Cameron not only gives a reason to return to Pandora, but also to stick around for a few more films
Avatar: The Way of Water is the latest from James Cameron, another big blockbuster gamble for the eccentric action maestro. Over a decade in the making and with three more films forthcoming, Way of Water needs to make $1 billion to break even for the studio, which is hoping that over a decade later, audiences will still be flocking to return to Pandora. As much flack as the first Avatar got, I always thought it was pure spectacle as only Cameron could craft and it was more than good enough for those who came out on repeated theatrical viewings, making it the highest-grossing movie of all time.
The latest installment picks up over a decade after the events of the first film, with Jake (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their four kids contently reigning over their tree tribe on Pandora. The humans who fled have returned, complete with Na’vi bodyguards; Stephen Lang’s character and his Marines all conveniently had their minds “backed up” before dying in the first film and implanted their consciousness in cloned Na’vi bodies that resemble their human ones. This time, they aren’t simply after “unobtanium.”
Cameron ups the stakes dramatically, with the humans returning to Pandora to rid it of its indigenous life and take it for their own as the Earth is in its final throes. Lang’s Colonel and his crew are charged with taking out Jake Sully to make it easier for humanity to take over the planet. The film itself is a cat and mouse between Jake and the Colonel that sees Jake leaving his tribe of tree Na’vi and seeking refuge with an ocean tribe, thus forcing him to learn “the way of water.”
Jake’s move invokes the first film’s fish out of water beats and hits on a few other Cameron action classics. Way of Water is an action spectacle of the highest caliber from the director who has spared no expense, both financially and narratively with the film’s 200-minute runtime. The long runtime is necessary for both setup and execution: Not only do we need to get to know this new generation of Sullys, we also need to get to know the ocean tribe with whom they seek refuge.
There’s also plenty of family drama to be had, which I found strangely endearing as we discover that even giant blue aliens struggle to be good parents. This odd, otherworldly family dynamic is compounded by Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter Kiri, a girl played by Sigourney Weaver and born of her avatar from the first film, who was mysteriously pregnant after the human’s death. The awkward teen believes she has a direct line to Eywa, the spiritual soul of Pandora.
The Sullys also picked up a human kid named “Spyder,” who was left behind during the first human purge because they could not put kids in cryosleep. While we are left questioning who Kiri’s father is—probably to be answered in another film—it’s Spyder’s father who gives us an unexpected through line to another character in the film.
This melodrama coupled with ecological and environmental stakes keeps the momentum barreling forward to an ending action set piece on a sinking vessel. The sequence has Cameron somehow outdoing his previous work on Titanic. Cameron gets us to invest in his entire cast and delivers high-level action that only compounds the film’s emotional stakes—the teams at Marvel and DC can take a few notes.
My only complaint here is the variable frame rate the film was presented in for press screenings. While the 3D is near magical in 48 frames, since it’s not live-action, it oddly lacks the soap opera feel you normally get and transcends into a surreal hyperrealism. When the speed ramps back down to 24 frames per second, I was thrown out of the narrative. It was akin to watching a streaming movie that stutters while loading frames. That said, the fact that I could retain such a high engagement while this was happening only proves how engrossing the story is. Seeing Way of Water in IMAX or 3D will make for optimal viewing.
My other nitpick would be Zoe Saldaña’s character Neytiri, who doesn’t get quite as much to do this time around. However, given the breadth of the films ahead, Way of Water could just be a quiet chapter for her.
Given Cameron’s love for the ocean, Way of Water feels like the Avatar he originally wanted to make. The sequel is derivative, much like the original, but it also has Cameron showing why he is still the master of the big budget crowd pleaser in a grim and very lush spectacle. Like its predecessor, Way of Water is more akin to an amusement park ride or an experience to be had over and over.
Avatar: The Way of Water is as much an action blockbuster as it is the story of a family just trying to survive. It’s hard to believe that Cameron has not only given us a reason to come back to Pandora, but also a reason to stick around for more.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theaters on Dec. 16.