movie review

Avatar: The Way of Water Might Be James Cameron’s Most Personal Film

Avatar: The Way of Water.
It’s also, as you might suspect, spectacular. Photo: 20th Century Studios

James Cameron is never leaving Pandora. That much is certain after seeing Avatar: The Way of Water, his sequel to 2009’s ginormo-hit, Avatar. In the past, the director has teased the idea of making smaller, more personal projects after each of his big blockbusters. But The Way of Water makes clear that Cameron no longer needs to leave the confines of this (virtual) extrasolar moon in the Alpha Centauri system to create something closer to the heart. He can bend Pandora to his will, and now he’s bent it to make what might be his most earnest film to date.

Cameron has always been an artist divided: equal parts gearhead and tree hugger, swaggering stud and soft-focus softie. That’s the secret of his success as a showman. He has the authenticity and know-how to sell all that fake movie science and testosterone-fueled dialogue (not to mention the perversity and skill to pull off creatively violent set pieces), but he uses them toward explicitly emotional (read: family-friendly) ends. The Abyss nearly drowns in scientific jargon and macho bluster until it suddenly becomes a sweet movie about salvaging a failing marriage while peace-loving, glow-in-the-dark sea aliens save the Earth. Titanic is one-half wide-eyed teenage love story, one-half gnarly-death demo reel.

The first Avatar has this duality, too, on both a formal and narrative level. It’s a state-of-the-art environmental action movie, a film in which Hollywood’s best ones and zeros come together to sell a story about the dangers of runaway technology and our longing to become one with nature. At its center is a tough grunt who, tasked with impersonating an alien race in order to undermine them, ultimately transforms into an interstellar flower child, shedding his human body for good.

The existential divide that lies at the core of that picture has not disappeared. If anything, it’s expanded. If Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) spends much of that first movie trying to prove his bona fides to his new alien tribe, The Way of Water is filled with even more characters trying to claim their new identities while carrying shades of their former lives.

When we meet Jake again, he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have had three kids and effectively adopted two others: teenage Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born in mysterious fashion to the dormant Na’vi avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine, Weaver’s late scientist character from the first film; and Spider (Jack Champion), a child born on the human base on Pandora who was too small to be transported back to Earth when the colonizers (or “sky people”) were driven off the moon. After a new round of sky people arrives, incinerating everything in their path, Jake comes to realize he’s being specifically targeted and flees with his family across the oceans of Pandora to Awa’atlu, a village of the Metkayina, a turquoise-colored reef people who regard the newcomers first with suspicion, then with contempt. (“They have demon blood!” one yells, noticing that Jake’s kids, unlike purebred Na’vi, have five fingers.) Soon, however, the Sully family, regarded as freaks by the others, start learning the ways of the Metkayina even as they’re told that, with their thin arms and weak tails, they will be useless in the water.

There’s a twisted kind of transformation happening on the bad guys’ side, too. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the cigar-chomping, leathery (human) villain of the first film, is also back, now as a Na’vi avatar apparently created before the first film’s climactic attack just in case Quaritch Version 1.0 didn’t survive. So now the Na’vi-hating psycho from the first movie is back as a psycho Na’vi, and he has a personal vendetta against Jake and his family.

It might sound ridiculous, and it is ridiculous — Quaritch even gets to contemplate the remnants of his human skull at one point before blithely crushing it in his huge Na’vi hands — but we can also sense a greater purpose at work as we watch our villain trying to become more like a Na’vi with all the brute-force gracelessness one might expect from an unrepentant oorah blowhard. (“Yeah, colonel, get some!” his men yell in triumph when Quaritch finally manages to tame a banshee, one of the flying lizardlike creatures the Na’vi use to get around.) Just to make sure we get the point, Cameron cuts between Sully’s and Quaritch’s respective efforts to adapt. On the one side is generosity, openness, and humility in the face of nature. On the other side is pure macho supremacy.

Although they’re roundly mocked for their incompetence in the ways of the sea, Jake’s kids make honest attempts to bond with the mostly uncooperative Metkayina and their whalelike compatriots, the tulkun. And here Cameron can’t help himself. A longtime ocean nut, he’s created these imaginary seas, and he’s going to spend every minute of screen time he can exploring their digital wonders. But something else emerges during these sequences. If the first Avatar is remarkable because it shows us wondrous lands nothing like our own, The Way of Water is remarkable because it shows us that this world is, in fact, very much like our own. In creating Pandora’s forest world for the original movie, Cameron clearly borrowed liberally from existing marine ecosystems. And on land, floating tentacular spirits and bioluminescent creatures do in fact look otherworldly. But now, in this underwater setting, they look lovely, and, weirdly, almost ordinary. Indeed, among the many previous Cameron titles this new picture recalls (including, notably, Titanic), foremost are his documentaries about undersea exploration, Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005).

These languorously dreamy, whale-filled sequences constitute The Way of Water’s make-or-break middle, when viewers will either become supremely bored or supremely enchanted. As an ocean obsessive myself, I was totally enraptured, but I suspect others will be onboard too. For starters, the effects work is unbelievable; I still haven’t entirely wrapped my head around the fact that none of this stuff actually exists, that it’s all a meticulously rendered digital environment. But, more important, Cameron hasn’t lost the ability to convey his dorky-sweet enthusiasm to the audience. It’s hard not to lose oneself amid the gentle, flowing cadences of this exquisitely created undersea universe, where the water enveloping the characters gradually becomes a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all living beings.

Good thing, then, that there are now living beings to care about. One of the (valid) knocks against the first Avatar is that the characters feel like cutouts, there largely to serve as vessels for exploring the fantastical setting. This time around, it feels as if Cameron has taken the criticism to heart. As a result, he spends a decidedly blockbuster-unfriendly amount of time establishing Jake’s family’s dynamics, the parents’ hopes and fears and the kids’ restlessness. Teenage rebels, outcast anxiety, warring cliques, budding intertribal romances, domineering parents — it’s all there. We get a montage of births, family portraits, kids’ changing heights carved on posts, even glimpses of “date night” with Jake and Neytiri.

Meanwhile, Jake’s military training still remains, and he runs his family like a hard-ass officer, using terms like fall in and dismissed when talking to his children, all the while expecting to be called “sir.” (When he grounds one of his sons, he literally grounds him: “No more flying for a month.”) Neytiri chastises Jake for being too hard on his boys. “This is not a squad. It is a family,” she reminds him as he sits there, grimly cleaning his gun. Again, why return to Earth to tell your stories when you can bring your Earth stories to Pandora? At times, one wonders if The Way of Water might be, among other things, Cameron’s version of a kitchen-sink family drama. Ultimately, all that time spent with these characters pays off. An early instance of Jake’s sons disobeying his orders feels fairly unremarkable; when it happens again later, we feel far more invested in these kids’ survival. By the end of the movie, all that talk of family actually starts to ring true.

None of this is particularly original, of course, but Cameron’s forte has never been originality. He likes to present familiar stories in bright new variations with more force and authority than ever before. In this sense, he resembles a silent-movie director, happy to play with archetypes and common tales and myths but in ways designed to captivate even the most jaded viewers. Cameron isn’t afraid to be corny because he can back up the outsize emotions with both sincerity and ruthlessness.

And all those drifting passages of communion with whales and patient portraits of characters seeking to belong set up the film’s spectacular final act with its seafaring battles full of harpooning, strangling, slicing, crushing, and drowning as well as one particularly crowd-pleasing amputation. But the sentimentality hasn’t entirely dissipated; the savagery has a purpose, and it’s a surprisingly cathartic one. Cameron’s divided self finds its fullest expression on Pandora not just because he can create vast new worlds and matrices of spiritually interconnected beings but also because he can fight battles he can’t fight elsewhere. For even here, he’s ultimately telling an Earth story. He channels his (and our) inchoate rage at the devastation of the natural world, and he delivers a fantasy of revenge — albeit one set on a strange shore in a distant galaxy, one that just happens to look like a heightened, trippy version of our own.

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Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s Most Personal Film