Directors like James Cameron rarely come along. How many creatives in any field are allowed to push the boundaries of their art form again and again? Ever since Aliens, Cameron has created a filmography that consistently pushes special effects capabilities through the lens of action filmmaking. Even his prestige-based work, like Titanic, revolutionized special effects. However, the release of Avatar in 2009 continues to have ripple effects through the industry today. Thirteen years later, Avatar: The Way of Water makes its way to theaters. Cameron once again pushes the boundaries of what is possible in cinema, creating a far grander yet intimate blockbuster than our previous journey to Pandora.
Living with the Na’vi on Pandora, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) begins a family with Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña). Over the next ten years, they raise three biological children. Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) are born Na’vi/human hybrids. Jake and Neytiri also adopt a human boy named Spider (Jack Champion), and Na’vi Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Kiri is not only Na’vi but the teenage daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine (also Weaver). When a ghost from Jake and Neytiri’s past returns to Pandora, the family flees to the islands. There, they attempt to become members of the Metkayina reef tribe.
Once again, Cameron marries spectacle and simple storytelling to create one of the signature events of 2022 at the movies. To say Avatar: The Way of Water needs to be experienced in theaters might be an understatement. Not only does Cameron push the boundaries of 3D and digital rendering, but he utilizes variable frame rates to add to his visual palette. A quick explainer: a normal film plays at 24 frames per second (meaning 24 images play every second to create the illusion of motion). Cameron pushes this number as high as 60 frames per second in The Way of Water. Previous attempts to do this have not worked, but the computer-generated world of Pandora can handle these demands. This rewards audiences with a more fluid and different visual experience than non-video game players are used to experiencing.
This allows the high frame rates to generate more information for the viewer and further immerse us in the world. The visual details must become even more nuanced in this medium. This forces Cameron and company to push even further with the realism of the CGI in Pandora. The creatures leap forward, resulting in the most lifelike and nuanced figures on the screen. Even beyond the Na’vi, the creatures of Pandora have never felt more tactile. The rendering of every aspect of Pandora feels real.
It’s impossible to ignore the breakthroughs that visual effects artists are having on the industry. Even here, Cameron hides his stars and extends their careers in interesting ways. Kate Winslet remains one of the biggest stars on the planet but is unrecognizable as a Na’vi. Weaver portrays a literal teenager. While she brings a world-weariness and saintlike quality to the wunderkind Na’vi, she can also bring out the difficult emotions Kiri faces. The genuine power she displays may not have been possible with a child actor. While Cameron’s choices are undeniably weird, he fulfills the true promise of his CGI Motion-capture. If adults can play any age then we can extend the careers and roles of our biggest stars by decades.
Beyond pushing forward film as a medium, Cameron grounds the story in the family. This choice ultimately ends up being the strongest of the film. While many blockbusters focus on making the world larger, in large part to Aliens, Cameron never has to choose in The Way of Water. Much of the film revolves between the Sully family’s fight for survival and the antagonist hunting them on Pandora. This is not about the fate of unobtainium or humanity. Instead, the Sullys and their allies must fight a more tangible and immediate threat.
Additionally, this process also forces the Sully clan to explore a new side of the world. Following their triumphs and failures in the Metkayina tribe endears us to the new generation. They face basic problems, like bullying and the awkward moments of being the new kid in an environment. These problems become tangible, even to those of us who are not 9-foot-tall cat humanoids. There are plenty of children to introduce, and Cameron helps us understand their plights.
Additionally, this allows us to spend time understanding how these characters react to the creatures he puts on screen. The vast size of Tulkun (Pandora’s Whales) inspires awe, but allowing Lo’ak to forge an emotional bond reframes the creatures. They are not simply a creature to be ridden into battle but instead show emotion and critical thinking. Later in the film, a character mentions Tulkun are smarter than humans. As The Way of Water progresses, we see this come to light. Cameron is not advocating only against the primal destruction that capitalism brings to environments but reminds us to think of the bigger picture. His focus on animals, both aquatic and airborne, only furthers his calls for conservation.
Given the prevalence of these issues in the world over the past five years, his conservation message feels earned. Yet Cameron uses this as the foundation for his story. Environmental changes, destruction, and unique biospheres will always power stories on Pandora. Yet using this platform, the sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time, to tell a tale of ecological conservation remains a subversive act. Similar messages in Marvel and Star Wars films were seen as pandering. Cameron could have moved on to a new idea facing the Na’vi. Instead, he remained grounded in the story we understand and its effect on his world. His parable is not hard to decipher, and it’s an essential aspect of this franchise. Cameron does not care if you do not relate because he will still find a way to make you feel for this planet and this world.
However, Avatar: The Way of Water is not a perfect film. First, leaving Kiri’s parentage as an open question is frustrating, especially after the debacle faced by Star Wars. Ultimately, lineage matters very little to these films, as the actions of the new characters should be the heroic ones we use to define them. Yet this seems primed for a million clickbait articles, and if it keeps interest high in the franchise, then so be it. Second, Neytiri deserves MVP laudits for a pair of pivotal scenes, yet remains underutilized. As the star of the first film, Saldana deserves an even bigger role this time through. Unfortunately, this did not fit into a 3-hour movie, showing that Cameron was not as concerned about her role as the new kids.
Cameron’s use of indigenous artifacts and customs remains controversial. While the assets may be digital, framing the Na’vi as members of a nomadic (if not agrarian) culture does not depict the Na’vi as particularly forward thinkers. Instead, the ideas of the “noble savage” loom over this film. Even though we’ve already played this game once before with Cameron, a return to this in 2022 feels a tad regressive. This is particularly visible in Spider, a white kid attempting to earn his place in the Na’vi tribe. There are still films to go in this franchise, but it feels like a potential misfire in writing (despite the Champion performance serving the film).
Ultimately, you likely already know whether or not you like Avatar: The Way of Water, partly due to your reaction to the first film. Yet, at the same time, the innovations that Cameron makes on each side of the camera make this a must-see experience. The writing is better, the story is not as basic, and the experience is grander. One of the great films of 2022, Avatar: The Way of Water, is not only a triumph for Cameron, but it’s what we need to continue to demand as audiences. This is an original concept from the mind of a singular filmmaker who pushes for the next great innovation of the medium. For the future of film, we need more films in this vein than the rehashing of decades-old IP battles.
Alan’s Rating: 9/10
What do you think of Avatar: The Way of Water? Please let us know in the comments below. Avatar: The Way of Water is distributed by 20th Century Studios and opens on December 16th, 2022.