Saturday 17 December 2022

Film Review: Avatar – The Way of Water


A staggering thirteen years after the first, Big Jim Cameron returns to Pandora for The Way of Water, reportedly the first of four Avatar sequels coming over the horizon. So, how does it stack up to the original, which to this day remains the biggest film of all time?

Avatar, the first one, hit cinemas all the way back in 2009, and it's hard to wrap my head around just how much has changed in the intervening thirteen years. I was still in high school back then! Now I'm on the cusp of my thirties! So kudos to James Cameron, perhaps the biggest and boldest blockbuster filmmaker to ever do it, for not shying away from the task of serving up a sequel to the original $2 billion barnstormer. 

Avatar: The Way of Water picks up with our hero character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now fully in his Avatar form, ten years after the events of the first film. In that time, he's fathered three and adopted one child with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and grown into a respected chieftain of his Na'vi tribe. 

However, the family's peaceful life is shattered when 'the Sky People' return to Pandora, bringing with them hordes of mechanised weaponry and ways to raze the lush jungle to ash. Jake and Neytiri stage a fierce resistance at first, but a returning Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has his sights set on destroying the Na'vi way of life – so Jake uproots his family and journeys out of the jungle, to the churning ocean and lush islands to the east. It's here that they must reacclimatise to the their surroundings and a new way of life – the way of water. 

As far as plot goes, those are the broad strokes – Cameron does furnish the story with a lot of individual arcs, family drama and emotional beats, but The Way of Water is brilliantly unburdened by clunky plot. At its core, this is a story about family – about a husband and a wife, about a father and his sons, about brothers and sisters. We spent a lot of time in the world of the Metkayina reef tribe, learning about their culture and their ways, as well as lots of time with the Sully family. The story and its weightiness flows naturally from this familiarity we forge with the family, rather than MacGuffins or clunky story engines. 

Of the four Sully kids, the two that we spend the most time with are Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the adopted daughter who was mysteriously born from Weaver's original character, Dr Grace Augustine, and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), their second son who sees himself as something of a loner and an outcast. Also key to this story are Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet, who play the Metkayina chieftain and his wife respectively. 

The Way of Water's runtime is broken up into three chunks; the first 45 minutes, where we're introduced to the world and the characters, the middle hour or so where the Sully clan readjust to their new home, and the final hour, where the conflict and the characters all come to a head and clash before the conclusion. Cameron delights in delivering all three; there's lots of heady sci-fi in the first act, the pace slows right down and we delve deep into the ocean and its creatures in the second, before Cameron scratches his explosive action itch in the finale. 

Not once did I feel like the film's pacing dragged; those three and a bit hours just flew by. But it goes without saying that the action-driven third act is where the film really soars. As much as I loved sitting back and just letting the beautiful oceanography stuff just wash over me (pun intended), there's something so innately thrilling about Cameron letting loose and just going full tilt with the propulsive gunplay and acrobatic aerial shit at the end, much like he did in the first film. 

If you can, I would highly recommend seeing this film on the biggest screen you can, in 3D. I'm not a fan of 3D films at all, and I'm sorta glad they've fallen out of fashion these past few years – but The Way of Water is made to be seen this way. After the first 10 or 15 minutes (where I had to rewire my brain a little to adjust), the 3D just becomes second-nature – it's so seamless. The clarity is second to none, especially in that middle act where we're just submerged in crystal blue seas and surrounded by colourful coral, frenetic schools of fish and shimmering waters. To say it's gorgeous to look at doesn't do it justice.

And that's kind of the point of The Way of Water – it's an event picture. A theatrical experience unlike any we've seen for a while. I'm a huge proponent of the theatrical experience, and Avatar is the perfect example of why the world would be a poorer place if theatres died off. Seeing this film at home on your TV screen – even a big HD one! – isn't the same as seeing it in 3D, HFR, on the biggest screen you can find. 

The plot is almost secondary to the vibes of the thing – and even that excels. I just found myself swept up in the world and its wondrousness (is that a word?), as well as its characters and their worries. It's not the most complex film ever, or even the most unexpected – but it's definitely an unmissable experience, much like the first was all those years ago. 

It's Cameron doing what he does best, which is big, broad pictures with sweeping, sincere stakes and universal themes, motifs and melodrama. Who else can balance a rousing family story with some of the most arresting and rousing action this side of Fury Road? Lock in those cinema tickets, before it's gone – you won't regret it. 

The Verdict: 9/10

The continuing adventures of Jake Sully and Neytiri are the bedrock upon which Cameron has built another towering sequel, which squares up to his past achievements with Terminator and Aliens. Just settle in and enjoy the ride, because Big Jim relishes in moving up through the gears until he's firing on all cylinders in that final act. 

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas across Australia now.

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