When the first installment of James Cameron's Avatar was released, it was hailed as a technical breakthrough in cinema—grandiose in vision and scale. It also managed to pack an emotional appeal that resonated with most of the audience.
Thirteen years after he created a fictional earth-like moon, Pandora, and vowed the audience with visual brilliance while narrating a cautionary tale against exploration for the sake of exploitation, the director is back with Avatar: The Way of Water—a similar tale with even more visionary grandeur.
It has been a decade since the last video log by Jake Sully and the successful expulsion of invading aliens to their miserable, dying planet. Sully is now fully Na'vi, with family in Pandora, which is beautiful and bewitching as ever. The happiness, of course, does not last because the aliens are back again; and this time around, they are better prepared to deal with Omaticaya people. The Sully family is forced to run and seek shelter with Metkayina reef people clan, and fight back when pushed to the corner.
While the debate on if Avatar has aged well remains, the movie did have a political message that was sufficiently loud even as it toyed with the old science joke of 'unobtanium' for the plot to progress. Despite its anthropocentrism even while showcasing the "men and women" of Pandora, it did tell about the need to form a symbiotic bond with nature, while philosophically leaning towards deism.
The plot was fairly basic though. There is an evil corporate ready to conquer and kill, mercenaries at their beck and call, scientists with scant regard for ethics, and an unlikely hero who defies all odds to fight for a “people” who he just met. Arguably, the simplicity of the plot made it possible for the director to focus on what the Avatar universe was all about—visual ingenuity.
Like its predecessor 13 years ago, The Way of Water, too, has a plot that is far too pedestrian—an evil force wants to override an unsullied civilisation while also exacting revenge on the man who foiled their party last time around. The tropes of the invading alien corporate and their mercenaries continue in the second installment as well. However, Cameron has never been a sucker for plot complexities and character development. His forte has always been mesmerising the audience with out-of-this-world visuals.
Over the 13 years after Avatar was released, the cinematic landscape has certainly changed. Hollywood's cash cows, the MCU and the DC, have been pushing the limits of visuals and techniques with every outing that happens way too frequently. Nonetheless, Cameron has managed to keep up with the changed landscape and come out with a piece of visual art that has plenty of awe-inspiring moments.
The director has had a way with water. He has done it plenty of times before—with Piranha II: The Spawning, The Abyss and of course, The Titanic. In Avatar: The Way of Water, the director raises the bar and serves a world that is unrivaled when it comes to visual detailing. If you were blown away by the first installment in this universe, be prepared to be dazzled again, because the world underwater is definitely a notch above the trees and mountains of Omaticaya people. The cinematography and the background score by Simon Franglen is top-notch, especially during the battle sequences in the last act.
Now, that is in no way saying that Cameron has come out with a perfect piece of art. If you were put off by the anthropocentrism in Avatar, it only gets worse in The Way of Water. While I am only glad to be mesmerised by the magic of Pandora and would hoot for the film's message about the need to respect and protect the oceans, it is hard for me to buy into the sentient blue humanoids (even when they are half-bred) who exactly think and behave like humans. Scant regard is paid to character development and dialogues, which sometimes come across as so corny that you wonder if you are watching a teen drama.
The film does have an impressive cast, including Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. While Lang's Colonel Miles Quaritch was the only saving grace when it comes to performance in the first installment, in The Way of Water, this too is limited as the CGI department has more to do than in the previous affair. Edie Falco, (darn, I still see her as The Sopranos matriarch after all these years) as the baddie in a suit, comes across as intimidating initially, but is relegated to the background in the third act when the action in the sea takes over. Giovanni Ribisi has a blink-and-you-miss-it presence.
A running time of 192 minutes works against the film’s favour as there is a chance that the audience might suffer a bit of visual fatigue as the director spends an inordinate amount of time in the second act to let Omaticaya people learn the ways of Metkayina clan.
Despite the flaws, Avatar: The Way of Water is definitely a film you should watch on the biggest of screens possible if you love Cameron and his cinema.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi and Edie Falco