Some people are blue-people people and some are not. James Cameron’s ambitious 3-D fantasy Avatar caused a sensation when it was released in 2009. No one had ever seen anything like it, which didn’t make it a great movie, though its novelty did help make it one of the top-grossing movies of all time. Avatar seemed to tap a genuine desire for novelty, and its relatively simple story—of a moon-planet of highly evolved nature-loving beings with azure skin, invaded by greedy colonialist humans—made for an easily recognizable parable of the myriad real-life crimes white people have been perpetuating in our own world for centuries. Whether or not you cared much about the Na’Vi, the blue people of Cameron’s invented moon, Pandora, you could find as much depth in Avatar, or as little, as you wanted. And given the then-new technology Cameron had used to make it, it was often extremely pretty to look at.
And then, partly because the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the next shiny thing, most people sort of forgot about Pandora, and Avatar, though Cameron did not. Building on the technology he developed for the first film, he has spent the past 13 years making not just one sequel but two, with an additional two films already in the planning stages. Now Avatar: The Way of Water, that first sequel, is here. How much do you care? Or, rather, how much can the James Cameron machine—which is sort of like a humanoid hybrid of the real James Cameron and the idea of James Cameron as an infallible hitmaker—make you care, particularly if you were indifferent before?
Avatar: The Way of Water is both more extravagant and dorkier than Avatar, which was pretty dorky to begin with. Like its predecessor, The Way of Water has the courage of its convictions: It takes itself very seriously, elaborating further on the Na’Vi language Cameron so painstakingly invented lo these many years ago, pleading empathy for our friends the whales (represented by mythical whale-like creatures known as tulkun), and exploring important themes like “Revenge!” and “Family!” Overall, it’s quite pleasing to look at: a good two-thirds of the movie takes place in a kingdom of the sea, the territory of the Na’Vi’s ocean-dwelling compatriots, the Metkayina, and Cameron and his team have invented a whole new universe of underwater wonders for us to gawp at. There are schools of miniature phosphorescent fishies in day-glo hues, and, most magically, a translucent art nouveau butterfly-shaped creature that can be attached around the shoulders like wings, increasing the oxygen capacity of any underwater swimmer. You can’t knock Cameron’s gifts for making up zany imaginary flora and fauna; he pours energy into it, and it shows.
But he also sees himself as a bankable crowd-pleaser—this is, after all, the director who took one of the greatest sea tragedies of the 20th century and used it as a backdrop for a teenybopper romance that still causes swooning in 40-year-olds who saw it when they were kids. Cameron is a craftsperson all right, but his values are staunchly conservative with a small c. Avatar: The Way of Water opens with Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully—who, at the end of the first movie, was freed from his human form as a paraplegic Marine and magically transformed into a full-time Na’Vi—speaking in voiceover about how happy his life is. Having earned the undying respect of the Na’Vis, he’s now a bigwig among their ranks. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), his warrior bride, have a family of four kids, including an adopted daughter, feisty science nerd Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of Jake’s old friend Grace (also played by Weaver), who died in the first picture. Sully and Neytiri raise their children to respect the natural world around them, and their two oldest, sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), are also expected to be great warriors, like their dad. Neteyam has no trouble meeting these demands, but it’s clear from the start that young Lo’ak will have a harder time proving himself.
Sully’s life of contentment is short-lived, anyway. His former boss, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed by Neytiri in the first picture, has found new life himself in the form of a Na’Vi avatar. (If you’ll recall, avatars are Na’Vi-human hybrids brought to life by human “operators” whose real-life bodies are sealed in little sleeping capsules while their avatar bodies roam around doing Na’Vi stuff on Pandora, an atmosphere inhospitable to humans without special breathing gear.) Originally, Earthlings were interested in Pandora for its rich stores of the priceless substance Unobtanium, but all that has been forgotten. Now Quaritch, in his blue form, wants only revenge, with the ultimate goal of killing the traitor Sully. To protect his family, Sully leaves the beautiful Na’Vi forest kingdom and drags the whole gang to Metkayina territory.
Every kid who’s had to change schools when the family pulls up stakes knows what this is like. What’s more, the water-loving Metkayina—who are more greenish than blue, with broad, flat torsos and tails shaped like little paddles—are understandably suspicious of their new guests. The group’s queen and chief healer, the imperious Ronal (Kate Winslet), would prefer to have nothing to do with them, and she has a point.
It doesn’t occur to Sully, until the last minutes of the film, how much danger he’s bringing to the Metkayina and their ways, but never mind that. It also takes him forever to cotton to the importance of the whale-like tulkun, gentle, perceptive beasts who are spiritual twins to the Metkayina. The skin of the tulkun is adorned with sacred symbols resembling those of the Maori. They’re capable of deep feeling; they even, we’re told, compose songs, though we don’t get to hear any. They communicate presumably via brainwaves. Their dialogue is translated into subtitles for the uninitiated—that means you and me—and they’re the best feature of The Way of Water by far.
Because in general, this story demands a lot of paddling. The plot of The Way of Water is designed to seem engagingly complex, but there’s nothing about it that’s truly surprising or particularly moving, even though Cameron heaps the faux-spiritual mumbo-jumbo high and tugs valiantly at the waterworks levers. It is a spectacle of sorts, if a 3D spectacle is what you’re after. But be prepared for the HFR (high frame rate) effects, which means the visuals move at higher speeds than normal. This is supposed to render those images more vivid and realistic, but it really just gives them that cheap soap-opera look that everything on your TV gets if you fail to turn off the motion-smoothing feature. Some people don’t care, or don’t see the difference. For others, devotees of the established 24 frames per second that have served moviegoers ably for decades, that HFR glassiness is cause for despair. You’ll know which camp you fall into when you see The Way of Water.
And it’s almost certain that The Way of Water, as costly as it was to make (the estimates hover in the $350 million range), will be a hit. In the weeks leading up to its release, there has been a rash of enthusiastic essays and hyperventilating Twitter sentiments warning, “Don’t bet against James Cameron!” As if any of us had even been considering betting against him; most of us have better things to do. But there is a certain segment of movie fans and box-office watchers who seem to be predicting The Way of Water as the savior of the movie experience, stacking it against, for example, Steven Spielberg’s recent film The Fabelmans, whose returns have been disappointing. The verdict, dazzling in its perceptiveness, is that in 2022 very few people are willing to trek out to theaters to watch a funny, beautiful but also sometimes wrenching movie about regular human problems. But a movie about people with blue and blue-greenish skin engaging in fantastical sky and water battles, that you put on 3D glasses to watch? Don’t bet against the guy who made that one, the one who has already spent some $300 million to remind us, in case we’re in danger of forgetting, that water is wet.
As a filmmaker, Cameron has a gift for making everyone feel like a champion. He’s the guy who walks into a nightclub and announces, “Champagne for everybody!” only he’s not the one paying. You, with the purchase of your movie ticket, will be the one to do that. Even though the intricacies of Cameron’s technique aren’t easy or cheap to replicate, the almost certain success of The Way of Water will help shape what kinds of movies get greenlit by big studios tomorrow, defining the future of the big-screen experience. The Way of Water is the wave of the future, rolling in whether you like it or not. How much you care about the carcasses washed up on the beach in its wake will define what kind of moviegoer you are. For now, enjoy the songs of the ancients while you can, preferably at 24 fps.
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