utilized to create a Na’vi avatar, one that was also infused with all the soldier’s memories and skills. This “reconstituted” Colonel Quaritch and his battle-hardened unit of fellow clone hybrids have one mission: Track down and kill Jake Sully.
The action quickly shifts to the island Na’vi communities of the Metkayina clan, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shaman wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), and it is at this point where The Way of Water becomes something special. The Sullys must learn about their new home, and that means diving into the oceanic depths and encountering forms of fantastical sea life. There is roughly an hour of the family getting an education in living on the water, and it is all magnificent.
It all builds to a final hour of action and suspense that blew me through the theater’s back wall. While storytelling elements are reminiscent of past Cameron opuses (most notably Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic), there’s never a false beat throughout this climax. The unrelenting kinetic ferocity of this last act is undeniable, and while nothing that happened came as a surprise, my eyes still remained glued to the screen.
A few words on the technical aspects. Cameron attempts to push the cinematic bar to its breaking point, and much of what he has created is lightyears beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. At the same time, there are segments of gonzo visual ingenuity that simply did not work for me. Most specifically, like Ang Lee and Peter Jackson before him, Cameron is trying to utilize a filmmaking tool known as “high frame rate” or HFR, and much like his fellow Oscar-winning peers, he meets with mixed success.
I’m not going to get too wonky trying to explain things, as attempting to dig into the differences between the traditional frame rate of 24fps (that’s “frames per second”) and HFR (which for cinema is typically 48fps but can technically go all the way up to 120fps) would take forever. The shorthand version is what some nickname the “soap opera effect,” which is another way of referring to the motion-smoothing common to HD televisions. It gives things a sterilized, almost artificial visual sheen that can be uncomfortably distracting but can also maximize depth and create a sense of total immersion that the traditional frame rate of 24fps cannot match.
Cameron comes frustratingly close to cracking HFR, most notably during the underwater sequences. These scenes are stunning in ways I can barely verbalize. Every time a character heads into the ocean, the image comes alive like nothing I have ever experienced. Cameron, his actors, his crew, and his visual effects team have outdone themselves, and there was never a second where I did not believe this new world beneath the sea, its gigantic creatures, and its peculiar plant life existed.
It’s during many of the above-water moments that the HFR is a distraction, especially during sequences featuring human characters. The soap opera effect is on full display, and I found the artificiality of the image, no matter how intimately constructed, crafted, and choreographed, to be deeply maddening. This is especially true during the film’s first hour, and any time the story shifted into a scientific laboratory or a military barracks I wanted to scream.
Cameron mitigates this during the last hour by shifting frame rates throughout the massive final battle. It’s a nifty maneuver, and more often than not it works. The director tricks the human eye in ways I honestly did not think were possible, and I almost feel like if he had been able to do this earlier on, maybe the first third wouldn’t have visually annoyed me so much.
No matter. None of this means a darn thing if Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t entertain, and the sequel does that with astonishing ease. I’m not saying this return to Pandora will break box office records and become an unparalleled sensation equal to its predecessor, but it also wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if it did just that. Don’t bet against Cameron. Just don’t do it. At this point, when he’s in the director’s chair, I’m kind of starting to believe there isn’t anything he can’t accomplish.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)