By K. Austin Collins
Avatar: The Way of Water is a long time coming. The newest chapter in James Cameron’s spears-versus-guns, aliens-versus-predators epic has been planned all along, and its own sequel, Avatar 3, is already set for a 2024 release (the movies were filmed simultaneously). Avatar 4, partially shot, has been slated for 2026. The fifth installment’s got a script. These are movies in which the colonizing empire is the bad guy, the destroyer and abuser of a new world and the people — called Na’vi — inhabiting it. Maybe there’s some irony in needing to prove this point with a five-movie empire of one’s own.
But irony isn’t really Cameron’s game. The Way of Water is like its predecessor: sincere to the point of being brash, wide-armed and open-hearted toward the world it loves and vengefully, comically violent toward the people who arrive to destroy that world. It’s a better movie than the first outing because Cameron lets things get weirder, wilder. He dwells on details that most streamlined modern blockbusters, even some of the most bloated among them, do not dare. Repeated images of an eclipse begin to hang over the entire movie like a curse. Complex, whale-like creatures called tulkun are given full social lives, backstories, and systems of communication so sophisticated that their conversations are subtitled. A Rambo in avatar’s clothing has an encounter with his old body — a skull — in one of the stranger deployments of military undead this side of Universal Soldier: Regeneration. These aren’t really spoilers — the world of this movie is big enough and, like the environs it depicts, much too interconnected to rest on any one detail.
The movie’s sinews have sinews. The finest sequence here is a set piece that barely involves any of the movie’s main characters and would, in another film, feel like a mere side-story. It is essentially, to be deceptively simple about it, a primer on commercial fishing. And it is mighty and enraged, a condemnation of our own reality masked as a tutorial on Pandora’s vibrant seas. Strident, exciting, and tellingly brutal, it’s a sequence which, in other hands, might have felt like a histrionic tangent, like a sideways temper tantrum crammed late into the movie to score easy political points. Instead, Cameron exercises pure control, the kind of cool, procedural filmmaking that masks its rage beneath straight details. It’s shattering, not least for the way that it calmly segues back into the meat of the movie, bringing the abstract down to bear on the immediate and familiar. The paradox of The Way of Water — a movie that in many ways repeats what came before — is that its tangents are often where its heart is.
The highs of Cameron’s new hyper-digital epic are indeed highs. The lows vary. It’s not overly revealing to say that The Way of Water basically picks up where the previous feature left off. Technically, we’re a decade on from the world of Avatar. But old battles rage. One doesn’t simply kick a destructive empire back to its home planet and expect it not to return. Pandora is still the lush moon it was before, and the resource “unobtainium” is still as much of a draw for humans. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are still a thing when the new movie finds them a decade on. They have a flock of offspring now: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and the teenage adoptee Kiri (Sigourney Weaver — don’t ask). A human teen named Spider (Jack Champion), who was too young to catch the last flight back to Earth, is the family’s Kimmy Gibbler — not strictly a relative, but nevertheless always around. We get the impression, from the movie’s opening 30 or so minutes, that the family has been living a good life since we last saw them, even as the dilemma of the “sky people” (humans, working for the Resources Development Administration, or RDA) has persisted.
The difference is that Jake is a full-fledged insurgent now. He’s the one on Pandora that the RDA and its ships have to blame for their downed military hardware, dead soldiers, incomplete missions, and unobtained resources. He’s the one that the RDA wants to snuff out, revenge-style, sending a kill team led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to do the dirty deed, and suiting them up as Na’vi to pull it off. So begins a strange, double-barreled odyssey, one in which Jake and Neytiri’s family must leave behind their high-flying forest dwellings to seek refuge among the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan while Colonel Miles and his crew pursue them across Pandora’s vast unknowns. (The leaders of the Metkayina clan are played by Kate Winslet, as the shamanistic Ronal, and Cliff Curtis as Tonowari.) It’s largely an adventure about the usual heroic things, from finding oneself, to the importance of allies, to learning to harness one’s inner power, to conquering evil. The franchise’s environmentalist bent stands out, but even this bends back toward the former concerns. For whatever has changed, this much remains the same. Avatar was always, already, about playing native, in exactly the ways that Philip Deloria once detailed, with Indigenous identity wielded to help us reimagine ourselves as history’s warriors, as the rightful inheritors of the land, as people who might be able to slip into and belong to a culture that felt honorable and worth knowing. It’s the fantasy of becoming one with a culture by coming to know that culture intimately. Instead of a costume, Jake Sully was given a new body. Instead of going down as the enemy, he fought the enemy — betrayed them. Moving these ideas to a blue-tinged moon with an alien race didn’t change what they were.
What may have saved Avatar from itself the first time out, though, was its willingness to take that native world so seriously that the movie’s emotional centerpiece — the unlikely spiritual climax of its multi-million dollar blockbuster spectacle — could hang on something as surreally mundane as mass grief over the loss of a tree. Not just war or an action climax born of fire and death, but the loss of nature. It was the biological network that set Avatar apart from the norm, the insistence that nature was a main character, not just a digital backdrop (even if that backdrop was technologically sophisticated); not just a romantic setting for humans’ war and misadventure against an underclass, but the essence of the movie. It was the lithe, appealing grace of the Na’vi themselves, the catlike emotional tells of their eyes and ears, their dexterity in the air, their fierce passion and ready-made resistance.
Scenes of Na’vi flying above treetops and floating rock formations made the first Avatar memorable — if we can use that word. For a movie that’s still apparently one of the most profitable Hollywood products of all time, Avatar has an uncomfortable reputation: it’s gotten cool to pretend that we’ve forgotten about it. Is there such a thing as a billion-dollar cult object? What’s funny about the new movie is that large stretches of runtime, especially in the first half, will feel familiar for even the apparent amnesiacs among us. Much of this stretch calls back to the first movie so thoroughly that it nearly amounts to a neat recap. There are changes, of course. Once by land, now by sea. Jake Sully and his family, on the run from the RDA, must learn to live and work among the water dwellers. This is a race of Na’vi whose design seems to have taken its cues from Maori culture, among others. Tails and bodies and lungs are thicker among the reef people, visibly adapted to this distinct environment. Their bodies and the bodies of their spiritually linked animals bear tattoos that tell stories. It again puts Jake back in a position to defer to a race that is not his. He and his brood must get their sea legs, in this movie, just as Jake once had to walk the walk as Na’vi. We, the audience, get to feast on the benefits of this new territory. Cameron treats us to lavish tours of the ecosystem, as before, with just as much aw-shucks wonder attached.
“Can anybody even remember the characters’ names?” is the way Cameron recently summed up much of the studio exec skepticism toward this endeavor. The Way of Water’s design renders the point somewhat moot. Obviously, the images that Cameron and his vast team of Weta visual effects magicians and set designers have come up with, a mix of built environments and underwater motion capture, are accomplished. Pandora is unbearably beautiful. (Cameron’s choice of higher frame rates helps: the movement is more fluid, the digital environments and microexpressions on the characters’ faces more particular and vibrant.) But this is a world being delivered to us with a caveat — surely you know that much by now. It can be lost. The violence depicted toward nature, in this movie, is overwhelming. Cameron doubles down to extreme effect. There is no form of human contact with this world that does not seem to result in some downside for its inhabitants. The “sky people” cannot even land their ships on Pandora’s turf without sending some small patch of that world ablaze. It’s in constant crisis, bullying us into sympathy for the movie’s goings-on. It works. The very transformation of human souls into Na’vi avatars feels violent, too, at least among violent people. Where before we saw Jake Sully commit himself to learning the ways of the Na’vi, to the point of taking incredible pride in the endeavor, we’re now treated to a group of commandos who do precisely what the movie urges us not to. They take it all for granted. For them, the whole thing is like some kind of weird joke. Worse, it’s merely a means to an end. In Jake Sully, Avatar showed that it believed in the possibility of a convert — a man whose military mission could be undermined by the pure, unadulterated beauty of a place and its people. The Way of Water proposes to show us the other side. There are, we learn, hearts that cannot be won.
The Way of Water was co-written, by Cameron, with the screenwriting pair Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who recently helped rehabilitate the Planet of the Apes franchise. Together they’ve sculpted this story into the kind of ambitious metanarrative that I’ve begun to miss. It’s not rare for a blockbuster to be a 2.5-hour (minimum) commitment (and this new Avatar movie is over three). The Way of Water’s structural backbone is something of a lost art, though, not because it’s some work of complex genius, but because, despite designing a story spread across multiple films, Cameron still seems intent on making each chapter stand alone as if there won’t be another. There’s something engagingly desperate about it. The movie proceeds in large, breathy movements, with expansive set pieces urging us forward and a morass of big human emotions keeping it afloat amid all the detours and details. The pieces click together on steady character beats, the kind that can reel you in even if you know what’s going to happen. Renegades gonna renegade; lovers gonna love; a compelling movie knows that you’re clued in and makes you want to see it happen, anyway.
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The biting comparisons of the first Avatar to Dances with Wolves (for its white savior narrative) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (for its impassioned environmentalism in the guise of kid-friendly entertainment) were, even when facetious, more or less earned by that movie. But the criticism downplayed an equally true, far more basic fact of Cameron’s blockbuster style: archetype is his game. The familiar seems to inspire him. His most shopworn storylines are broad and elemental to the point of defying us to think otherwise. And he is most definitely not above cliché. (See also: the sight, in The Way of Water, of blood on a guilt-ridden character’s hands.) This is the Cameron I have affection for. The Cameron who made Titanic, which, at its simplest, is pure, blissed-out trash: a disaster epic that mated with an airport-novel romance and had a billion-dollar baby. Jack and Rose were outcast, lovelorn dreamers. Their story is not moving because it’s sophisticated; it’s moving precisely because it isn’t, because their routine, fish-out-of-water differences can be spotted from an iceberg away… and they fall for each other anyway. Why do we let Cameron get away with this? He’s a romantic. His largesse heightens the schematic, basic-bitch psychology; his dramatic gravitas makes it all suitably larger than life, worthy of a movie, and worthy of a James Cameron movie, specifically, with all the professional polish that implies. Cameron’s all-encompassing style has a way of making other blockbusters feel small, vague. The Way of Water, in line with his best work, is more affecting for knowing its audience, for digging into primal feelings about being misunderstood, being black sheep, being orphaned, falling in love. Fathers make peace with their sons. Teen heroes come into awareness of their mysterious powers. Scientists have their “oh shit” realizations that they’re working for the bad guys. If it were less corny, it’d somehow be less mesmerizing. And if it were any less primal, or any less willing to tap into a basic, bone-deep sense of injustice — on behalf of the environment and the natural world, of all things — then its overwhelming climax, full of hero-saves-the-day timing and selfless deeds and chickens very much coming home to roost, wouldn’t be as rousing.
But it is rousing. I can hardly think of another time that I was so excited to see a guy’s arm get ripped off. That’s how Avatar snares us; that’s how it gets away with even its most awkward conceits, its cringe forays into manic-pixie territory, its implicit representational weirdness. Is it meaningful that the Na’vi with the most preternatural gifts in this world tend to share blood with humans — that to be Na’vi, alone, is apparently not enough, not even on their own planet? Is it weird that Kate Winslet plays a reef-dwelling shaman, CGI or no? Questions like these eat away at the edges of the movie’s intentions. They don’t ruin the movie — there’s too much else to gawk at, too much excitement to sop up. But these questions matter, just as the movie’s behemoth size matters. The Way of Water is never better than during its climax, when it makes good on the cathartic satisfaction that’s been promised all along, the action-packed release that’s teeming with dramatic grace notes, every strand of the story coming together, every rebel without a cause suddenly given just cause. The movie continues for some time after this, though. As if making some sick joke, Cameron even treats us to a sinking ship. The excesses are forgivable in the way that watching someone execute a narrow turn with a semi truck, blocking all traffic, is begrudgingly forgivable. Some vehicles aren’t designed for elegance. That it manages more than its share of lumpen grace, regardless, is the The Way of Water’s primary achievement. It isn’t perfect. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun to reckon with if it was.
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