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Avatar: The Way of Water Full Review

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I have a history with James Cameron. Avatar (2009) had me in a vice grip when I was in 5th grade. I remember my friend Brynn and I would take turns sleeping over on Fridays after school at each others' houses, and the one condition was that we watched Avatar. Every. Single. Friday. Somehow, we, no, I, never got sick of it. There is something so interesting about spectacle, and how it seems to capture humanity no matter how many times we have seen something similar before. Like fireworks; no matter how many times you see it, it is just as captivating every time. 

And I think this feeling is what James Cameron seeks to explore with the Avatar Franchise. (Or maybe I'm giving him too much credit). Point is, Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) is the epitome of spectacle. It is exactly what an action/drama film should be: nothing more, and nothing less. Cameron does not take risks in this film, and gives us a basic story supplemented with exploration of a fun environment guaranteed to entertain and touch viewers. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop here; the rest of the review will reference specific scenes!

Cameron brought together a talented cast to bring his story to life. While the film is obviously CG'd, motion capture and filming had to occur first for the animators to have a proper basis from which to animate. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) return as parents of Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). The family's chemistry is natural, and they are fun to watch interact. The family's peaceful life was interrupted by the return of the Sky People, with the surprise reincarnation of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his colleagues as avatars. Action ensues and we get a classic hide and seek story. And it works, if you don't think about it too much.

But of course that's what I am going to do. 

The Way of Water's screenplay was co-written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver based on a story written by the three with Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno. So this story had ten eyes on it from the beginning, and somehow the best way the writers could come up with to progress the story was to bring back the same threat they killed off in the last movie. ...Talk about lazy. How convenient is it that our main catalyst in the story is a man who has an obsessive vendetta against the protagonist! I get it, humans are tenacious, and marines even more-so, but I think the story gets very lost. What exactly is the point here? Family? The environment? Politics? I could continue on forever, but nothing would quite fit. There is not a theme or question posed throughout the film that is explored and reflected in the characters' actions. The film loses any semblance of cohesiveness when we shift to the Quaritch and co scenes. He goes to extreme lengths to exact juvenile revenge on one person, and there's no real nuance until the end. I just didn't care about what Quaritch was doing. This storyline felt like it was wedged into the Sully family storyline to appease action fans. But something I think Cameron missed from the feedback of Avatar is that the movie was not loved for its action. It was for its exploration of culture and beauty (and of course CGI). 

Pandora is the perfect sandbox, and we love to play in it. We got that with Jake Sully learning about the Omaticaya in Avatar and now with the Sully children learning about the Metkayina in The Way of Water. The action is not necessary. I literally felt myself scowl when the story shifted to Quaritch and his team, like a good mood ruined. The Sully children learning about the Metkayina was refreshing, as it was a great way to showcase the individual personalities of each kid. This is probably the most effective aspect of the story: showing us rather than telling us what the characters are like. Neteyam and Lo'ak's dynamic is relatable, and their protection over Kiri and Tuk is endearing. The way they stand up for each other gives us a good idea of their values; Sullys stick together. I think the topic of "demon hybrids" is a very complex, and deep issue. The Sully children are taught about the importance of nature, but they were born of science. It could be a brilliant avenue to explore in future projects, and help shift the Avatar franchise towards internal conflict stories. But instead, it was used in a petty, bullying way. This is the problem with The Way of Water's story - for everything done exceptionally, five things are done only adequately. The Way of Water did probably everything it needed to do, but not everything it could do. Cameron took a risk for Avatar with the CGI, and it was successful because he showed us a whole new viewing experience and opened the opportunity for inventive storytelling forever. But for this sequel, they went the tried and true method, which I can't help but be conflicted about. It's just disappointing considering Cameron's repertoire and legacy. The plot is just too plotty and convenient. It feels like a Frankenstein of stories that have done the same concept before but more fleshed out:

  • Lo'ak being saved by a villainized Tulkun that so happens to parallel his own story? Hi, How to Train Your Dragon (2010).
  • Kiri being profoundly and intrinsicly connected to Eywa? Jinora from Legend of Korra (2012) did it first. 
  • Quaritch being "rebooted" and viewing his own death, leading to a larger redemption arc? Loki (2021) if he was in the American military.
  • Neteyam protecting his siblings through sacrifice? Brother Bear (2003) was more impactful. 

You get the point. 

I'm not mad at it, but its glaring. I also can't help but notice that this film feels more distinctly a part of a whole. This is apparent through scenes like Kiri seizing when attached to the Spirit Tree. This is clearly setting up for an exploration as to why this is happening, but that never happens in the film. In fact, it is never brought up again. This is presumably because it will be continued in one of the next three confirmed sequels. As a standalone movie, this scene feels more like a plot device to allow Quaritch to find the Sullys. Like water, this movie has no real beginning or end. Pacing, however, was surprisingly well done. We got tons of information dumps through Jake's narration, but somehow it is effective. It allows for us to see more and have less drawn out scenes, though the film is a whopping three hours and twelve minutes. But with all give, there is take, and unfortunately this means that the dialogue suffers. The characters rarely show great communication, and that is because many implied scenes are skipped over. For a film that is maybe about family, it does not show us very properly how the family acts as a unit. We get more of the children interacting, but Jake and Neytiri are barely present. This is natural with any "passing of the torch" films, but this movie is not really about that as there is little in terms of mentoring. (See how nothing quite fits?). I hope in the future Cameron and co lean more into exploring the beautiful world they have created rather than shoehorning in something unnecessary. 

However, the CGI is another thing entirely. Cameron has shown us he can push the boundaries of technology in every film he creates. While we as audiences are now very used to CGI, it can be hard to appreciate the work that goes into the final piece. While Avatar holds up very well today, there are clear improvements in The Way of Water specifically because of more technology developed for this film. Cameron and Russell Carpenterthe new official cinematographer of the rest of the franchise, filmed all the underwater scenes in a giant pool to get the most accurate effect. This helps seamlessly blend in the acting to actually reflect what it is like to be in water. ...Aquaman (2018) could never. A thirteen year wait was well worth it for this masterpiece in CGI.

Now if the movie is like fireworks, the soundtrack is Katy Perry's "Firework" alongside it. Simon Franglen does an incredible job of paying homage to the late James Horner (who wrote the music for Avatar), while also putting his own twist to the music of the franchise. His musical direction only serves to help the story, and is never distracting. Music has this incredible ability to make us feel emotions, and for this film it works perfectly. The score goes from making us content, then nervous, then scared, then inspired... and it is all timed really well. I can't wait to see how this evolves in the future of the franchise. 

Uninventive writing aside, the acting was still very well done. I think it is amazing that with CGI technology, we can basically cast any talented person, regardless of how they look. When a seventy-three year old Sigourney Weaver can flawlessly portray the fourteen year old Kiri, that is how we know we have hit some peak film. The chemistry between the cast is palpable, and the CGI is successful due to that. Zoe Saldaña is the (not so surprising) standout as she shows us just how intense a mother's rage can be. I don't think a single horror movie has made me as fearful as the look in Neytiri's eyes after Neteyem's death. Saldaña does not get enough credit for her acting prowess, and I am glad she is a front runner of this franchise. 

Overall I think The Way of Water was a very successful film...like $1.547 billion worldwide successful. I know I really dug into the story, but at the end of the day, the film was perfectly made and emotionally moving. I left that theater feeling rejuvenated, like seeing a good friend after a long time. Though the story was weak, nothing else about the film was. And truly, I would happily see it a second time in theaters...oh god, here comes the vice grip again. 

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