James Cameron’s Sequel Is Blockbuster Filmmaking At Its Biggest & Best
Jan 21, 2023
Over the course of 2022, a Nicole Kidman-narrated ad for AMC Theatres has evolved from a campy meme into something of a communal prayer offered at the secular chapel of the movie theater. The fragments she incants evocatively describe the power of cinema when wielded at its maximalist best: “we go somewhere we’ve never been before,” “dazzling images on a huge silver screen,” “sound I can feel.” The year ends for audiences with a movie that genuinely deserves to follow such a paean: James Cameron’s long-delayed, much-anticipated “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
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The specious claims that the original “Avatar” had no cultural impact evaporate all but instantly when Cameron plunges viewers back into the realm of Pandora. People may have forgotten the characters or the contours of the story beyond its similarities to tales of converted colonizers. Cameron seems to recognize as much with a dizzying, dutiful exposition dump in voiceover by Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully at the jump. The thrill of the vision and verve, however, rushes back immediately with the power of sense memory. This is grand, gutsy filmmaking. This is imagination committed to cinema.
James Cameron proves, once again after over a decade of absence that sowed doubt, that he’s the most grounded and tactile filmmaker working at this scale. It feels like a misnomer to dub him “Earthly” given his creation and exploration of far-flung realms, but his attention to visual detail extends even to flecks of dust moving through the frame. “Avatar: The Way of Water” extends his mastery of technical innovation to close the gap between his fantasy and the audience’s observed reality. It’s an aesthetic translation of Cameron’s environmentalist empathy, creating a palpable sense of verisimilitude within Pandora that cries out for the recognition of the wonder in our own universe.
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Using the power of a synthetic reality to channel awe at the universe’s natural beauty makes for just one of a series of paradoxes effortlessly collapsed by “Avatar.” Cameron’s series also channels the most unabashedly spiritual longing of any blockbuster filmmaking. Though the realm changes in “The Way of Water,” his deistic appeal to a higher power uniting all creatures in a shared purpose of stewardship over our dwelling remains a stirring undercurrent. Such majesty of creation cannot help but tap into the fundamental human yearning for intelligent design. Cameron dares to acknowledge some other creator, at least alongside him if not above him.
Nowhere does that mystical capability glimmer more luminously than in Cameron’s exploration of the oceans. Part of the journey into the water no doubt comes from the filmmaker’s insatiable desire for a cinematic challenge that requires significant technical innovation to achieve. The results are unlike anything ever seen before. Other filmmakers exploring the seas do the equivalent of taking viewers to the aquarium to stare from the other side of the glass. Cameron throws his audience in the water with the characters. If this waterlogged setting felt any more immediate and visceral, “Avatar: The Way of Water” would require SCUBA certification to watch.
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But Cameron also finds a greater purpose in water beyond pure spectacle exhibition, weaving it into the very fiber of the film itself. The transcendence of water and its connective capabilities for all mankind feel a bit undercooked as thematic grounding for “Avatar: The Way of Water.” It’s a less concrete grounding in a central natural spirit than the preceding film featured. It seems Cameron and his army of hired hand screenwriters took the criticisms of having an obvious allegory to heart. The sequel brings to bear something more abstract and diffuse … though not necessarily better. (A humbling reminder to be careful what you wish for.)
Water works much more cohesively, though, as the setting and narrative driver in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Jake, his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their blended family of biological and adopted children must flee their home with the Omatikaya clan of the forest after once again facing a siege of the human “Sky People.” While the events of the first film suggest an ultimate victory over the rapacious earthlings, it proves only a pause to regroup. An elite squadron of “recoms,” autonomous avatars with embedded memories of humans, gives Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) another chance to face off against his old nemesis Jake. For safety, Jake and his immediate kin seek refuge amongst the Metkayina clan, headed by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), who live in harmony with the oceans.
At this point in the film, Jake and Neytiri take a backseat and cede the narrative to their children. These new characters provide a convenient excuse for Cameron to explore Pandora with fresh eyes, experiencing the joys and perils of discovery anew. The four offspring, plus their dalliances with the human child Spider (a lanky Jack Champion in a star-making performance) provide a full range of viewpoints on the new environs.
The eldest son, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), feels the burden of inheriting his father’s mantle, while the more rebellious son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), finds identification with a sentient whale-like creature known as tulkun rather than his own kind. Adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), spawned from the actress’ previous “Avatar” character Grace, transforms from pouty to powerful as she finds her purpose in the water. Meanwhile, cherubic young Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is pure innocence incarnate. Taken together, their coming-of-age in a new setting provides Jake with a living lesson in parenting so beautifully summed up by Stephen Sondheim: “Children may not obey, but children will listen.”
There’s a sense of biological essentialism, perhaps dated, powering the narrative engine of the film. Cameron posits fathers as natural protectors and mothers as hardwired providers, settings that overpower all else. Here, children can sometimes feel like the spark meant to light that fire within the heads of the clan. But by the end of the film, their metaphorical embodiment of continuing life and legacy connecting the past to the future does come into clearer focus.
As the more conscious start of an extended series, “Avatar: The Way of Water” may only represent the tip of the iceberg for these newly introduced characters. Unlike its predecessor, this film feels ironically both more expansive and less complete. In the intervening thirteen years since the release of “Avatar,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe pioneered and mainstreamed the idea of extended storytelling spread across multiple installments. Cameron is not immune to such pressures, it appears, as he abandons self-containment for more conscious franchise-building and multi-part narratives.
Yet, unlike Marvel, Cameron does remember how to finish a movie strong. “Avatar: The Way of Water” functions as a feature-length rejoinder to the splice-up action sequences assembled from scraps of coverage by an overworked, underpaid visual effects team. Even before the film’s extended nautical climax that injects steroids into the ending of “Titanic,” Cameron’s fight scenes feel like a breath of fresh air. Clear, extended sequences in vivid color track an action through to its consequence, make for a breathtaking, engrossing alternative to the VFX gumbo of the superhero era. Cameron goes for broke in the finale, veering at times into gloriously campy territory but never losing the thread of the stakes for characters.
This is not just content you ingest. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a movie you bodily inhabit for three stunning hours. We come to this place for magic, indeed. [B+]
“Avatar: The Way of Water” debuts in theaters on December 16.
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