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James Cameron’s ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is An Epic Family-Driven Visual Masterpiece – Review

13 years ago, a young moviegoer sat in the front row to watch the new intergalactic epic Avatar in IMAX 3D. Looking up at that massive screen and seeing the blend of art and technology inspired me to give up on studying to be an engineer and pursue filmmaking as a career.

To this day, Avatar is the highest-grossing film in history, earning more than $2.8 billion at the box office (globally) and beating the previous record holder Titanic, which held that record for 12 years. So when you think about it, between Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron has been the king of the box office for a quarter of a century and the king of sequels for much longer.

Making a sequel to big movies can be a daunting challenge, but not for Cameron. See, before he was sweeping us off our feet with a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio and a Celine Dion bop (that still plays on your mom’s favourite radio station), Cameron had written and directed two of the most successful and beloved sequels of all time: Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Now, he’s circling the block to follow up the biggest movie of all time with Avatar: The Way of Water.

(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Being transported back to the world of Pandora and the Na’vi felt like a spiritual experience. The term “visionary” was made for a director like Cameron, who flexes every filmmaking muscle he’s gained over his legendary career for this film. Avatar: The Way of Water floats on holy water and delivers a righteous family-driven epic. After seeming impossible to beat the spectacle of the first movie, the visuals in The Way of Water make for outstanding technical achievement.

Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their kids Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Spider (Jack Champion) is a human child left behind as a toddler who is always tagging along with the gang. The Sully family also has an adopted teenage daughter named Kiri, played by Sigourney Weaver, who is returning from the first movie.

The family dynamic is at the heart of this story, with everything featuring the kids feeling natural and genuine. Each of these new, young characters is unsettled by their sense of place in the world in individual and unique ways. Even behind a digital wall of CGI paint, you can still feel the emotions of familial pressure, self-doubt, and rejection are all communicated clearly through these young actors’ performances.

Avatar: The Way of Water
(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

In classic imperialist fashion, the “Sky People” voyage back to Pandora not just to mine unobtainium but to literally colonize the entire planet. Earth is on the precipice of being uninhabitable because of humanity’s inability to value the environment. Instead of learning from their mistakes, the humans destroy a large swathe of sacred forests and entrench an even bigger base in one of Pandora’s rainforests in a heartbreaking opening sequence. And this time, they have their avatars.

Another returning cast member from the first film is Stephen Lang as Quaritch. Having played the human antagonist from the previous installment, Lang is back as a new “recombinant” avatar embedded with its human counterpart’s memories. He leads a team of recoms to hunt down Sully and his family for revenge.

When Quaritch is experimenting with his new avatar body, he inadvertently repeats many of Jake’s discoveries from the first Avatar. While it draws a nice parallel between the two characters’ respective approaches to the Na’vi lifestyle, these moments do feel too narratively repetitive in a film that’s already lengthy. Since The Way of Water introduces the audience to so many new concepts and characters, it is easy to get a little lost initially. The film struggles to find a strong balance between the micro-level family conflict and the macro-level colonizer conflict. The intercutting between these storylines feels more distracting than narratively fulfilling

(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

As trouble follows the Sully family, they find refuge with the water-based Metkayina clan. Led by Titanic star Kate Winslet’s Ronal and Muru star Cliff Curtis’s Tonowari, the Metkayina people have light blue skin and bigger hands to help them swim. The creative team, including production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter, designed a beautiful village with reef-life structures and aesthetics that evokes beach-side bliss and a harmonic ecosystem.

Whereas the first movie’s surface Na’vi was inspired by Indigenous people, the ocean Na’vi appear to be specifically inspired by Polynesian culture. Some of this can be seen in the detailed costume work of Deborah L. Scott, which resembles indigenous Polynesian craft techniques. You can hear the island influence in parts of Simon Franglen’s immaculate score; you can also feel the connection interwoven into the fabric of the film’s central themes.

The “Sea People” have a unique relationship with the tulkun – a new species of sentient massive whale-like creatures. In many ways, this parallels the closeness between Native Hawaiians and the natural world, especially with the concept of the ʻaumakua. The ʻaumakua is deified ancestors who could take the form of an animal like a shark, a turtle, or the koholā (whale). The Way of Water exhibits a profound connection between multiple characters and the whale-like tulkun, particularly with Jake and Neytiri’s middle son Lo’ak.

(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Even though the Metkayina’s culture embodies Polynesian influence, the universal connection to the planet is consistent across all religions and spiritual beliefs. A strong environmentalist himself, the Abyss director rightfully understands humanity’s love for Mother Nature and makes it a core component of the overall message. And at a time when people are worried about climate change and our fight for the future, an impactful sci-fi film that directly addresses these concerns is one of the many reasons behind the first one’s success.

Another reason for the first movie’s success was the audience’s reintroduction to 3D. After Avatar’s 2009 release, many 3D movies felt like lazy studio cash grabs trying to chase the trend. Some auteurs attempted to elevate the form, like Martin Scorsese with Hugo and Robert Rodriguez with Alita: Battle Angel. In fact, two filmmakers actually took home the Best Director Academy Award for their impressive third-dimensional survival movies; Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity and Ang Lee for Life of Pi. While Jake Sully and his family aren’t stuck with a Bengal tiger on a raft, Life of Pi is an apt comparison to The Way of Water thanks to its breathtaking oceanic imagery and its complex link to spirituality.

Weaver’s Kiri struggles mightily with her faith throughout the movie, continually questioning if there’s a higher power who’s listening. As the first Avatar film established, the spiritual and physical worlds are linked through trees and biodiversity networks. So while we’ve previously seen sacred places in the Pandora rainforest, underwater lies the “Cove of the Ancestors,” where a new Tree of Souls stands. Our introduction to this area is one of many mesmerizing moments that occupy a much quieter, slower-paced middle section of the picture.

(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Even in the film’s relatively tedious moments, your eyes are continuously feasting on visual simulation. Cameron and veteran cinematographer Russell Carpenter illuminate the world with so many jaw-dropping moments of light that glow and shimmer within the darkness of the water. The vibrant variety of colours makes every single frame feel like a photorealistic art piece. A marvellous blend of wonder and terror grows as we go deeper into the cavernous underwater world of Pandora.

Every underwater shot looks stunning and textured, even down to the faces. Richard Baneham, Joe Letteri, and the multiple Academy Award-winning team at Weta Digital yet again pioneered new technology to make underwater performance capture possible. The result is remarkable, shining the most during the close-ups.

Seeing Avatar: The Way of Water in Dolby Vision 3D feels transcendent. It was a 3-hour roller coaster ride with a few ups and downs but an altogether exhilarating experience. The first Avatar served as an excellent introduction to the surface of Pandora. This sequel introduces us to the Avatar saga and the breathtaking new potential to see with Jake, Neytiri, and their family. Ultimately, what this installment lacks in character or narrative substance, it more than supplements with eye-catching cinematic beauty.

Rating: 8.5/10

Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theatres on December 16.

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