Love it or hate it, Avatar, the technical magnum opus of Titanic and Terminator 2 director James Cameron, left an unshakeable mark on cinemas worldwide. The film's 2009 debut sparked Hollywood studio's curiosity about 3D and exploring inventive worlds immersed in the latest cutting-edge technologies. It also marked a sweeping victory for Cameron, who after a decade-plus of intricate production time, quieted skeptics with a visceral marvel that showcased the thrilling scale and captivating wonderment synonymous with era-defining blockbusters.
Avatar also drew its fair share of critiques throughout its record-breaking box office run. Some levied objections to the film's traditionalist narrative of an outsider submerging himself and ultimately acting as the savior of an indigenous tribe. The arc is taken straight out of other dated projects, such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, and not repurposed in an exceptionally nuanced light with Avatar. The underlying issue is indicative of a film that enchants viewers through sheer spectacle over compelling narrative developments.
I understand the reasonable grievances with Avatar. Still, I would argue its positive achievements far outweigh its shortcomings. Cameron and company cultivated a breathtaking cinematic feat that innovated during an era in which blockbusters were all-too-satisfied sticking to familiar routines. The film's open-hearted embrace of spirituality and the marvels of nature also provided a refreshingly earnest narrative backbone compared to other blockbusters' obsessions with endless conflicts.
Nearly 13 years later, Cameron's long-awaited return, Avatar: The Way of Water, finds the director elevating his craft to new heights. The sequel cultivates an engrossing, three-hour epic despite some of its narrative shortcomings.
The Way of Water picks up shortly after the events of Avatar. With paraplegic marine Jake Sully now fully submerged into his avatar Na'vi body, he and his wife, Neytiri, start a blossoming family. Years of prosperity as the leader of his tribe are soon halted when his slain adversary, Quaritch, returns in the form of a Na'vi body. The incoming invasion of vengeful humans leaves Jake and his family seeking shelter at the water tribe, Metkayina.
Storytelling beats are mere accessories to the vibrant vision Cameron conjures with The Way of Water. In the indescribable light of the film's 3D, high frame rate imagery, Way of Water casts a transfixing spell on viewers. The sheer scale and technical innovation on display showcase a movie operating lightyears beyond its blockbuster contemporaries. From the sweeping sights of grand underwater creatures to the immersive details dispersed throughout the alien world of Pandora, The Way of Water submerges itself in an arresting sense of place that always feels rewarding to explore.
While trend-setting technology is always a focus for Cameron, his craft never falls into the trap of style over substance. Instead, the director remains one of the best in the industry at evoking wonderment and moving sentiments from his expressive filmmaking choices. Cameron particularly excels at conveying the emotionally-charged bond between humanity and the natural world. Paired with Simon Franglen's majestic score and Russell Carpenter's precise cinematography, The Way of Water features several wordless moments of harmony that elicit genuine impact.
From a narrative perspective, The Way of Water benefits from some new inclusions. The focus on Jake, Neytiri and their newfound roles as parental figures is a savvy addition that forces both characters to reflect on legacy and the challenging burdens of parenthood. Sam Worthington's performance as Jake benefits significantly from the character's newfound dimensions, while Zoe Saldana remains a magnetic force as Neytiri. The return of villainous Stephen Lang as Quaritch also delivers the goods. Lang is irresistibly sinister in his scenery-chewing delivery, and the character's transformed identity into a Na'vi awards the actor gripping new textures to unearth.
Other elements from The Way of Water's screenplay struggle similarly to its predecessor. As a technician, Cameron possesses boundless talent, but his writing remains rigid and hackneyed. Didactic dialogue exchanges and underdeveloped character arcs can occasionally muck up the evocative beauty of the film's visual profile. I will also admit that the three-hour-plus running time will not be for everyone. The movie is well-paced for the most part, but a bloated final act that's far too busy for its own good struggles to conclude the narrative on a satisfying note.
Still, The Way of Water pulls off an impressive feat by building upon its lionized predecessor. The sequel delivers a breathtaking cinematic experience that puts many of its blockbuster peers to shame.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters