Avatar: The Way Of Water

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Surely it’s about time we all start cutting James Cameron a little slack, right? Sure, he now releases movies at a rate that makes Terrence Malick look like Robert Rodriguez, but every time film pundits and back-seat box office nay-sayers claim he’s about to run aground, he just keep pushing back and conquering the big screen. Of course, the new obstacle that critics are trying to lay in his path is after a staggering thirteen year wait is the debate as to whether Avatar is even culturally relevant anymore in a release schedule choked with connected universes and spandex clad heroes.
Well, the waiting is finally over and Cameron has finally showed his hand with a three hour plus epic that gives us yet more Smurf-hued eco-friendly sci-fi/fantasy that extends the National Geographic on acid visuals of the original and plunges it into that of the director’s favorite element.
This, is the Way Of Water.

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Years has passed since former paraplegic jarhead Jake Sully left his human body behind and became one of the Na’vi thanks to his nine-foot, blue, cat-eared avatar and he and Ney’tiri have since formed a family made up of dutiful eldest son Neteyam, restless middle child Lo’ak, eight year old daughter Tuktirey and Kiri, the adopted child mysteriously born from the avatar of the late Dr. Grace Augustine. Hanging around for all these family shenanigans is human orphan Spider who hangs around the Sully’s as they whether the growing pains of their brood, but their peaceful existence is soon shattered by the return of humans who have taken the time since their expulsion from Pandora to regroup in a big way.
A year passes and the humans have dug in a major way, less interested in mining the planet and more about fully making Pandora a new settlement for mankind since Earth is essentially dead and Jake and Ney’tiri lead a guerilla war against them, striking at supply lines and weapon caches. Unsurprisingly, the humans decide to fight fire with fire and the tip of the spear is the formally dead Quaritch who had his consciousness downloaded into an avatar body in the event of him being shot full of Na’vi arrows who is hungry for some payback.
After a near scrape that sees Spider captured, Jake gets to thinking that his presence puts a big fat target on the Omaticaya tribe and so he and his family reluctantly up root and leaves for Pandora’s eastern seaboard in order to hide among the water dwelling Metkayina clan. The change is initially traumatic to the family as it struggles to adapt to an entirely new way of life and both Lo’ak and Kiri in particular have major issues fitting in, but Quaritch isn’t one to take setbacks lightly and using an unforeseen connection to Spider, starts to gain valuable information from the unwitting boy.

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The big surprise of Avatar: The Way Of Water is that, as a whole, there’s not that many surprises. Renowned as an arch master of sequelization (Aliens and T2 are legendarily masterful), we already know that Cameron already has a couple of subtle changes ready to flip the script on the established status quo (we go from the central romance of the original to family fireworks), but the basic thrust of the story remains the same except with the addition of an entire underwater ecosystem for the film to eagerly explore. So much like Jake learning the ways of the Na’vi, we now have the whole family having to learning new, aquatic talents from scratch as we follow them every step of the way, from learning to free dive to doing a spot of alien whale whispering. It’s equally as engrossing as its predecessor while making stunning leaps in underwater mo-cap acting (not exactly sure how useful that’s going to be to filmmakers going forward, but good for them anyway), but it’s unlikely to convert anyone from the camp that simply states that the original concept simply steals heavily from Dances With Wolves and Ferngully.
Another slight issue is that some viewers are going to find picking their way through the teenage angst and stubbon tantrums of adolescent blue cat people just isn’t what they signed up for, especially when Sam Worthington’s Jake and in particular Zoe Saldãna’s Ney’tiri are noticably edged to the side in favour of Britain Dalton’s tearaway Lo’ak and the moping of misunderstood Kiri (Sigourney Weaver using the magic of mo-cap to play her own alien, teenage daughter). Such feelings are understandable, yet still somewhat harsh considering with at least three sequels more to go, the Dune-style laying of a long-term family dynasty is only just being laid and both characters (particularly Kiri who gets kidnapped more times than Kim Bauer in 24) still have plenty of more secrets left to discover.

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On the bad guy side of things, Cameron shifts gears from mining and plundering to extraterrestrial whaling as a new resource is discovered that makes unobtanium look like Legos and he has a whole new bunch of awesome tech to play with like crab-shaped attack suits and a huge sea carrier that looks like it would make the greatest play set a kid could ever hope to get on a christmas morning. However, the movie’s smartest move is giving itself a weirdly convenient out in regards to the first movie’s most valuable asset, that of Stephen Lang’s awesomely villainous Quaritch who also has to undergo an odessy of his own as he comes to terms with his new, blue body and a slightly convoluted revelation concerning Jack Champion’s likably scrappy Spider. But even though it’s magnificent having the tough, old fucker back from the dead, the bouncing between his plot threads and that of the Sully’s isn’t as organic as you’d expect from Cameron and there’s still a massive sense that it’s still only a story half-told and that there’s way more to come.
Still, if Way Of Water has a more intimate focus than the all-out war of the first film, the movie still ends with a massive scale assault as the Metkayina clan, aided by so many sea creatures that Aquaman would throw a fit, launch an attack on a private whaling outfit that gleefully references multiple previous Cameron movies often at the same time and often in the same shot. Riffing hard on huge sinking ships (Titanic), waterlogged fist fights (The Abyss) and children getting lost at the absolute worst time in a futuristic, industrial maze (Aliens) there’s sometimes a feeling that the director has become maybe a bit too referential in his old age, but it’s no less satisfying.

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Whether Avatar, like Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars or the MCU, grows from the biggest movie of all time into must watch franchise viewing that’ll come around every two years will remain to be seen, but as it stands, The Way Of Water shares many of the same triumphs and faults as it’s predecessor which means we have a pretty good movie with world class technical storytelling.
The addition of 3D and a screen the size of an Imperial Star Destroyer will no doubt boost the rating to the Pandora faithful up to a five, but for me it’s once again a simple story impressively told – only wetter.

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