There are numerous movies and shows that are centered around a legendary figure who used to do great things for their community, either by defeating various kinds of evil or by accomplishing impossible feats of strength. But when they were at the peak of their prowess, they mysteriously disappeared, thereby leaving the world in a state of disarray. Then the plot picks up several years later when things are on the brink of a breakdown, and this legend reappears to make things right again. James Cameron’s career trajectory has replicated that character arc in real life. The man gave us hit after hit and then made the biggest movie of all time back in 2009, “Avatar,” and stopped directing altogether. He spent nearly two decades perfecting his stories and his craft while the state of blockbuster filmmaking reached new lows due to the rising popularity of bland, dry, and bad comic book and superhero movies. And now, he’s back with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” with which he shows what CGI, VFX, SFX, and heartfelt storytelling are capable of achieving if they’re in the right hands.
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Cameron and based on a story by Jaffa, Silver, Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno, and Cameron, “Avatar: The Way of Water” takes place ten years after the events of the first film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is the chief of the Omaticaya clan and is raising a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The couple has two sons, named Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and a daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They have an adopted daughter, Kira (Sigourney Weaver), who is born out of Dr. Augustine’s (also Weaver) Avatar. And there’s Spider (Jack Champion), a teenager who was abandoned in Hell’s Gate after most of the humans left and has been adopted by the Sullys. But all of their lives are disrupted once again by the humans (or Sky People), as they’re back to not just deforest the lands but ravage the seas for the whale-like creatures called tulkans. Since a team of Recombinants (soldiers in Avatars equipped with the memories and skills of their deceased human bodies), led by Quaritch, is out hunting for Jake, the Sullys are forced to abandon the Omaticaya and take refuge in the Metkayina clan.
Within the first 15-20 minutes of the film, James Cameron and his team establish the themes they are going to tackle. Through the Sullys, they explore what makes a family tick during harsh times. On an individual level, they show us how every single one of Jake and Neytiri’s children is different from the others. One is the perfect soldier; one wants to be exactly like Jake; one is spiritual; and so, on and so forth. And through their collective endeavor, Cameron and co. send the message that sometimes parents should allow themselves to be saved by their children, especially when they are in a dark place, both literally and metaphorically. The return of the Sky People illustrates the relentless nature of corporate colonialism. They’ve got no ethics; hence, their morale can’t be broken with a simple defeat. They’ll always come back, and they’ll always lose. But since they don’t value life in general, they won’t feel the pinch of the casualties brought about by them, while their victims will be permanently scarred. And as if all that’s not enough, the writers also emphasize the need to protect the one thing that humanity is losing rapidly, i.e., water, by highlighting its influential, nourishing, and spiritual qualities.
If that sounds like too much for one movie to deal with, don’t worry because Cameron gives every aspect of his film a lot of time to breathe. Much like its predecessor, “The Way of Water” isn’t non-stop action and is deliberately paced so that you can relate to these characters and also immerse yourself in this new area of Pandora. Almost a whole hour is dedicated to dissecting everything that fuels the culture of the Metkayina clan. To be honest, I can’t blame Cameron for it because he, along with cinematographer Russell Carpenter, production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter, the art directors, set designers, costume designers, make-up artists, sculptors, armorers, fabricators, SFX artists, and the amazing VFX and CGI artists at Wētā FX, have achieved something truly phenomenal. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen before in terms of world-building and visual storytelling. Everything on screen is so jaw-droppingly realistic that you have to keep reminding yourself that most of it is fully animated. And, unlike every CGI-heavy theme park ride, the fact that the spectacle and the action sequences never undermine the narrative or emotionally stirring moments is mind-boggling. The reason behind that is the sense of tangibility that is brought about by the editors, sound designers, and composer Simon Franglen, as well as Cameron’s mastery over the medium of cinema.
Given the scale and scope of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” it’s easy to forget that those are some amazing actors giving some of the best performances of the year, which are, of course, enhanced by the animators and VFX artists. Sam Worthington’s Jake is completely different from the first film. The way he allows his insecurities to show while exuding a great level of care for every single member of his family is incredible to watch. Zoe Saldaña was the highlight of the first film, and she continues to be so in the sequel. Only she can balance a character’s motherly anxieties and warrior spirit this well. Sigourney Weaver as Kiri is, to everyone’s surprise, the heart of the film. I am expressing surprise because that’s a 73-year-old actor playing a 14-year-old Na’vi child, and it works so well! Talking about 70-year-olds playing young roles, Stephen Lang gets to make Quaritch an incredibly complex and three-dimensional character. Britain Dalton carries a major chunk of this film, and he deserves top marks for it. Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, and Duane Evans are good. Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet, as the heads of the Metkayina clan, bring a sense of regality to the whole affair. Last but not least, Brendan Cowell and Jemaine Clement are hilarious, with the former getting an applause-worthy death scene.
In conclusion, James Cameron has done it again with “Avatar: The Way of Water.” While watching it, I think my jaw was wide open most of the time because I simply couldn’t believe what I was watching was real and not something that I was dreaming about. I felt goosebumps course through my body multiple times, not just because of the spectacle but due to the potpourri of emotions at its core. When I walked out of the theater, everything about real life started to pale in comparison to the world that Cameron and his team had created. That’s how mind-altering this film is! This is what blockbusters and films with an epic canvas should be all about! They shouldn’t be dull, vapid, gray-looking blobs of mess masquerading as cinema. They should be pulsating with life. Their heroes should be worth dying for. Their villains should keep you up at night. The action sequences should be dynamic, colorful, and pack a wallop. And, at the end of the day, when the credits are done rolling, they should feel inviting enough for a second or third viewing. Until and unless you can do that, keep learning from the one and only James Cameron.