Avatar: The Way of Water
Thirteen years after James Cameron’s first blue-hued blockbuster, the ‘Avatar’ franchise finally returns with stunning underwater visuals and a soggy plot.
December 14, 2022
To make earth's natural world look beautiful takes no effort at all, but doing the same with Pandora requires immense computing power. Given the latter is an imagined realm in James Cameron's Avatar movies, it can only exist via those ones and zeroes, and the imagery they generate — and yet in 13-years-later sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, the extrasolar moon can be as breathtakingly immersive as anything IRL. Indeed, when this second dip in what's now officially a franchise is at its best, and has audiences eagerly awaiting its third, fourth and fifth instalments in 2024, 2026 and 2028, it's an absolute visual marvel. When that's the case, it's also underwater, or in it. Yes, The Way of Water takes its subtitle seriously, splashing that part of its name about heartily in as much magnificently detailed 3D-shot and -projected glory as its director, cinematographer Russell Carpenter (a True Lies and Titanic alum) and hard-working special-effects team can excitedly muster.
For Cameron, darling it really is better down where it's wetter. It's also surprising that he hasn't made a version of The Little Mermaid, a Free Willy entry or a SpongeBob SquarePants movie, such is his flowing love for H20. Plenty on his resume makes this fondness plain, including 2014 documentary Deepsea Challenge that he didn't helm, but chronicles his own journey to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench — aka the deepest part of earth's seabed. To the detriment of The Way of Water, however, there's more to Cameron's latest than soaking in underwater joys. When this flick gets wet, it's a wonder to peer at. It stresses the franchise's love of nature implicitly, and its eco-friendly message about valuing and not exploiting it. It makes viewers wish that what they're seeing truly was genuine. When it surfaces to spin its by-the-numbers story, though, it's often lucky to be an average paddle.
A movie that cost US$350 million-plus can't just swim and stare beneath the stunning CGI sea, sadly, as much treading water as The Way of Water does. This long-in-the-works followup to the highest-grossing film ever doesn't tell enough of a tale, certainly isn't concerned with sailing through new narrative oceans, and stretches out its slight plot to a lengthy-and-feeling-it 192 minutes. Over a decade has passed on Pandora, too, since Avatar's protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Under the Banner of Heaven) made it his home as new member of the Na'vi, its inhabitants. In The Way of Water, the ex-solider, his Indigenous warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, Amsterdam) and their family are forced to swap their lush, leafy backdrop for the waves, turning Jake from a Marine into a marine-dweller. Why? Earth's armed forces are back, vengeful and still keen to colonise after ruining their own planet.
Avatar viewers, so everyone given its box-office tally, will recall that Jake was originally human; "the sky people", the Na'vi call them. Audiences should also remember that he navigated Pandora plugged into a body resembling his blue-skinned, three-metre-tall hosts, which is why Avatar is called Avatar to begin with. That concept largely sinks away this time around, after Jake permanently embraced his adopted guise at the end of the last film — other than to bring back Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Don't Breathe 2) and his crew. With his memories paired with Na'vi anatomy, the saga's chief antagonist is now cerulean as well, and hellbent on tracking down Jake, Neytiri, their teenage sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters, The School for Good and Evil) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton, Ready Player One), younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Best Food Forward) and the adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, Call Jane). Swiftly, seeking refuge with turquoise-hued water clans is the Sullys' only hope for survival.
If anyone had forgotten that Cameron directed Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic — or Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, docos about deep-sea exploration — The Way of Water provides a hefty reminder. The filmmaker cribs liberally from his past work, as seen in all of the military might and technology. He does so to such an extent that a sinking ship plays a massive part, all in a movie that co-stars Kate Winslet (Mare of Easttown) as the queen of the aquamarine-coloured Metkayina reef people. No one hogs floating debris, but making Cameron's script with Mulan's Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver a Cameron greatest-hits package is comical. That said, that approach speaks to what's important to the director, and where he'd rather spend his time and energy. It was true of the initial film as well, with its FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Pocahontas and Dune nods. The Avatar flicks would prefer to be experiences than stories, plunging spectators in instead of doling out plot points.
One day, Pandora will undoubtedly stun as a virtual-reality space. One day, the world that Cameron has created will welcome headset-wearing devotees slipping into their own avatars and roving around. With its use of 3D and a higher frame rate, The Way of Water snorkels as far in that direction as it can while tied to cinemas — and that hyper-clear submersion is what it leaves audiences wanting oh-so-much more of. Kudos to the director for going against the tide in a world saturated by 'content' (complete with that bland label lumping everything on-screen together), of course. More kudos to him for valuing cinema as an audiovisual form above all else. Still, that passion, focus and aim can't lift The Way of Water's soggy narrative or deepen its shallow dialogue. And, away from the sea, the feature's doubling of images per second can't overcome the same struggles The Hobbit movies and Gemini Man had. Sans water, that annoying motion-smoothing soap-opera look bubbles up, gimmickry sets in, and Pandora and the Na'vi appear far, far less visually spectacular.
Conveying emotion isn't The Way of Water's struggle, however, with assistance from its state-of-the-art performance-capture technology. Gleeful earnestness and idealism is as ever-present as azure and ultramarine tones, especially in the movie's ocean-adoring middle third. That's when this sequel is a family drama above all else, as well as a coming-of-age drama. Forget Quaritch's revenge, even if that's what kicks the flick into its action-packed — and overlong — finale; when The Way of Water charts Lo'ak's journey as the Sullys' black sheep, particularly after he bonds with an also-outcast whale-like sea creature known as a tulkun, or when it hones on in Kiri's spiritual connection with underwater plant life, it's tender, heartfelt and personal. That's when the Titanic riffs, Weaver playing a teen and Quaritch's Na'vi form cheesily crushing his old human skull all get swept away, and when this uneven film floats.