Are you ready to return to Pandora? Let’s be honest, not a lot of us have thought about it much since Avatar smashed box office records, and broke new technological ground thirteen years ago. The claim that the film has left no cultural imprint has seeped into the mainstream of thought, whether it’s actually true or not. And I must confess, I let it get to me, too. And while we were all out here dismissing the adventures of those blue Na’vi as meaningless, James Cameron was quietly toiling away on multiple sequels, led by Avatar: The Way of Water.
My thoughts on Avatar shifted radically when the film was re-released in theaters a few months ago. Taking it in at the biggest IMAX in the DMV, I was absolutely blown away by it all over again. Then I went home and looked back at my original review and I was just as stunned by it in 2009. Yes, please, Mr. Cameron. Give me more Avatar, please and thank you. Keep ’em coming. Avatar: The Way of Water simply won’t be enough.
Cameron has managed to outdo himself, and when one thinks about the ground that covers it’s simply remarkable. When you sit down and take in the glorious ecological wonder that is Pandora, it’s such a shock to the system. Your eyes almost can’t believe it. Now, some of that might have to do with theaters showing it in the enhanced framerate (as I did), but once you get settled in, it still takes your breath away. Cameron and his team have spent the decade or so they’ve been working on this movie very well. This isn’t just a visual retread of Avatar, it’s like Cameron went through every painstaking aspect of the original and improved it.
As the title suggests, the action has shifted away from the neon-hued forests of Pandora and into its oceans. It’s easy to make the crashing waves and the deep fields of blue water look great. Video games have been doing it for years. But Cameron doesn’t just send us swimming in it, although he does that, too. Cameron sees water as the connective tissue to higher plain of spirituality, one that when connected to the natural world can create something truly magical. I think it’s safe to say the Avatar films are some of the most spiritual out there, bordering on religious experiences.
Cameron has always found himself on the cutting edge of filmmaking tech, and with so many years of technological advancements, he has created a truly special visual experience. When we dive deep into the waters of Pandora alongside the reef people of the Metkayina tribe, it’s like we are in the depths clutching on to a giant whale-like creature or navigating a school of other aquatic aliens. There were more than a few times when I caught myself holding my breath, letting out a deep gasp of air when characters would resurface.
But that’s all technical stuff, which nobody really had a problem with the first time around. It’s the story, right? Yes, the original film felt like an extremely familiar tale of alien colonization. That storytelling vein continues here, but Cameron, working alongside co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, has developed a richer tale that actually gives us a reason to care about the Na’Vi beyond the attacks by the hated “Sky People”.
Ten years have passed since Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) helped the Na’Vi defeat the militaristic Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and the invading human army, bent on harvesting the planet and sucking its resources dry just as they did to Earth. Jake and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are still fighting that same fight, only now alongside the little blended family they’ve created together.
In what is likely to be a recurring trend, the narrative moves largely to the next generation. Jake and Neytiri’s eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is a warrior born and bred, just like his father, although the pressure of such a legacy is touch to carry. He is resented by his younger brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who can seemingly do nothing to impress Jake. Adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), birthed by Weaver’s previous character Grace, is the glue that holds them all together, while youngest child Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is the baby of the family. There’s a wrinkle, though. As close to them as family is the human Spider (Jack Champion), who has adopted the ways of the Omatikaya clan despite not truly being one of them.
While the humans were defeated before, it was only a brief respite. The Sky People come surging back, with bigger weapons of war, and a new upgrade that makes them more than a match for the Na’vi. They’ll never stop until Jake and his family are dead, so in order to keep the clan safe, Jake and his family flee and are reluctantly taken in by the reef people of the Metkayina, led by chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet).
Much of the film finds Jake and his family adapting to new surroundings, new people, and new customs. This is also where we see the full extent of what Cameron and his team have been working on. We’re escorted on an awe-inspiring tour of this new landscape, teeming with exotic sea life, vibrant underwater flora, and so much more. This time is well-spent in also advancing the coming-of-age stories of the kids, as they grow more independent of their parents.
It’s so easy to just bask in the serenity of it all, but Cameron never lets us forget that danger is right around the corner. Without giving too much away, the human threat is much deadlier this time around. But also, they are more craven and just more evil than before. Nobody is going to confuse Cameron with being an especially deep storyteller. That’s one of his more endearing traits, actually. He wears his sentiments as an environmentalist on his sleeve, and when the natural world of Pandora is under threat we feel his rage. The humans are even more unlikable this time around if that’s possible.
If the middle portion of Avatar: The Way of Water is a bit deliberately-paced, and could probably do with a few minutes cut out, the final stretch is a jaw-dropping exercise in Cameron’s skill as an action filmmaker. With multiple water-based movies under his belt, Cameron borrows elements from them all to create a final act that is terrifying in scope. It’s incredible that he can keep track of everything that is happening, while also forwarding each character’s story so that we are invested in their fates. In an epic clash of man vs. nature, Cameron tracks everything with clear-eyed precision. An entire movie’s worth of plot unfolds in the final act and it’s just such a terrific reminder of how good Cameron is at this.
If there’s a problem, it’s a minor one. The conclusion tees up a defining battle for all of the marbles, but Cameron has at least three more films in the hopper. Don’t get me wrong; I’m down for all of it. My concern is that multiple sequels might not be necessary when it can be wrapped up in one. I don’t want to feel any resentment to a franchise that overstays its welcome. But that’s a worry for another day. Avatar: The Way of Water lives up to the hype and then some. It demands to be seen at the biggest possible theater and in 3D. I don’t know why we ever lose our faith in James Cameron, but during the years between movies we always do. Cameron is a master filmmaker who creates cinematic experiences unlike any other, so don’t waste the chance to experience this one. You won’t regret it.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens on December 16th.