Even by James Cameron standards, The Way of Water is an astonishing work of pure visual spectacle.
Bow down before your Lord and Savior, James Cameron. It’s been 13 years since Avatar became the highest-grossing film of all time and nearly won an Oscar for Best Picture. The film created an alien world, Pandora, so convincing that there was a go-ahead-look-it-up phenomenon of people becoming suicidally depressed because they couldn’t live there IRL. And yet, depending on who you listen to, the movie has almost zero cultural footprint. Even if that’s true, it won’t be true for much longer.
We’re back on Pandora for The Way of Water, 13 years later. Former paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has completely shed his human body and now fully inhabits his Avatar body, his consciousness living in the genetically engineered hybrid clone of an alien race called the Na’vi. Since he led a revolution against the colonizing human force in the last film, he’s raised a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), which includes firstborn son Neteyam (Jaime Flatters), little brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and baby girl Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as Kiri, the mysterious offspring of Sigourney Weaver’s character’s dormant Avatar from the first movie (and here also played by Sigourney Weaver), and Spider, a human child left behind when his people left the moon a decade ago. Life is blissful, the family is thriving, and so, of course, the “sky people” show up right on time to fuck all that up. They’ve brought along with them an Avatar inhabited by the consciousness of the first movie’s bad guy, Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who still has a grudge against our hero. The human goal is complete colonization of Pandora, but since Jake has become an insurgent leader, his mere presence amongst his tribe is a liability. And so, to protect both his people and his family, they abandon the forest and head for the sea, joining a tribe of ocean-living Na’vi called the Metkayina (led by a pair played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet).
Phew! That’s a ton of blunt exposition, all of it delivered in a tight opening 45 minutes that might either be daunting or boring depending on your memory or affection for the 2009 predecessor. Either way, once you get past that, you’re in store for a resplendent visual spectacle the likes of which hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
Should we talk about the script? Cameron’s never been what you might call a writer of nuance or complexity, and The Way of Water is filled with expository dialogue, cartoonish villains, and sledgehammer messaging. But it’s also, despite the 3-hour-plus running time, a marvel of narrative economy and efficient structure. Cameron’s playing on a ginormous canvas here; subtlety would be a millstone. His character’s simple emotional arcs — frustrated parents vs. rebellious children, protecting one’s home from rapacious capital, coming to terms with new identity, and the struggle to know when violence is necessary — are point-blank. You won’t miss them. But they’re interspersed with such incredibly goofball imagination and marvelous technical craft that, ideally, you won’t mind. Its depiction of an immaculately imagined environment in open revolt against a demonic and indifferent oppressor is downright Miyazaki-esque — call it Cameron’s Princess Mononoke. That being the case, it’s hard to get mad at a movie where the indigenous population of an alien planet — and, as in the first film, Cameron’s fetishization of indigenous peoples will indeed be seen by some as problematic — has a psychic bond with their environment and therefore they are able to have telepathic conversations with giant whales, all of it subtitled in Papyrus font, and then those whales go on the warpath.
But unsurprisingly, it’s The Way of Water‘s visual grandeur that most astounds. Pandora’s oceans are even more elaborately designed and meticulously realized than the first film’s forests, and Cameron has brought every ounce of his power to bear in realizing it. Filmed almost entirely in motion-captured 3D and in 48-frame HFR, there are entire stretches of the film spent luxuriating underwater, experiencing the impossible rendered environment. If (and it’s a big if) one’s eyes can adjust to the high frame rate, the result will be a VFX display that is nearly photoreal. Viewers will sincerely be hard-pressed to remember that nearly everything that they’re seeing on screen was created digitally — the water, the rocks, the fish, even the sand. If you’re tuned into Cameron’s wavelength, it’s a truly overwhelming experience. And then there’s the third act, which features some of the most incredible spectacle ever created by the absolute master of precise parallel action. The final hour of The Way of Water not only manages to pay off every single character’s arc and set up already-committed-to sequels, but follows no less than four separate groups of characters in simultaneous combat with total control of space, geography, and choreography. There is nobody who ever made action films, ever, with Cameron’s crystalline vision. It’s not only perfectly clear, it’s blisteringly, blissfully brutal. The only thing more astonishing than anything in The Way of Water is that Cameron will probably, somehow, top it.