Avatar: The Way Of Water


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Avatar: The Way Of Water
"Ponderous but glorious."

When the title of the film is spoken it is part of a mantra. The way of water is a moment of calm. The sea is home before life, after death. That it is repeated is part of the story, an arc among several. Some of these are of light. The crescent terminator of the moon Pandora's parent gas giant ushering in the eclipse that is a form of night. Mighty engines become new stars in alien skies. The lens flare that feels like it has been added back in to make the unreal feel real with the veneer of film's fidelity.

This is James Cameron's film, more so than the last and the one before it and so on. There are credited co-writers, the team of Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa have many sequels (various Jurassics) and adaptations to their name. Eye For An Eye and The Relic based directly on novels, In The Heart Of The Sea indirectly upon Moby Dick as a notional reflection of that tale's 'true' inspiration, and in 2020's Mulan perhaps a prototype. So modified by special effects that it might as well be animation, the first sequel to Avatar is huge and sprawling and engrossing.

It raises questions it does not seem prepared to answer almost by accident, while revealing elsewhere with metronomic precision. Cameron is a tremendously efficient director, when something is seen it is almost always either for the joy of seeing it or for the thing that follows next. Industrial and story design both place Chekhov's ironic fire-extinguisher prominently upon a bulkhead. There is a toyetic fleet of bad guy boats that stage from a monstrous manta ray, some hyper-hybrid of ekranoplan and hydrofoil and landing craft air cushion that feels like something of Gerry Anderson but run through the same gritty filter as Michael Bay's Transformers. There are planes, trains and exoskeletons, and each of them speaks to weighted design choices and intentionality.

Less certain our presence with new Na'vi, a sea people, from paddle spears to tattoos to ritual cribbing heavily from Maori and Polynesian traditions. There are whitefellas present. Jemaine Clement's role suggests one of the many benefits of being a marine biologist is a collection of good t-shirts. There is no fresh sop to the discomfort of the original Avatar's pretty obvious White Savior narrative, instead new and similar complexions to that complexity. These go past a character who seems a live-action version of the first animated Tarzan into the symbolically significant PROJ PHNX patches.

There is, near the end, a three-way standoff that one could map as a Venn diagram of kith and kin and knives and lives but it almost feels as if it has already been. Cameron is oft given to exposition and while some of this is voiceover his mastery of the technical means he feels less a tinkerer like Nolan or a bricoleur like Lucas or a fable-maker like Spielberg than a carpenter. The joints are strong, and often seamless, but sometimes what he's working with feels polished and graceful and at others blocky and wooden.

Sam Worthington is among the dozens who return. He narrates an extended sequence that catches up audiences who don't have 162 minutes to spare before the 192 required here. That voiceover includes the line "might as well be English" that sees the first of several swaps from subtitled Na'vi to, well, English. I was reminded of The Hunt For Red October's pivot as Connery's Ramius hears the word 'Armageddon' but here it's the differently 12A friendly 'penis-face'.

That rating is informed in part by other language, there are plenty of "oh shit" moments and I think BBFC guidelines allow one of those to be upgraded to an "oh fuck". The violence isn't quite an afterthought, it runs throughout the film, but there are other currents too.

Questions of appropriateness and appropriation are more for audiences. Within the film two new justifications for humanity's presence, another resource to go with 'unobtanium' and the slightly less effable lebensraum. The dead on Earth, new life on Pandora. Variously so.

New creatures. New ecosystems. New family members, Sully's tribe now swollen with children. Of Jake (Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are born Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, and the adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and orphaned Spider (Jack Champion). They will have loves and losses of their own, but they are part of a wider more.

Imagine, and the film will help you with it, an essence of Avatar made larger, more powerful, more of Pandora. While The Rise Of Skywalker tried to elide The Last Jedi and at once retread and upscale what was Star Wars, The Way Of Water swells like a thing infused rather than rolling again in the same deep.

Star Wars is chosen for comparison not because it is a succession and not separation like the (much drier) Dune but because The Way Of Water borrows as liberally from other films as Lucas in his pomp. There's a method of whaling that owes more to Jaws than anything else. A threefold alien abduction could be a tribute to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and would have been ET if our botanist hadn't stayed home. An extended sequence feels as if Hadley's Hope on LV-246 had struck that fateful iceberg instead of the Titanic. Other older stories too, a thorn in a paw, two graves dug before revenge, an ominous growth within the earth. Even the crushing of a skull is less of destroying a hamlet in order to save it than an implacable pursuit. Alexander wept for he had no more world(s) to conquer, but he returneth to Earth and here they have come back.

The unfolding is careful, an extending table creating space to add new leaves. As with Alexander's dust it is with the tight fit of stopper to a beer barrel Cameron's craft in establishing place and space is so evident that I wondered why he hadn't directed a heist movie, a prison escape, and remembered that he did the double (at least) in Terminator 2. There's a train robbery in this that owes as much to the Golden Age of westerns as it does to magnetic levitation or symbiotically psychic steeds. That all part of a sequence that repeatedly visits hunts, revelations, captures, raptures, rescues. In between there are mermaid montages, briefings delivered post-mortem, differing rates of decay to ensure signature persistence.

There are smaller details too, fingers and toes and flights. The quality of the motion capture is uncanny, perhaps most where Sigourney Weaver's Kiri is given the opportunity to talk to herself. I saw it in 3D and from the very front, immersed, transported. The landscapes are not just those we met in the forests of Pandora, sails unreefed we voyage to a mangrove archipelago, terraced baobab atolls punctuated by rocky coves rich for conflict.

One of several environments optimised for fighting. There are brawls in orbital microgravity, an early awakening, and in its neutrally bouyant hydraulic cousin. In one sequence the scale of things underwater is lost, the crab-shaped and barracuda-shaped and the man-shaped in a space so choked with monstrous weeds that the wheres are obscured. In other places we are given much more to hold onto, following a yellow fish glow.

Three other lines stick with me. "This is not a squad it is a family." True. "We're nothing to each other." False. "The way of water has no beginning and no end." Mixed.

Ponderous but glorious. Simply emotional in its story beats but slotted together like Lego. It creates things that feel of real cultures by liberally (or perhaps illiberally) borrowing from real cultures. It takes Avatar and its corporate callousness and upscales it, on both sides of the screen. There is more to come.

Reviewed on: 30 Dec 2022
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Avatar: The Way Of Water packshot
Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na'vi race to protect their home.
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Director: James Cameron

Writer: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore

Year: 2022

Runtime: 192 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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