Movie Review: Avatar – The Way of Water

It’s unlikely that you’re reading this review to decide whether or not to see Avatar: The Way of Water. At the opening night, large format, high frame rate, 3-D screening on which this article is based, the line for glasses and snacks stretched on for some thirty minutes past when the film was scheduled to have begun. This is not a movie that many people need to be sold on. But, there are those stragglers who never quite clicked with the first film, and who may be inclined to write off its sequel as more of the same. This review is directed towards them.

More of the same isn’t too far off, The Way of Water resembles no film so much as Avatar (2009), but it does better accomplish the connection to nature and spiritualism the first film wasn’t as able to centre on, while tapping into a theme Cameron has a stronger sense for: protecting family. Think of the emotional hooks of Aliens, T2: Judgement Day, or even the lightweight True Lies (not forgetting the contributions of married screenwriting duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver).

This sequel doesn’t have the novelty of being a ‘revolutionary breakthrough for cinema’, but in addition to the saltine cracker protagonist of the first film, we are introduced to a much more interesting group of characters, the new members of the Sully clan (competitive brothers Neteyam and Lo’ak, one a model son and the other… not, young daughter Tuk, with a perfectly judged and realistic kid personality, wistful adoptive daughter Kiri, who happens to be Sigourney Weaver playing her own deceased character’s biological daughter, and human hanger-on Spider). Though still falling squarely in the realm of cliché, or archetypes depending on how much credit you want to give the movie, the kids are much more charismatic and their struggles much more relatable than their father and mother’s had been.

Indeed, Jake’s lack of personality resolves into a stern fatherhood, while the excellent Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri is somewhat side-lined in this film, though maybe she’ll get her due in one of the many, many planned sequels, at least some of which are built around exploring the various biomes of Pandora.

For this film, that biome is squarely oceanic (no surprises there), and it’s an environment Cameron, with his seafaring obsessions, makes fantastic use of. After rattling off an underwhelming and exposition-laden first act, Cameron sets his characters and technological mastery loose amongst the reef of the Metkayina for the entirety of the film’s mid-section. Largely devoid of significant stakes and totally devoid of battle, this portion is nevertheless utterly captivating, and better reveals the sense of immersion and awe the original was so bent on imparting.

Pandora’s spiritual quality still teeters on thin, but Cameron’s belief is palpable, if broad, and it’s easy to be swept up in the astonishing beauty and peace of the Metkayina portion. The seaboard setting also avoids some of the visual clutter of the forest-set first film, especially advantageous during the third act, which is essentially comprised of a single, extended action set-piece of pure Cameronian excellence. It’s truly unbelievable how the director sustains involvement and spectacle by stacking obstacles and solutions, narrow escapes and overwhelming odds, while making good on the narrative promises of what’s come before.

There are, however, a few of the qualities you would expect from a simple story told over the course of 3 hours and change. It is overlong, and it does tend to repeat itself, despite clearly having been cut down from an even longer pool of footage. Many of Cameron’s greatest successes have been embraced for providing an undemanding time at the movies, but this lack of critical thought is also what’s dogged the first Avatar since its release. For those left unmoved by that film’s one-dimensional villain, you’re in for some disappointing news, though there are a smattering more values at play this time around. If the colonialization allegory and Na’vi civilization struck you as appropriative, the use of Māori culture here will set alarm bells ringing. It is not the place of our publication to make a judgement as to the validity of this inclusion, though for their part, Te Ao Māori News reportage focusses on the film’s honouring of the culture, suggesting it is respectful. Others have been less gung-ho.

An outsider amongst the Na’vi, even more so than the “demon-blooded” Sully clan with their partial human origins, the character of Spider is a major weak point for the film. We spend very little time establishing his place in this world, his attitude towards it, beyond the perfunctory, before he is separated, and these views are challenged. Beyond this, his character is uncompelling as a rule, and with no flickering ears or fangs to bare, his Na’vi-isms elicited a few seemingly unintended laughs (as did, by the by, certain awkward lines). Cutaways to this subplot more often than not felt as though they weren’t in keeping with the film and didn’t improve pacing or vary up the experience.

Then we come to the extraneous. Cameron’s revisions to the theatre-going experience in 3-D and high frame rate are fickle spells; meant to help you immerse into the world of the film with a more ‘vivid’ mimicry of real-life sight, instead they stand as an obstacle to your settling in. Every time you forget yourself and the fourth wall begins to dissipate, another shot or angle comes along with a different point of focus and all you can think about is the fact that this film was shot in 3-D. This experience is especially noticeable in the case of the eye-melting 48-frames per second, which is only implemented sporadically throughout the movie, drawing all the more attention to itself. You may be reminded of videogames or motion-smoothed television.

Budgets have ballooned in recent memory to dwarf the risks James Cameron undertook with his previous major bets. Thinking of $100 million-plus movies, most of the time that money is in the name of not very much. Avatar, whatever your misgivings, is very much. Despite the technological impositions, and a few undercooked elements, The Way of Water fights its way into becoming a transportive experience, with a little more heart (however modest) than blockbusters have bothered with as of late. This follow-up has strengthened the franchise’s potential and made this reviewer something they weren’t before; excited for the sequels.