Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron & Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
When James Cameron released Avatar 13 years ago, it marked a seismic shift in movie making, marking yet another instance where Big Jim broke the box office record with a soaring, visually impressive epic tale. By revolutionizing the use of both 3D imaging and CGI rendering, Cameron, perhaps unbeknownst to him, ushered in the decade of superhero movies which saw a lazy reliance on CGI in action movies in place of any semblance of practical effects and imaginative visual storytelling. Cameron has been hailed one of the medium’s greatest masters when it comes to visual storytelling, making his 13 year hiatus from his last film all the more frustrating. But after seeing Avatar: The Way of Water, I can definitively say that all the work he has put into this long awaited sequel (perhaps waited so long it’s a sequel we no longer knew we needed) was worth the wait. What Cameron has done with The Way of Water is push the technology of cinema further than anyone else has since, well James Cameron with the original Avatar.
After the events of Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now enjoying an idyllic life with his growing family. Alongside his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Sully leads their children, including Grace’s immaculately conceived Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and a left behind human child affectionately referred to as Spider (Jack Champion). When one day the Sky People return to Pandora, Sully’s family life is interrupted and the entire safety and future of the Na’vi is once again threatened. Led this time by a hardnosed general (Edie Falco), and an Avatar with the uploaded memory of the ruthless Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the Sky People force the Sully’s into a life of hiding. Finding safety with a water tribe led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), they learn the ways of their fellow Na’vi, while still dreading what might come of the Sky People, who are still diligently searching for Jake to put an end to his insurgence once and for all.
What James Cameron has accomplished is nothing short of astounding. To have done what he did with the original Avatar, even with 13 years to work on the sequel and his reputation, I could have never imagined we would get such an incredible film once again set in Pandora. In terms of story, Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t have a lot of beats that are much different from the original. The bones of the story are largely the same, and perhaps this lack of imagination can be excused when in all reality, all James Cameron wants to do is show us how beautiful water is. My goodness! We get a fairly standard structure, with the first roughly hour of the (more than three hour) film being setup of characters and update of circumstance, then we get an hour to luxuriate in the wonderful world building that Cameron has mastered on Pandora at this point, then we get an hour of climax and action to resolve the shell of the story. But make no mistake about it, this film exists for Cameron to seriously flex his visual storytelling muscles with just…ugh…endless beauty out on the waters of Pandora. Truly breathtaking sequences highlighted by state of the art, easily the best CGI I’ve ever seen in a film. It marries these computer images with real life shots and practical effects to make some truly pristine images. It’ becomes like a real life video game, in a good way. It’s realism paired with wonder and seriously works.
Cameron is a noted activist when it comes to climate change, and Avatar was a pretty thinly vailed allegory for the greed of humans and our inability to treat nature with the respect she so lovingly deserves. The Way of Water treads along the same lines, but this time in an ecology near and dear to Jim’s heart: the ocean. We see this tribe of Na’vi living in symbiosis with the ocean and its wildlife, creating a canvas for jaw-dropping scenery and sequences. So in this respect, some may see the film as pandering to a liberal agenda, and doing so in the skeleton of a very thinly conceived script and scenario. I’ll give you that, this film is not breaking any new, extraordinary ground. It’s not high art. But neither was the first film, and this is just more of the same big screen, theater sound, popcorn-munching thrilling sci-fi adventure that made Avatar the highest grossing film of all-time. With the current state of the box office, with The Way of Water perform as well? Likely not, but I still bet it does tremendous business because it’s the exact right formula for getting butts in theater seats, for better or worse.
In the case of Avatar: The Way of Water, I would advocate it’s for the better. While I love a meaningful, tastefully done art house film as much as the next movie nerd, I have plenty of space in my heart for the visually arresting, blockbuster mega-movies too (so long as they’re done well). And The Way of Water is perfect spectacle. See in the theaters. See it on the biggest screen possible. After 13 years, I didn’t know I needed another Avatar movie. And in 13 more years, I won’t know that I need a third one. But if that’s what James Cameron wants to do, then I’ll let him. I’ll let James Cameron continue changing the rules of the game and evolving cinematic technology because, while he may have a formula, it works. Heck, we even see elements of all his past movies in this one: Titanic, Aliens, Terminator, and of course Avatar. It’s all there. I don’t care, those are all great movies for good reasons, and the same reasons apply here. I had tremendous fun with The Way of Water and will continue to line up every time James Cameron has something he wants to show the world. We don’t have very many, if any, filmmakers like him. Few movies are perfect, few movies deliver the kind of theatrical thrill that The Way of Water does. If for no other reason than you haven’t been to a movie theater since the pandemic, please go see this movie.