Synopsis: One decade after the Na’vi’s defeat of the human invasion of Pandora, human marine turned Na’vi clan chief Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) lives in relative peace with wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and his brood of children, including adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), mysteriously conceived from Dr. Grace Augustine’s (also Sigourney Weaver) former avatar, and Spider (Jack Champion), the human son of former antagonist Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). However, when the humans return to continue colonising Pandora, this time in greater force and with Quaritch’s memories implanted into a Na’vi avatar, Jake and his family must flee their homes and seek refuge with the Metkiyana reef people in order to survive. Despite their best efforts, it seems that the Sully family may not be able to avoid the fight that is fast approaching.
1. That’s it. That’s the review.
Verdict: Highly Recommended
2. Ok, fine. Jokes aside? Honestly? Avatar: The Way of Water (henceforth referred to purely by its subtitle) has no business being this good. In the thirteen years since the first Avatar crashed into theatres and made all the money, the ‘franchise’ had become pretty much a meme for unfunny Internet comedians to dunk on. Pocahontas with Smurfs. 1 billion dollars at the box office and yet nobody can remember any of the characters’ names. A 3D theme park ride designed by Greta Thunberg. Even respectable publications were writing thinkpieces on why a film that seemingly everyone watched (more than once) had next to no cultural impact whatsoever – which is a fair comment! Just consider how much James Cameron’s previous billion dollar action-adventure-romance film stuck around in pop culture, (1) and in comparison, Avatar seemed like a bizarre moment of mass hysteria where everyone agreed to give Cameron their money and never spoke about it again. All of this discourse did ignore one pertinent fact. Avatar … [lowers voice] is a very good movie. It is! Yes, its plot is a mass of cliches strung together and its characters barely rise above caricature, but as a cinematic experience, it is close to unparalleled thanks to the aesthetic and design of its world, coupled together with Cameron’s unerring ability to craft a crowd-pleasing blockbuster and its next-level visual effects. And now, thirteen years later, we get The Way of Water, which is … y’know what, just read the previous sentence. Everything I’ve said still applies, perhaps even more this time round than before.
3. It’s tempting to begin with The Way of Water‘s flaws, because hoo boy are those obvious. Perhaps the best place to begin is the film’s plot which is basically a retread of Avatar, which was once again, a mass of cliches strung together. Thankfully, Cameron and his co-screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are smart enough not to undo Jake’s character development in the first movie to make him go through the same arc again. This is what the kids are for, to replace Jake as the fish out of water (pun intended) who need to learn the ways of their new homeland and thus be accepted by them. However, in contrast to the relatively streamlined protagonist/deuteragonist duo of Jake and Neytiri from the first film, this one includes both of them plus Kiri plus Spider plus the Sully’s second son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), which means there is a lot to cover. Furthermore, while The Way of Water repeats Avatar‘s general three act structure of 1) introduce characters and conflict, 2) have protagonists slowly integrate into their new world and 3) big giant action climax, everything is just so much baggier due to the multiple point-of-view characters. Of course, when you have so many characters and so much incident, something’s gotta give, and in this case it’s the characters, all of whom can be boiled down to a one-sentence description. Even Saldana’s Neytiri, who was easily the highlight of the first film, does next to nothing except fret over her children and make crazy eyes. So you have gossamer-thin characters and a plot that essentially repeats beat-for-beat what was already a predictable simple narrative, which ultimately adds up to a story that is … well, dissatisfying is an understatement. Just as well that all these rehashed tropes are pretty condensed into (checks notes) 192 FUCKING MINUTES OF RUNTIME? (2)
4. And yet, even with all of what I’ve just mentioned, The Way of Water is still a fantastic moviegoing experience. I’ve mentioned this before, but sometimes it’s a little easy to fixate on the most obvious aspects of a movie. The Oscars do this all the time. Just replace the word ‘Best’ with ‘Most’ in the various categories and you can pretty easily figure out who the winner is going to be. Most Acting. Most Editing. Most Cinematography. Most Screenplay. So it’s an easy trap (which I fall into all the time) to think of a film’s narrative quality purely in terms of plotting or character arcs. This is not to say that these are not important, but they are not everything, and attempting to boil down storytelling into a set of rules (or worse, CinemaSins-style pedantry) means that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. So yes, The Way of Water is cliched and simplistic and repetitive. You know what else it is? Astonishingly effective. James Cameron knows more about how to make a big crowd-pleasing blockbuster than anyone else alive (sans Spielberg), and this is because he understands that simplicity can be a strength. All of Cameron’s biggest successes work because of how elemental their stories are, which he freely admits. These big-budget high-concept pictures need the simplest stories in order to anchor the audience in the fantastical. Aliens (1986) is about a mom trying to protect a daughter. Terminator 2 (1991) is about a mom trying to protect a son, in combination with a boy-and-his-dog (3) narrative. Titanic (1997) is the song Uptown Girl on steroids. That’s it. That’s all you need. Why complicate matters? So yes, the word ‘family’ is repeated so often you half expect to see Vin Diesel roll up in whatever the Pandoran equivalent of a muscle car is. And you, my classy and intelligent reader, may scoff at manipulative tactics such as how the little kid Na’vi exists to constantly be put in danger or how the Tulkun are designed as super-intelligent whales who have so much emotional capacity and are a species who abhor violence and oh wait, did we mention that the humans this time are back on Pandora to hunt them to death in the cruellest way possible? Is it cheap? Very. Is it obvious? Extremely. Is it effective? Absolutely. Couple this with Cameron’s GOAT-level ability to construct a massive rousing action setpiece, and The Way of Water is more than capable of cutting a path through any logical objections straight to the emotional and visceral centre of your brain.
5. And of course, as every half-decent critic will no doubt tell you, the plot is not the point. It’s an excuse, a mere hinge to hang what really matters – the world of Pandora. And good god, what a world. Pandora is an aesthetic marvel, a gorgeous, deeply immersive playground that is so easy to get lost in. We’ve seen so many examples of VFX being used to create sterile and barren settings that feel no more real than a matte painting (oh hello MCU), which makes the sheer level of detail that went into the creation of Pandora feel refreshing. Perhaps I’m biased (being generally more of an underwater than jungle persuasion), but I was perfectly happy to spend as much time as possible in the reefs around the Metkiyana tribe. Furthermore, as much as everyone makes Ferngully or Pocahontas jokes, there is something deeply alluring about the Avatar franchise’s treatment of nature as a place of wonderment and joy. Therein lies the rub – advances in CGI have made the impossible possible, so a man can turn into a Hulk, or people can leap tall buildings in a single bound, or we can bring Peter Cushing back to life to oversee the construction of the Death Star. However, all of this runs the risk of diminishing returns, as audiences become more and more inured to bombastic, over-the-top spectacle. So The Way of Water zigs while every other movie has zagged in recent years, by using CGI/VFX to create something that is not unreal, but very real indeed. Yes of course oceans don’t have tulkun or skimwings, but they do have whales and flying fish, which allows the audience to make the necessary connections and accept its reality. This is one of the greatest tricks the Avatar franchise plays, taking a real-life reference and skewing it just enough to make it fantastical while also still allowing it to feel grounded in reality (the crowning achievement for this being the Na’vi). It also goes without saying that comparing the visual effects in this film to anything else is pointless. At this point, Cameron and the people at Wētā FX are playing a different game to everyone else. Everything, from the way hair ripples in the water to the minute facial expressions of the Na’vi to the diffusion of light at dusk never even registers as a special effect. It’s just … there.
6. But the real irony that fuels The Way of Water is that for all its cutting-edge technology and sci-fi futurism, it is charmingly, almost childishly retro in its storytelling. Cameron claims to have come up with the original story for Avatar in 1994, and I absolutely believe it. The Way of Water feels completely out of step with modern blockbuster trends and feels far more akin to something that would be seen in the 90s, with the chief reason being its tone. With one very obvious (and unwelcome) meta-joke about how the little kid Na’vi keeps getting captured, The Way of Water never, ever winks at the audience. It is completely earnest for all of its (checks notes) 192 FUCKING MINUTES OF RUNTIME? When’s the last time you saw anything like this? A film of this magnitude playing its fantastical elements completely straight, with no forced ‘humour’ or pop culture references or lines that seem to almost apologise to the audience for the fact that they are watching something unrealistic? The goddamn Lord of the Rings, that’s when. After that? The glut of superhero films that take direction from either the MCU’s forced levity or Zack Snyder’s dour miserabilism. Michael Bay’s ugly (both in aesthetics and tone), nihilistic Transformers series. Disney’s live-action remakes, with their barely concealed cynicism and contempt for their audience. Star Wars, which … let’s just not, ok? There isn’t nearly enough time for me to go into what’s wrong with that particular franchise. And so when I’m told that The Way of Water is overly simple with its story and blunt with its themes and cloying with its sentimentality, my only response is … so? Why is that a bad thing? I want to circle back to ask the key question – what does The Way of Water want to achieve? Obvious answer first – to make all the money. But how? To appeal to as many people as possible. Ok. So how do you do that? You make a universal story that everyone can understand in order to create an emotional connection. Ta-dah. So why on earth are people surprised, even unhappy that James Cameron did precisely that? (4)
7. While we are on the topic of nostalgia for the 90s blockbuster, I find it difficult to understand why The Way of Water is being mocked for its themes. Once again, yes the film is about as subtle as a slap to the back of the head, but considering what Cameron is trying to say, maybe bluntness is not such a bad trait. The environmentalism of The Way of Water works hand-in-hand with what I mentioned earlier with its aesthetic appeal and its technical advancement. It’s an effective strategy that makes sense – have your audience be fully immersed and enthralled by the world of Pandora (which can be easily connected to current day Earth), then put it under threat and drive home the need to preserve it at all costs. With this in mind, the best (and most important) scene in The Way of Water is easily the tulkun hunt, which might not seem so at first glance. After all, the plot grinds to a screeching halt just so we can follow two very minor characters who have only just been introduced guide Quaritch and Spider through how the tulkun are hunted and harvested for a valuable chemical in their brains. (5) But this scene is vital for the emotional logic of the film, because we as an audience need to see and feel exactly how vile the human colonists are in order to fully invest ourselves into the Na’vi insurgency. The smartest trick of this scene is that (barring a few lines of dialogue), the tulkun hunters are not moustache-twirling villains. Instead, the entire operation is portrayed as competent and professional thanks to Cameron painstakingly portraying every step of the procedure of the hunt. However, it is this cold, capitalistic ‘objectivity’ that ultimately ends up making the humans more villainous, with the point being made that evil borne of callous disregard is possibly even worse than evil done with the malicious intent to hurt, because of the way that bureaucratic efficiency can increase the reach of the former. Again, Cameron is not subtle in the slightest with his metaphors – who can watch cigar-chomping, rifle-toting marines wearing camouflage burning down villages and pillaging natural resources without drawing the obvious real life connection? But as with the previous paragraph about tone, my question is … so? So what if it’s obvious? Is the point of this movie any less urgent? And, with so many blockbusters devolving into defenses of the status quo (pointed out in an excellent video I will link below), it is an invigorating experience to actually see something of this size and magnitude steadfastly decry American imperialism and stridently advocate for the protection of the natural world.
8. Which finally brings me to my central thesis. The Way of Water is worth watching simply because it means something. I’ve made it very clear for a while now how blighted the Hollywood motion picture landscape is, particularly at the blockbuster level. Every big-budget movie is part of a bigger IP or franchise, serving up two-and-a-half hours of formulaic action with weightless CGI, perfunctory dialogue, and narratives that somehow managed to be both overstuffed and empty, filled with incident but no momentum, and always circling back to an unshakeable status quo. Rinse and repeat. And in contrast, here comes The Way of Water. A film that ages its protagonists appropriately and gives them children. A film that pushes the limit further on its own already impressive technological achievements. A film that is willing, nay, yearning to actually stand for a set of themes that go against the grain of ‘military and cops good’ and to loudly proclaim an environmentalist agenda. And it does so by rejecting current trends to harken back to a different time, where huge motion pictures were not afraid to be earnest and passionate in tone even if they ran the risk of looking silly. Of course, it helps that The Way of Water and the Avatar franchise are the singular artistic vision of a sole creative mind, rather than the corporate committees of every other major IP. Beneath all of Cameron’s typical media bluster and boasting (which honestly come across as quite charming by now) is a clear message – this was the film he intended to make, without ever watering (pun intended) it down for public consumption or to fit any particular mode. Which means that for all its many, many, many flaws, The Way of Water is a personal artistic statement, continuing to explicate the themes and motifs of James Cameron’s long filmmaking career. It is an honest-to-god auteurist work that unabashedly attempts to mean something and push the technological boundaries of cinema, backed up by a lot of money that will undoubtedly make all the money. We should have all known better than to doubt the king of the world.
Verdict: Highly Recommended
- Off the top of my head, everyone knows 1) I’m the king of the world! 2) I’m flying, Jack! 3) Draw me like one of your French girls. 4) That moment when the ship snaps in half. 5) I’ll never let go + the incessant argument of whether Leo could have fit on that door. 6) That Celine Dion song that we all pretended to hate but know every single word of.
- Look, I’ll only stop this lame running joke once Hollywood controls its bloat problem, which judging from current trends, means never.
- The dog in question being an Austrian-accented killer robot.
- Fine, I’ve cheated and left out the one contemporary blockbuster franchise that actually is completely earnest and emotionally unguarded and plays its themes straight without ever winking at the audience. It’s The Fast and The Furious. And I am 100% serious about that.
- Thankfully, this film had the good sense to give it a better name than ‘unobtanium’.