Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver
Director: James Cameron
Genre: Science fiction
After 13 years and countless delays, everyone’s favourite blue people since The Smurfs are back on the big screen!
Avatar, as a franchise, is a curious beast; a giant, hulking, body-painted blue one. The first is still the highest grossing film of all time, helped by its ground-breaking 3D visuals which came along with higher ticket prices at the zenith of that short-lived fad. Yet, it has failed to leave its mark on the cultural zeitgeist in the way that Star Wars, Marvel or Lord of the Rings have.
Can this resurrection, the first of four planned sequels by the end of the decade, finally leave an indelible legacy on pop culture? Much like the film itself, it’s a question still unanswered.
The Way of Water bridges the long gap between movies with a dense prologue that explains what happened after the resource-hungry humans of the RDA retreated from Pandora after being beaten back by the native Na’vi (those aforementioned blue people). Defecting Avatar pilot and now full-time Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) start a family as the new leaders of the Omaticaya tribe.
That family grows to include three biological and two adopted children, and it’s the driving force behind Jake and Neytiri’s decision to exile themselves after the RDA return to resume their plundering, led by the practically non-existent General Ardmore (Edie Falco).
These early scenes deliver a lot of exposition, and breeze over important details about the status quo and the nature of certain relationships. At a bladder-busting 192 minutes, The Way of Water consistently finds the time to circle back to reinforce the most crucial plot elements, perhaps too often when brevity would have been the better solution.
Luckily, director James Cameron is betting that you’ll be too bowled over by what a decade of technological advancement has done for realising Pandora on screen than then spending too much time searching for a character’s name or their place in the social hierarchy.
And boy, is this film beautiful. The forests of the first film, after a brief appearance, give way to the territory of the seafaring Metkayina tribe, and the vibrant underwater ecosystem is an even more dreamlike palette for Cameron to work with.
Bioluminescent rainbows from the flora in the depths refract through the moving surface like the aurora, sunsets on the wide horizon bounce off the waves and cast the shores in a purple hue, the thoughtfully designed marine life all reinforce the sense that Pandora is a living, breathing world even more effectively than Avatar did.
It’s simply stunning and deserves to be seen in the best screen possible (such as IMAX) as witnessing this movie really is an event. Watching the first film again on the small screen as a refresher showed the cracks in the narrative and even the visuals, which in 2D and after the passage of time look more like cutscenes from a video game. Make sure you see it as it was envisioned.
Speaking of the plot, without going into spoiler territory, the sequel is a far tighter and more intriguing affair than the original, which was essentially Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas in Space. It’s a self-contained epic, with the first and third acts particularly thrilling with some blockbuster set-pieces.
The middle part could have done with some hefty fat-trimming and should be allotted as your pencilled-in bathroom break, but it does set up various narrative strands which should be addressed in future films.
Ultimately, while this is not James Cameron’s best sequel ever (although when you have Aliens and Terminator 2 under your belt, that’s not really a criticism), it’s still an outstanding moment in cinematic history. A momentous visual feast, flying the flag for cinema in an age of streaming and the smaller screen.
Whether this movie establishes Avatar as a pop culture phenomenon remains to be seen, but Cameron could not have done any more.