There is no question that James Cameron can deliver a truly cinematic experience. From the first two films of the ‘Terminator’ franchise, to his installment of ‘Aliens,’ the massively epic ‘Titanic,’ or even the lesser-known ‘Abyss’ (which has to be seen with the director’s cut), James Cameron knows how to tell a story with a camera. His pacing, choice of narrative beats, attention to detail, and the way he fills each shot with such care for the story all amount to a very satisfying time in the cinema. It doesn’t matter if he can get cheesy (like in ‘Titanic’) or even basic and by-the-numbers (like the inescapable comparisons of the first ‘Avatar’ to films like ‘Pocahontas’ or even the animated movie ‘Fern Gully’), when you are in that cinema and watching his movies, you will be beguiled and entranced by what he puts on screen.
And that’s exactly what you get with Avatar: The Way of Water. His sequel to his 2009 massive hit ‘Avatar,’ expands the world of Pandora and follows the story of Jake Sully and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their growing family. In the 6-minute opening sequence, we catch up on the events that happened after the first film as Sam Worthington narrates as Jake Sully, the former soldier who, in the body of a Na’vi, has become the Toruk Makto, a war leader for the Na’vi. We discover that Jake’s family has grown with the addition of four children (one is an adopted daughter from a ‘miraculous birth’) and that the life of a Na’vi seems very much in agreement with Jake.
Except, the humans come back, with a larger force and an even more insidious means by which to oppose the native forces that fight against them. In an attempt to protect the forest and their tribe, Jake takes his whole family and brings them to the south to the lands of the reef people. The reef people are Na’vi (with a light green skin color) and biology more suited to living in the water. But Jake left because the marines are after him and, of course, they come looking for him and Jake must fight to protect his family (and newfound tribe) from the human forces.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is a 193-minute immersive science fiction epic that truly brings us deeper into the world of Pandora and shows us what lies beneath the crashing waves of Pandora’s seas. We were first made to experience the joy of flight in the first movie as Jake discovers the joys of flying with his winged beast. In ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ James Cameron explores the beauty of the ocean depths of his fictional world through Jake Sully’s children.
He takes his bloody time to show us the lush fauna and flora of this new aspect of Pandora while building upon the new characters he has brought into the sequel. His children become friends with the chief of the reef Na’vi and all the kids take a familiar archetype – there’s the dutiful eldest son, the troubled middle child, the special adopted child, and the innocent youngest – but because we spend so much time with them and get to explore this gorgeous world together, we begin to forgive them for their annoying habits (they are typical children after all) and we cheer them on when they do achieve something.
There’s a clean, old-school storytelling that James Cameron employs in his film structure that no matter how much he dawdles plot-wise, we are constantly filled with wonder, character work, and narrative placement that when the climax happens, we are excited, invested, and completely spellbound to the whole ride. Even at 3 hours, I did not once see someone stand up to rush to the bathroom. We were all transfixed to the screen and followed the story tightly.
And we followed it even if, at some point, we start to see the hollowness of the script. There’s a one-dimensional quality to the film: the humans are capitalist monsters who would destroy everything in their path to get what they want while the Na’vi are the locals, steeped in faux spiritualism that is completely in touch and in tune with nature and the planet. It’s all great on paper but it never becomes a real representation of real-world ideologies. In the end, what is Cameron really saying? That Capitalism is bad and that we have to return to nature? But he doesn’t say how? And, while it is a science fiction film and an adventure, it never really presents the nuances of a possible solution except direct opposition. The film culminates into a huge battle (you can see this in the trailer) and while we can’t wait to see it because we know it’s going to look great, it sort of reduces this whole film into saying that war is the only recourse.
Is Cameron saying that all cultures ravaged by imperialism should fight back? The Na’vi have all manners of cultural traits of our reality’s non-white races. The Na’vi have dreadlocks or braids, speak with an accent, and use spiritualism akin to Asian and African beliefs. The humans are primarily white and have an ideology like the imperialist west. Is ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ a denouncement of western imperialism and a call to action from all oppressed and colonized countries to push back and fight back?
And it doesn’t help that Jake Sully seems to not have grown since the first movie as a person. He begins completely in thrall to his new life as a Na’vi father and a part of a true community but the moment he returns to soldier mode on the return of the humans, we see him quickly return to warrior mode and become a questionable father figure. While Zoe Saldana, as Neytiri, spends most of the movie angry at him or her children. She becomes the stereotypical angry, fierce mother. Where are the two characters who have gone through so much in the first movie?
No, this film is for their children, and interestingly enough, the human child that was born and raised in Pandora. Spider, as he is called, has all the imagery of Tarzan but by way of Pandora and he has his own very interesting character arc to follow.
While I do have a lot of things to say about the story and the ideologies behind the film, I will still stand by the fact that everything about the way this movie appears on screen is just gorgeous. Cameron has used technology in such a way to give us a truly immersive cinematic experience that one of my friends called “like watching a sophisticated video game” and it is like actually being there. In an IMAX 3D cinema, you will be completely overwhelmed (in a good way) about how intricate this world is. I’ve never seen anything like it before. At first, my eyes were not used to seeing a film in such a manner. It looked off and unrealistic but after the first half hour, I was completely drawn into the world.
There are camera angles and movements that I’ve never seen before and as Cameron uses it to explore the gorgeous world beneath the surface of the Pandoran sea, it’s magical. It’s why we go to the movies. You are actually transported into an alien world. It’s the same feeling as watching Cuaron’s ‘Gravity.’ You’re in that moment and you can’t let go.
You have to see it in 3D and, if possible, 3D IMAX to get the full experience of this film. It’s what cinemas were made for.