Tuesday 10 January 2023

Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022)

Over a decade has passed since James Cameron asked us to put on 3D glasses and join him on a romp around the planet of Pandora. As much as I loved the cinematic experience of Avatar, and I still think it holds up as a visual wonderland that is well worth watching on a big screen, it's hard to argue against people who point out that the film made no major cultural footprint, despite it spending a bit of time as the highest-grossing blockbuster movie in modern cinema. Yeah, we got some jokes and references, but then it all just . . . faded away. 

Now it's all back, and it's back in a big way. While it's unwise to ever bet against Cameron, many balked at how much this had to make to just break even. The fact that it's now on target to do more than that, and probably give Cameron yet another chance say he is the helmer of the highest-grossing movie of all time, is unbelievable. And yet . . . it's in line with how Cameron works. 

Jake (Sam Worthington) is now living happily with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) on Pandora. They have three children of their own, two boys named Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and one daughter named Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as an adopted daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and the constant company of a human boy, Spider (Jack Champion), who was left on Pandora because he was too young to be transported back to Earth when he was a child. Everything is wonderful, which means it's all about to be spoiled. Enter Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the big bad from the first movie who is, with a small team of his fellow soldiers, sent back to Pandora in Na'vi form. Jake opts to take his family away from their forest home, asking permission from another tribe (led by Tonowari, played by Cliff Curtis, and Ronal, played by Kate Winslet) to hide away and make their new home in an idyllic reef environment. But trying to stay out of a fight doesn't stop the fight landing on your doorstep.

It’s hard to think of the best way to review Avatar: The Way Of Water. It isn’t a great movie, especially with a lot of it rehashing what we got in the first film, but it is a great cinematic experience, and that is what Cameron specializes in. In an ideal world, I would list all of the VFX and art department people here, as well as the production designers, stunt crew, and all of those who won’t receive their due credit while Cameron, who is certainly no slouch when it comes to pushing film-making tech above and beyond the limits of our imagination, gets to return to his throne and proclaim himself “king of the world” again.

The cast all do what is asked of them, but part of the fun comes from not recognizing them. Worthington and Saldaña are fine, but it’s more impressive to not realise when Curtis and Winslet appear. And it’s a delight to see Sigourney Weaver magically made youthful in a way that is equally realistic and magical. Lang is a great villain, once again, and the younger cast members, those already mentioned above, plus Bailey Bass and Filip Geljo, all seem good enough under their layers of motion capture. Champion is good as definitely not a feral kid lifted from the Mad Max movies, and there are one or two enjoyable scenes featuring Brendan Cowell and Jemaine Clement, actually allowed to play their characters in standard human guise.

The 3+ hour runtime may be offputting, but this isn’t a film that drags. The majority of the runtime provides plenty of spectacle and beautiful details to pick up on, and the action beats are brilliantly done, with the last 40 minutes or so being one extended battle scene that guarantees most viewers will feel surprisingly energised as the end credits roll.

Not only does Cameron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, rehash the main conflict for our hero this time around, he also revisits the themes of environmental awareness, living in harmony with a precious planetary ecosystem, and showing the value in traditional ways and community spirit. Is it all also problematic blue-faced cultural appropriation? That charge has been levelled against it, but I think that Cameron and co. put such hard work into creating an entirely fictional world, influenced by the history and many cultures of our own planet, that you have to accept it as it is presented; pure sci-fi.

Maybe it’s a sign of me being won over by the advertising, or maybe I just really enjoyed the whole cinematic experience THAT much (once I told someone to turn their phone off after tolerating the bright light of their screen for half an hour - aaaaaaarrrrgggggh), but this is the kind of escape that shows how far movies can transport us. It isn’t perfect, even the technical side of things can seem a bit rough occasionally (the HFR can take some getting used to, some of the colours clash horribly, and a number of shots are framed horrible due to the difference in size between any human characters and the much taller Na’vi), but I would easily rewatch it today if I had the time. And I will be keen for whenever we next get an opportunity to revisit Pandora. 

James Cameron may not know much about subtlety or self-restraint. Fortunately, he knows how to deliver eye-popping, jaw-dropping, cinema on a huge scale.


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