It’s been twelve years since Avatar helped change the face of cinema. Its motion capture and digital work was pioneering in 2010 yet is far more familiar these days. That has not always been a good thing. When you can make anything happen using software and technology can the things that make good drama work- the characters, the story, the emotions- still be present? In the case of this long-delayed sequel the answer is a resounding Yes! Like a lot of people, I had some doubts but I have to say that he’s pulled it off yet again. Fact is that James Cameron has never made a bad film so in retrospect why wouldn’t this one work? Try to ignore the way it was made and focus on what has been made. Of course, if you disagree and you didn’t care for the first film I don’t think this will change your mind. For me though The Way of Water ticks all the boxes of what a great film should be and you need to see it on an IMAX screen as intended. However big your television it will hardly fit this goliath of a movie.
Some sea sprayed spoilers ahoy..
If you liked the first film then you’ll find this a rewarding return to Pandora, if not then you may struggle with this sequel which essentially tells the same story albeit using different locations set mostly in the water instead of the jungle. Yet there are plenty of fresh elements and new characters too. As an immersive experience it is about as total as you can get without a VR headset and needs to be seen on an IMAX screen to fully appreciate the digital skills that have created such a believable world. Like the best alien planets Pandora is based on Earth just an Earth that is more pure, more like Paradise. Clear blue water, majestic sea creatures with whom the Pandorans share a telepathic bond, a basic life with which they seem happy is what we find. Its no wonder some have seen the film and wanted to book a holiday there even though of course it doesn’t really exist. That is quite a feat to pull off for a movie.
It’s also why this film pulls at the emotions to get the audience involved. You may not imagine you’d have a lot of empathy with digitally created/ motion capture people yet you do. The tech has improved in twelve years so the Pandorans faces are now able to be much more expressive in subtle ways. The scenes were Pandorans and humans mix enjoy seamless melding together so you don’t’ get any of that obvious superimposed feel. It is impossible to tell what is motion capture, what is live action and what is digital. This is what cinematic world building is all about.
Of course, it would all count for nothing if the narrative failed to match the visuals and by and large it does. More than a decade after the events of the first film the Sullys, now a family with three kids and a couple of unusual adoptees, are forced to flee their idyllic jungle environment as it becomes clear that the `Sky People` (ie the US Military) will never stop trying to track them down ruthlessly. The stakes have been raised too with Pandora now being eyed as a potential replacement for the energy drained Earth (this big news is dropped almost as an aside in a briefing scene) hence there is a lot more being thrown at solving the problem.
Thinking they can be safe in a tranquil Oceanside environment the family learn the ways of the water people after some awkward fitting in. Jake and Neyteri are to some extent background characters for large swathes of the story which focus on the kids. While this is all standard fitting in / bullying material it is always the location that gives it a fresh spin. Some of the sequences are magical – one of the boys swimming with the whale like Tulkun, Sigourney Weaver’s teenage Na’vi (yes she plays a kid and does it well) bonding with the ocean and its shimmering fauna, the races on flying fish type creatures. Inevitably this paradise is going to be interrupted and when it happens, due to an unfortunate chain of events, it is powerful indeed. We’ve spent enough time with these people and in this place to really care what happens and be shocked at the way they are decimated.
One of the surprises is that General Quaritch, the outrageously brutal antagonist from the first film, has been resurrected as Na’vi which at first seems a bit of a cop out but ends up ensuring the film is soon plunged into a cyclone of action and incident. It’s as thrilling as cinema should be- one late sequence set aboard a sinking vessel is like a crazy re-imagining of Titanic. Actually there are echoes of most of the director’s previous movies buried in this narrative. Cameron mimics hand held camera work to add to the already impressive photo realistic material and this helps erase the fact that a lot of what you’re watching is composited mixed up treated footage. It just feels like they went to Pandora and shot on location!
It’s a very well thought through movie too which never makes you aware that three whole hours are passing. Much of the narrative is about protecting your family, doing the best for them and I think that makes it a very identifiable production however many strange creatures or locales we meet. Afterwards it feels like you’ve just seen a ninety minute film and to be honest it could last even longer if it needed to. James Cameron knows just when to up the ante, just how to lull us into a sense of security when we all know it won’t last. He knows how to pace a film and provide enough character so we feel something for each of the players.
Its an ensemble piece and a large cast each have their moment to shine and they gel together well, the expressive motion capture performances finally seeing off the idea that this kind of movie can’t seem real enough. If I had to niggle, there’s one slightly groansome moment near the end which sort of comes out of nowhere and may be an editing thing but I’m not convinced the character would do that. There’s also the use of capturing the kids to force the adults hand which is overdone a bit. Quaritch never seems to have that much of a plan and is fairly happy to devastate areas of this potential new Earth just to capture one small band of people. Yet he is one of those classic `love to hate` villains that bring energy to a film thanks to Stephen Lang.
As might be expected reviews are either rapturous or panning through the latter make some assumptions that are not true, for example this film did not take thirteen years to make, it took about four to five years alongside the third film which has also been made. I’m puzzled as to why anyone expected a cerebral think piece or an arthouse movie from someone like James Cameron whose film making mode is well known now. As for calling the film “twee” that just reflects badly on critics who think anything with an environmental undertow is not for us adults. I bet they don’t even recycle. I’m still not 100% convinced they can get five films from this without becoming repetitive but when it comes to James Cameron you just never know and if they're all as good as this instalment I can't wait!