Review by Tim Robins
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water begins to tell the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure...
Thankfully, Avatar: The Way of Water was a lot less wet than I thought it would be. Director James Cameron brings us a visually stunning movie that demands to be seen on the big screen and absolutely needs to be seen in 3D. That is, if you intend to see it all.
Following the success of Avatar (2009), there were a lot of attempts to retrofit films into 3D and one or two films (including 2012’s Dredd) that were actually filmed with 3D cameras. But not all 3D cameras are created equal, and Cameron’s new movie manages to escape the problems of the progenitor, losing much of the feeling of watching a large diorama and, except towards the end, avoiding the way 3D can miniaturise objects on the screen (cf scenes with Leonardo’s AW101 helicopter in Jurassic World).
Despite some scenes filmed at twice the usual rate per second, The Way of Water isn’t the cinematic faux pas as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And the extensive use of motion capture and CGI doesn’t make the film look like a giant cartoon, either. Instead, the 3D is so convincing that I spent the opening minutes tut-tutting about people who hadn’t yet taken their seats only to realise the people weren’t in front of the screen but actually on the screen in the foreground of the film.
Watching a wading character’s reflection refracted through the water, I realised that I would never be able to grasp the effort that went into this production. I have never seen textures so convincingly rendered at the smallest and largest of scales – from the delicate wetness of characters’ skin to the gigantic, leathery folds of the whale-like fauna that inhabit the seas of the planet Pandora. There’s an adorable scene with a Na’vi baby swimming through the water that had the audience sighing and cooing, although I couldn’t help but think of the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind. In a way, aren’t the audience just children swimming eagerly towards a hook baited with the promise of more time, money and effort spent on a film than ever before?
Although critics have always been quick to praise Cameron’s technical achievements, I don’t think audiences would have been drawn to his movies if he wasn’t an extremely talented director who places storytelling and character drama at the heart of his movies. Unlike some blockbusters I can think of, Cameron marshals his large cast of characters in such a way that we never lose sight of their motivations or, remarkably, their individual story arcs.
The Way of Water’s somewhat touchy-feely, eco-friendly message is surely belied by the resources that must surely have been ploughed into the movie to deliver it to audiences. Of course, the director has shot the film back-to-back with the next sequel and of course the research and development will benefit future movies. However, I suspect the film’s main contribution will be to more immersive technologies such as virtual reality.
As far as green politics goes, only the plot is recycled. The film returns us to the planet Pandora, now seen as the last hope for humanity since the Earth has been exploited to death. The story takes place some ten years after the events of the first movie, which I’d recommend rewatching before you see The Way of Water as a lot of its characters were instantly forgettable.
Jake Sully, in Avatar form, has settled down as chief of the Omaticaya tribe of the blue-skinned, cat-like, Na’vi. Sully is now patriarch of an extended family that including wife Neytiri, their sons, Neteyam and Lo’ak, and daughter, Tuk, his adopted daughter Kiri – born from Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine’s deadish avatar (best not to think about it), and a human boy named Spider, nicknamed ‘Monkey Boy’, the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch, the first film’s bad guy, Who has been resurrected by future tech.
Unknown to the tree hugging folk, thuggish Quaritch has had his mind uploaded to a new kind of Avatar and has been reassigned to doing bad stuff on Pandora with troops cut from the same character cloth as the marines in Aliens. Cameron avoids the way of wokeness because what he really loves are big blokes “hoo-hah-ing” and “Boo-yah-ing” their way through aesthetically pleasing scenes of mass destruction. If you watch this film in 4DX, expect to be sprayed with testosterone whenever the marines are on screen.
Escaping a new invasion of the “sky people”, Sully’s family flee the marines to a Weta (sic) part of the planet where they are sheltered by a clan of greenish-hued, webbed-skinned, Metkayina reef people. These also have names, so many names, as do the new flora and fauna including Skimwings – bitey flying fish – and the whale-like, telepathic Tulkens with whom the reef people commune.
Special mention must go to the cast who had to endure the three-year shoot. The characters rarely rise above the hackneyed, but the fact the human cast rescues any kind of emotional engagement at all in the face of the relentless, technical assault of future cinema tech, is an achievement in itself. And there is some subtlety in many of the character interactions – Sam Worthington’s and Cliff Curtis’s performances (as, respectively, Sully and Tonowari) are as nuanced as they can be in their roles as fathers to their respective families. Jack Champion as “Spider” stands out as the only human among the alien and transhuman characters and finds himself torn between loyalty to his tribe and grudging respect (or even love) for his meat-headed father. Yes, this is another Hollywood movie about fathers’ oedipal relation to their sons.
Some of the awkwardness of Avatar remains. The representation of Pandora’s indigenous people draws on a whole barrel full of woeful stereotypes. Despite the fact an entire language was created for the Na’Vi, they talk like every Hollywood cliché of ‘primitives’ including, excruciatingly, First Nations people. Capture the cringe by imagining that you are sitting with a contemporary audience and watching Peter Sellers singing “Goodness Gracious Me” or the infamous Seventies’ episode of Spike Milligan’s TV show featuring Pakistani Daleks.
Film making technology may have progressed, but in my view, Cameron’s world view is stuck firmly in the past. It would have been great if the director had spent as much time studying social anthropology as reports about different camera lenses. The film’s clichéd representation of ‘the family’ undermines its relevance to our world, let alone Avatar’s, and trans or post-human future. It’s as if the parental norms of the 1950s had been uprooted, hurled across time and space and dumped on the unsuspecting audience.
It is tempting to read The Way of Water as a projection of Cameron’s self. In interviews, the director has reflected on his “angry man” reputation in the film industry. But these reflections really haven’t taken him very far. I don’t think he realises that his utopian impulses are absolutely contingent on anger and violence.
“Wherever we go, this family is our fortress,” says Sully. That really is the only metaphor needed to unlock Cameron’s sense of an embattled self. In ‘Avatar: The Psycho-drama’, the director is ever watchful for the need to defend himself and his fortified battlements are ever ready to support his defensive position, with violence if necessary and when is violence, or the threat of violence, not necessary? If you carry a fortress with you and wherever you go will look like a battlefield characterised by tensions between fight and flight, success and failure, being a man or being a wimp.
I can understand why film critic Mark Kermode was reduced to describing The Way of Water in a variety of silly, pythonesque voices. By doing so, Kermode deflated the film’s portentousness and exposed its twee, musty and questionable ideas that are hiding in plain sight. In terms of politics, it’s all a bit hippy-ish (although that does the counterculture a disservice).
It should be no surprise that a lot of the design work is a nod to the artwork of Rodney Matthews, Roger Dean and a host of 70s SF paperbacks published by Pan. Incidentally, the gatefold sleeves of prog-rock groups contained the same contradiction at the heart of Avatar and The Way of Water – pastoral yearnings expressed through state-of-the-art Sci-Fi tech. But that is one of the film’s pleasures. I particularly liked the destructive, crab-like machines. They had a real Ray Harryhausen-Star Wars vibe.
So, if not a feast for the mind, The Way of Water is a feast for the eyes, even at three hours and ten minutes. I only began to tire during the protracted final battle. Here Cameron begins repeating himself, with a scene echoing The Abyss in which two characters gasping for breath, and trying to keep afloat in an enclosed space.
If Cameron has to cannibalise himself now, I do wonder what the next Avatar film (rumoured to be called Avatar: The Seed Bearer) will be like, let alone the films after that. When the ‘way of water’ was revealed to be ‘there are no beginnings or endings’ – I wanted to scream: Lord no! Make it stop!
Who am I kidding? I have to confess that I’ll be there for the third film. It’s my way of weakness.
The Way of Water is in cinemas now
• The Art of Avatar The Way of Water
by Tara Bennett, with a foreword by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez
Packed with hundreds of stunning images and written in collaboration with the filmmakers themselves, uncover the incredible creative and technical skill that went into the making of Avatar: The Way of Water. Featuring stunning concept art and intricate character, creature, and costume designs, uncover the details of Pandora in striking detail.
Art of Avatar: The Way of Water is produced in collaboration with James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, and Twentieth Century Film.
Available from all good bookshops | AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
• Avatar The Way of Water The Visual Dictionary
by Joshua Izzo, Zachary Berger, Dylan Cole, Reymundo Perez, Ben Procter, with a Foreword by Sigourney Weaver
Dive into the depths of Avatar: The Way of Water with this definitive guide.
Created in close collaboration with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and written by experts who worked on the film, this authoritative book is packed with stunning exclusive details. This must-have visual guide showcases the characters, creatures, vehicles, weapons, and locations from the latest adventure in Pandora.
Meet the next generation of Jake Sully and Neytiri’s family, including the mysterious Kiri and the heroic Neteyam, and their brave new allies among the Metkayina clan. Discover the majestic tulkun, speedy skimwings, and the other fauna and flora of Pandora’s oceans. Examine the latest fearsome RDA vehicles and the specialist recom troops under Colonel Quaritch’s command. Uncover the inner-workings of Bridehead City and the sacred Cove of the Ancestors.
Available from all good bookshops | AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.