Do we all remember where we were around December of 2009? It seemed like a simpler time: Glee and Modern Family were all the rage on TV, Seattle’s Seahawks were in a slump, and a risky little feature effort was about to blow multiplex doors open and jam them for months on end. James Cameron’s Avatar had legs upon its initial release, with audiences curiously stepping into the mountainous realm of Pandora like they hadn’t seen anything else of its kind. Knowing its director well enough, we hadn’t. While not a perfect film, it held a high schooler version of myself in a near-suspended state, with eyes mostly glued to the screen from start to finish, and my mind racing to stay ahead of its intensity
Fast forward thirteen years, and we’ve all grown up some. I’m older, wiser, in a relationship, with a steady job, and a better-educated cinephile. Surely, Cameron’s grown up too, in sync with the tech gear he’s helped to develop for his process, as one part storyteller, one-part unbridled showman. No doubts plague his mind in his selling a story, or a motif, before effectively telling it. In that same light, there are perhaps some things that do not change. Like the rapt enthusiasm shared among a waiting audience for the auteur’s long-gestating sequel project. Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t differ entirely from its predecessor, between its buildup and its bleakly humanist struggle. But it certainly doesn’t shy away from the desire to evolve with the times. To a literal, rather lengthy, degree, ultimately.
Between Cameron, and fellow writers Josh Friedman (Terminator: Dark Fate), Shane Salerno (Savages), Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Mulan), they seek their avenue to revisit Pandora. And make it as if we’d never left; in that most minor part of our minds, we likely hadn’t. Time has marched on, and the famed solar moon has maintained a sliver of peace, driving out most of the Sky People who sought to eradicate and colonize their community for mining ore. When we rejoin the Na’vi in progress, their rampant foe led by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) makes a revenge strike under orders from General Ardmore (a savvy Edie Falco), prompting the Sully clan to get out of dodge.
Their immediate stop is one of sanctuary, looking to extend an olive branch with the Metkayina, or reef people. A proud sort led by Tonowari (a stringent, tactful Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), who hesitantly welcome their new visitors, insisting on no further war for the sake of their flocks. Ex-soldier Jake (Sam Worthington) and wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had grown their family during those years of peace, welcoming sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and No’ak (Britain Dalton), daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and adopted kid Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), by proxy Grace Augustine’s kid. Tagging along in their misadventures is feral human Spider (Jack Champion), caught in the middle of his Pandoran loyalty and his minimal sympathy for Quaritch who, in a newly minted avatar bod, holds him as collateral while tracking down the Sullys.
Cameron is very much looking toward the long haul with his franchise, going as noisy and eye-popping as he can. With that, it might not be helped how the cadence appears familiar, if not also growingly compelling the second time around. At times, we see his peak with personal storytelling, a deep family story reinforcing strength in numbers, and owning one’s responsibility regardless of sides. Neither the Na’vi nor the Sky People are free of fault in their affray. At other points, it looks like the director has found his craft again, shooting and editing with acumen in tune with his 80s action trifecta; any apparent nods to The Abyss or Aliens will be all too obvious. Even Simon Franglen’s score is witness to this brushstroke, incorporating James Horner’s familiar themes, be they tribal or anxious. Fight sequences arrest the eyes, training them not to look away for even a moment’s blink. Underwater cinematography, as expected, stirs the mind into a frenzy.
The rest of the time, it is tough to avoid how overwhelming the experience turns. At over three hours long, its myriad of plot points, both prominent and only slightly relevant with the promise of building resonance later in the series, play with a belabored, unrushed candor. Rather a double-edged sword, where if not handled carefully, the moment fades. Half of the runtime allows for many a welcome period of awe-inspiring calm where visuals come alive, and where affinity with the sea – likely the world at large, in the least subtle display for environmental activism – is nothing short of adorable. The other half parallels utter sensory overload while events fly at you left and right. Going full IMAX 3D only affirms those optimal conditions, loud and engulfing, like a crashing wave multiplied. But the waves are still beautiful, ripples dense and clear behind those glasses.
With longer-running films like this, when even the admittedly tighter action sequences can distract from the conflict at hand, less is often more, threequel to prep for or not. Way of Water plays so much like a self-contained story, with the lengths of a 40s serial; it could’ve been more concise, and better structured to benefit its otherwise abundant character development. Not that this extensiveness prevents Cameron’s ensemble from committing their full physicality to a mo-cap realm. Weaver proves her astonishing adaptability, despite much of her connectivity building rather late. Worthington and Saldana make for caring, confident parents, their composure rocksteady amid heightening strife. Winslet absolutely blows them away, however, soaking in every merit of her character’s warrior spirit with deep breaths, and without faltering. The kids tend to steal the show just as much, with Dalton and Bliss each conveying uncontrollable sibling energy. Even with family drama, Cameron finds that space for in-fighting, which mostly works.
The Way of Water is not entirely perfect, matching its predecessor to a T. Though in the realm of other screen epics, edging close to the heights of Cameron’s own Titanic, it remains in fair company. And with just enough room on the side to experiment. As much as there is a high bar for our director to achieve financial breakeven – production costs hovering around $350 million, his threshold for cinematic inventiveness is likely higher and sneakier. The way he and cinematographer Russell Carpenter guide the camera seamlessly through land and sea, once more changing the game for the latter, there’s a naive grace in play, coupled with a total suspension of reality. Cameron’s usage of 3D HFR (high frame rate) photography, for instance, caught me very off guard. It was quick to adjust to, with sharp, lifelike fluidity while in battle. Though it’s only ever jarring while mixing back and forth, and some may find it a disaster that only works with motion smoothing on one’s TV. It was unexpected, but nevertheless a fitting move in certain scenes. Choose your viewing location carefully, if one’s not the type to have their flow like a modern video game.
Does this compendium of directorial flourishes weigh down Cameron’s approach to story? And would the experience feel different in a more traditional setting? The answer to both is an apparent yes, and for differing reasons. Both the level of movement and sense of dramatic urgency involved is deserving of this diffuse runtime. Though, despite a crackerjack final hour where viewer and screen felt most unified, it’s clear how taxing the venture will be. Avatar: The Way of Water is still a wonderfully complete film, nearly justifying every span of time used to fulfill its promises in a proper manner. As much as it is also a technically proficient effort, worth witnessing in the best possible theater with all the bells and whistles, or at least with glasses affixed. The world of Pandora continues to show how flawed ours is, but how more sublime it could be. Even with the moment lasting a bit long, it still feels amazing to visit again. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Avatar: The Way of Water opens in just about every theater, beginning at 3 PM December 15; rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language; 192 minutes.