2009’s Avatar, director James Cameron‘s spiritually tinged sci-fi magnum opus, made a sizeable cultural impact upon its debut, heralding a new revolution in digital 3D filmmaking and marking a sea-change in the way modern blockbusters were made and marketed. And then suddenly, almost overnight, it didn’t. Ask anyone twelve or thirteen years later, and it’s fair to say that, despite the existence of a core loyal fanbase, the first Avatar movie has become something of a punchline in certain quarters of film lover culture. That it became the highest grossing film of all-time has become something of an oddity, considering how many have forgotten the plot or claimed they could barely remember the names of the film’s characters. In many ways, Avatar has become the film equivalent of the one-hit wonder – remembered fondly by some but equally derided for what it ultimately failed to achieve next.
Avatar: The Way of Water is, by that definition then, the difficult second album (and a long-awaited one at that). With over a decade’s worth of high expectations stacked heavily upon it, it’s fair to say that the stakes could not be higher for this film, this franchise or the filmmaker behind it all. For years, James Cameron has promised to turn Avatar into something bigger – a mold-breaking franchise that will test the limits of modern technology and deliver a massive story on par with the greatest of epic odysseys (or something like that). Now, thirteen years after the first film broke box office records, it’s time for Cameron to put his money where his mouth is and see if he can recapture the lighting in the bottle a second time.
Does it succeed? Well, ultimately it depends on what you want from a blockbuster special effects movie. Are you in it for the spectacle or the story? Only one truly wins out here.
Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first, because The Way of Water is nothing short of beautiful! From the very first shot, the film is visually stunning and utterly awe-inspiring in every conceivable aesthetic way. Whether it’s the characters, the sets, the fauna, the skyline, the ocean or the alien animals that populate the world, Pandora comes to life on the big screen in ways that other films of a similar ilk can only dream of. The attention to detail on the part of the visual effects team is frankly phenomenal – the realistic textures and patterns look unlike anything we’ve ever seen depicted onscreen before, whilst the characters and creatures themselves are so photorealistic that you can truly believe they are real living, breathing beings. Like its predecessor, the film is a masterclass in how to utilise and combine excellent visual effects, production design and dynamic direction to simultaneously create something truly real and magical. The underwater scenes in particular are breathtaking and well worth the ticket price on their own.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the plot. Clocking in at over three hours, The Way of Water often wades into the realms of self-indulgence and around the halfway mark the film begins to massively outstay its welcome. The second act is particularly slow and plodding, and whilst it does set up many important elements for the film’s final third, it feels unnecessarily padded and overcooked. It looks beautiful but it ultimately lacks in anything resembling an engaging narrative, playing out almost like a series of disconnected vignettes for the most part. The more impatient cinema goers in the audience will likely be using this unbearably long middle stretch to take a much needed bathroom break (it certainly doesn’t help that there’s so much water on screen) and one wouldn’t expect them to miss much if they do nip out around this point.
At various points during The Way of Water, it feels as though James Cameron is too preoccupied with encyclopaedic world building than with character or story development. Long passages of narration from Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) play over sweeping vistas in a manner that is best exemplified as that of a nature documentary, and whilst it looks stunning, it does begin to slow everything to a grinding halt after the fifth or sixth time it happens. It doesn’t help that the overarching plot is bare-bones basic (the Sully family are on the run from their old enemy Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), they hide out with the Metkayina tribe by the Ocean, Quaritch eventually finds them, chaos ensues), nor does it help that Quaritch himself is a horrifically one-note threat (he wants revenge and that’s about it). There’s a lot on the surface but little substance once you delve deeper.
Some strange creative choices that never really feel justified don’t help either. The younger teenage characters look and sound like teenagers, except for the key role of young orphan Kiri, who has the looks and mannerisms of a wide-eyed teenager, but has the voice of 70-something Sigourney Weaver. Elsewhere, a key plot point involves a bunch of talking (albeit subtitled) whales which is nothing short of laughable in its execution. But the main detriment to the entire film is the frankly bizarre decision to film everything in 48fps, which makes the CGI infused film look like an unrealistic video game cutscene as opposed to imbuing it with the intended realism that the director was clearly hoping for.
That all being said, the third act partially redeems the film, thanks to some amazing action sequences and a climactic final battle that has real weight and emotional stakes to it. Cameron is adept at choreographing jaw-dropping action sequences, and his work here is probably some of his best work in this area to date. The characters are underserved in the build-up (particularly Jake and Zoe Saldana‘s Neytiri) but once the big fight kicks off, there’s a real sense of tension to every punch, kick, stab and strike. The work by the performers, effects artists, technicians and designers on the performance capture technology does a fantastic job in making everything look and feel real, so that even when we’re watching a bunch of pixels take seven lumps out of each other, it appears as real and impactful as the best live action brawl. There are moments of humour and heart scattered throughout that occasionally manage to land (in large part due to the performances and the excellent sweeping score by composer Simon Franglen), and the underwater sequences are certainly unlike anything ever depicted on a film of this scale before.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a better film then its predecessor, but it also has all of the same issues that plagued the original too. Characters and emotion at oft-times feel like an afterthought, whilst the plot itself is largely uninspired and lacking in originality. But for all its faults, there’s no denying that what Cameron has achieved here is nothing short of breathtaking in terms of scope and visual magnificence. The technology and filmmaking techniques utilised in creating the film work wonders and all contribute to the overall goal of creating something akin to actual magic on the big screen. If this truly represents Avatar‘s difficult second album, then you can certainly sign us up for the difficult third!