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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ (digital review)

Produced by James Cameron, Jon Landau
Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa,
Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno

Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana,
Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang,
Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Trinity Bliss

 

For much of its development, the sequel to Avatar felt more like a threat than a promise.

Avatar maintains a complicated position in American popular culture– acknowledged as a technical benchmark but derided as a shallow, opportunistic, spectacle devoid of real substance.

Dances With Wolves in space” they proclaim. “No cultural footprint” they bellow.

There is some truth to this analysis– Avatar was as much a proof of concept for modern theatrical 3D systems as it was a film unto itself, and if it had hewed any closer to The Hero’s Journey it could have written a term paper on Joseph Campbell.

However, we must acknowledge that as spectacle goes, Cameron is a master of plating big ideas and dynamic visuals to big audiences and making it all resonate in memorable ways. So, as Avatar 2 became Avatar: The Way of Water and became less a recurring interview gag and more of an actual production, curiosity seeped in along with nostalgia: was this Cameron’s bridge too far? Had he failed to read the room for the first time in his career?

Then it made 2 billion dollars. That answers that.

But how good of a film is it?

Avatar: The Way of Water is a sequel in the Cameron philosophy in that it is unnecessary to see the first one to enjoy this one, that it simultaneously restates and enhances the central antagonists and problems from the first film, and deepens the tensions and stakes of the story by introducing family connections and placing them in repeated danger. That is the thematic formula that paid dividends in Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Cameron has not forgotten it here. Whether you see Avatar: TWOW as crass spectacle or state of the art popcorn– this is, in every way, a James Cameron sequel.

The spectacle is truly thrilling: the big change from the first film is, as the title suggests, a change from canopy forest fighting with human colonists to marine warfare and here Cameron benefits from a lifelong love affair with Earth’s oceans that informs the character’s connection to and life around Pandora’s seas. He introduces an alien whale species to mirror our atrocious continued hunting of whales to the Earth Colonial forces in the same way that the first film found visual hallmarks to slash and burn practices in the Amazon and the use of napalm in the Vietnam War.

I confess I found the film to be well made but a little soulless– a conceit is introduced early on that allows for characters who died in the first film to return in this one, and that coupled with the absence of really strong new characters made this feel…not lazy, but certainly very safe. In Aliens and Terminator 2 one of the joys of those films was how Cameron introduced new characters who played off of characters from the respective original films in all sorts of interesting ways.

Bishop is probably the example that springs to mind first, whose selfless heroism is all the more poignant because we remember the icy cold sadism of android Ash in the original film. The T-800 slowly and consciously begins to echo elements of Kyle Reese from the first film which is the key emotional counterweight to that film’s entire story.

Here we’re not progressing emotionally– we’re progressing in scope.

Bonus material is plentiful offering Inside Pandora’s Box (2:32:14) – A series of featurettes on the challenges facing cast and crew as filmmakers devise new technologies to push the limits of cinema; More from Pandora’s Box (28:06) – Additional featurettes that highlight special teams within the production; and Marketing Materials & Music Video (8:51).

Grander action, grander ideas, more to think about but the essential unreality of Pandora makes it difficult for me to connect to the struggles in a visceral way. The T-1000 was an amazing CG effect, but it was grounded and given reality by a startling performance by Robert Patrick.

There’s nothing like that level of craft on display here– all the excellence was saved for the effects budget and all the heart went into the design of the world.

It is impossible to not recommend the film for a viewing but it is likewise impossible not to lament the seeming loss of a James Cameron who had his feet on the planet Earth.

 

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