For a now franchise that seemed to get dunked on ever since its box office shattering beginning, Avatar, and by extension, James Cameron, projects immense confidence. While some snickered at Cameron planning a whole host of Avatar sequels, he and his team plugged away, knowing what they had. Well, when Avatar: The Way of Water finally screened last week, it probably shouldn’t have come as a shock that the film largely blew everyone away. After all, the first one showed audiences things they’d never seen before, while Cameron is one of the masters when it comes to epic spectacle. So, even if I went into this movie without much in the way of expectations, I left it wit my mouth agape. This is an improvement over the already solid first one in every manner.
Avatar: The Way of Water is proof that you should never bet against Cameron. Not only is it visually a huge step forward and likely the best we’ll ever see 3D utilized (until Avatar 3?), it raises the emotional stakes and does a better job investing you in the characters. Both flicks are essentially theme park rides, but this time, you care about who you’re going on the ride with. Combine that with it being one of the best looking films ever made and you have a recipe for success.
A sequel to Avatar, we return to Pandora to meet the family Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has made with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). A decade and change has passed since the Marine aligned himself with the Indigenous Na’vi to defend the planet, becoming one of them in the process. Now, he’s a husband and father, dedicated to protecting not just the clan, but his family as well. Jake and Neytiri are still warriors, but their first priorities are teen sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and an adopted daughter in Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the biological child of the avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver). When the invaders return, they come with a new goal. This time around, humans want to not just mine Pandora, but colonize it as well.
An additional issue arises in that Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has been reborn in an avatar, working under the command of General Francis Ardmore (Edie Falco) to hunt down Jake’s clan. Considering it was Jake who killed him, Quaritch is itching for the fight. To protect his family, Jake takes Neytiri and their children away from the forests, to the ocean parts of Pandora, where they will have to learn a new way of life. Of course, the fight will still eventually come to them, and when it does, he’ll be ready.
The cast are more in service of the film than the film is of them, but they’re certainly more than solid. The likes of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña have new motivations, while Stephen Lang even gets some character development. Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, and Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, along with Jack Champion as a human child that’s like another sibling, end up being who you’re most invested in. In addition to newcomers like Edie Falco and Kate Winslet, plus Jermaine Clement, there are returning players like Sigourney Weaver, as well as Joel David Moore.
Co-writer/director James Cameron is a visual showman, staging all manner of impressive set-pieces. Now, the script remains a bit of a weak link, but it’s definitely an improvement over Avatar. The story is thin, but Cameron, along with co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno also get Story By credits), do more to invest you in all of the characters. It’s not overly complex, but it’s more effective than last time. They don’t give you enough to justify the over three hour running time, but you’re never bored waiting for the next battle. Of course, you’re here for Cameron’s direction and visuals, and they’re incredible. Writing about the look of Avatar: The Way of Water just doesn’t do it justice. It has to be seen in order to be properly digested.
The visual effects really are the star. The world of Pandora is brought even more to life here, while there are close ups on the faces of the Na’vi that you would swear are real life. Cameron and his technical staff have raised the game once again. It’s hyperbole to say you’ve never seen effects work like this, but it’s just the truth.
Awards wise, Avatar: The Way of Water is a player. I wrote a bit about that last week here, but while it may not be a threat to win much above the line, it’s going to be a potential force below the line. Oscar is going to go for it, it’s just a matter of to what degree. That remains to be seen, but Pandora will have a presence at the Academy Awards, that’s for sure.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a big adventure for the whole family and an unqualified success. You just can’t bet against Cameron. He has a vision for this franchise and it’s paying off in spades. Perhaps the biggest compliment that I can give to this movie is that, while I was indifferent to the series going in, I now can’t wait for another Avatar epic. Give me five more of these. I now trust in Cameron!