Building Upon Yesteryear
Avatar: The Way of Water could be considered the definition of cinematic spectacle. The sort of film that makes your jaw inadvertently cascade toward the earth in awe. Scene upon scene oozes with intensity and allure. In similar fashion to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic and Avatar, director James Cameron has once again perfected his technological tool box to tickle the irises of audiences across the globe. It’s a glossy slab of spectacle that some may consider to be a tad light on its feet in terms of storytelling, yet gorgeous and emotionally compelling enough to work it’s charms on the majority. All of which makes this your standard, nuts and bolts James Cameron flick; a broad firework display that’s effective, fun, heartfelt and gorgeous.
The Way of Water takes a majority of aspects of the original Avatar and builds upon them with utmost ferocity. More characters, more Navi culture, more space fauna, more world building, more trigger happy pezazz and more theme park tours through James Cameron’s imagination. Though this means some of the problems plaguing the original do find themselves returning with a vengeance (more on that in due course), there’s a lot to this bigger and bolder approach which works in the film’s favour.
One example where the film is considerably stronger is in its utilisation of characters, most notably that of character development. Though there were a lot of solid characters in the 2009 movie, it could be argued that a majority of them functioned as vessels of exposition. Neytiri was our guide into the Navi culture, Jake was our fish-out-of-water protagonist who experienced Pandora alongside us, Quaritch was a taste of the military and their destructive projects, while Grace Holloway’s gang were our encyclopaedias into the flora and fauna populating this portion of the galaxy. The Way of Water gives us a heft new lineup of leads who more or less replace all of these characters – though many old faces return for more backseat roles – only this time around, they are less a vehicle of expositing story.
Much of the film focuses primarily on that of the Sully family tree, dishing up a collective of character arcs and B-plots pertaining to Jake and Neytiri’s offspring. All of which gives the movie the feel of a family drama, more so than a billion dollar sci-fi romp (despite this begin exactly that). Echoes of Terminator 2’s dysfunctional family panache bleeds onto the screen, allowing for a film that feels markedly more personal as a result.
Opting to zoom into the Sully’s offspring to such a degree allows Cameron to flex a storytelling tactic he’s become adept at pulling off during the latter portion of his filmmaking career; giving us chance to connect and fall in love with a collective of characters before pitting them against devastation. It’s a markedly effective approach, one which works a lot better here than it did in 2009’s Avatar. There is a lot in common here with Cameron’s 1997 hit, Titanic. Introduce us to a roster of characters, spend a good two hours allowing us to familiarise ourselves with them, then have them fall victim to the fatal third act. We become wrapped up in their stories, learning of each character’s quirks, flaws and mindsets throughout the film’s opening two-hours. Then, just as soon as we’ve developed enough familiarity, we’re invited to join them on a ride into the jaws of hell. Avatar did do this to a degree, however the world building often overshadowed the character development aspect. The Way of Water is able to strike a better balance, giving us the mounds of environmentally geared exposition Cameron is so obsessed with incorporating, all while dishing up a gang of protagonists we are able to empathise with. All of which makes the final hour and 12 minutes all the more tense.
The Orphan and the Ghost
Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch was perhaps one of the stronger elements when it came to Avatar. He may have been remarkably simplistic in design, not to mention short lived in the existence department, yet when it came to menace and screen presence, it was hard to walk away without wanting more. Lang brought the character to life using his charm and menace, yet that’s where the character’s appeal ended. Had a lesser actor taken on the role, it could have quite easily been a forgettable character. He was a baddie with no sympathetic qualities. Sure, you could argue that he was relatively committed to his job, but when your nine to five consists of decimating the homes of indigenous alien cat people, you sure as heck aren’t going to win any philanthropist of the year awards.
Being one dimensional and dead within the first three hours of franchise would, in most circumstances, make a character like Quaritch relatively forgettable in a string of Avatar movies. A header to a story filled with enough characters and plot lines to make him a mere footnote in the dictionary of Cameron’s Pandora fable. At least that might have been the case, had screenwriters Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno not decided to go ahead and bring him back from the dead in the form of an Avatar clone.
The decision to resurrect Quaritch as a cloned Avatar in The Way of Water looks to be a case of Cameron subverting his villains, much like he did back in the days of making Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Though he hasn’t quite gone good at this stage in the game, there’s undoubtedly a more conflicted and (somewhat ironically) humanised angle to this interpretation of the character, allowing for a more complex interpretation of a character initially seen as a moustache-twirling stereotype.
Quaritch remains very much a bad egg as far as The Way of Water goes, yet there is a sense that his morality is beginning to reshape itself, albeit at a pace that will likely take a handful of films to finally pay off. This is perhaps best depicted through the film’s inclusion of his son, Spider/Miles. Not only does Quaritch begin to develop emotions toward Spider toward the back half of the feature, but he even hesitates to kill Navi whom he is interrogating. This latter point signifies a huge shift for the character, as in the previous movie, he was more than happy to inflict devastation on Navi home’s without a moment’s hesitation.
The Way of Water is a film all about family. While it may feel a little like Cameron pinching from George Lucas’s book of ideas, it is only logical that the thematic qualities of parents and their offspring extends also into that of the feature’s antagonist.
Quaritch’s road to redemption is an arc that feels largely unfinished by the time this movie’s staggering 3 hour and 12 minute runtime reaches its closing credits. Be as that may, such incompleteness does not feel accidental. This is a calculated move, one intended as a means of guiding Quaritch down a new and interesting path as future chapters in the franchise play out .
There is an affective tension to this. An underlying anxiety of whether he will become a force for good, a morally ambiguous anti-hero, or even more of a monster by the time Cameron’s generation-long saga has come to a close. The same can be said for Quaritch’s son. Much like his dad, Spider – formally Miles Jr – finds himself at war with where his allegiances lie. Raised by Navi yet warming to the Navi clone of his late father places this character in a morally mucky zone throughout much of this movie.
Quaritch’s position here is slightly more simplistic than that of Spider’s. He’s a badguy with the potential to become something later on down the line. Spider is slightly harder to pinpoint. His intentions come across as muddied and contradictory throughout much of this film. His morally murky mindset is intentional, of course, and is a stance that will likely start to crystallize into something more visible as the saga progresses.
The Way of Water is very much a soap opera in the form of science fiction spectacle. A roster of characters about to embark upon a journey that will no doubt alter who they are and what they stand for in the years to come.
Cameron has been very keen to lay out the Avatar sequels as an ongoing saga. Quaritch and Spider are two stark examples of this. Their potential for growth and inner conflict is astronomical. What parts will they play in the ongoing war between human and Navi has yet to be established. That is part of the plan, and it’s part of the ongoing tension that will no doubt keep audiences engaged and coming back for more during future movies.
Weaving New Tales
People staying dead in sci-fi isn’t an easy feat. The Way of Water is certainly no exception to this rule, as we’ve already established with the return of Lang’s Quaritch. And while we’re in the business of reviving deceased characters from the grave, who else is more experienced at such a task than Sigourney Weaver herself.
Kiri is the miraculous offspring of Grace Holloway; Weaver’s character from the first Avatar movie. Though initially introduced as a seemingly miraculous birth, triggered by Eywa moments before Grace’s death, the film remains deliberately tight-lipped on the matter. Much like Quaritch, it would appear that Kiri is intended to be a key player moving forth, hence why so much mystique surrounds her character.
As a result of her mysterious origins, not to mention her deep-rooted connection with Eywa, Kiri is treated as an outcast by those beyond the confines of her adopted family. Both the film and Weaver do a solid job of depicting her frustration and confusion toward her circumstances. She’s operating on a slightly different plane to everyone around her, which on occasion causes alienation from others and internalised irritation.
Some have noted their distraction toward Weaver playing a new character in a movie franchise she’s already been a part of. Though on occasion this is indeed the case – particularly when we see her interacting with Grace – Weaver does a solid job of playing this as a totally different character. She delivers a convincing performance as Kiri, both seemingly capable of depicting a believable teenager (despite her 73-year-old age) as well as crafting an outcast of a character who feels as relatable as she does interesting.
Much like Quaritch’s re-introducing, Kiri’s presence showcases Cameron’s willingness to lean into the more strange and surreal aspects of this franchise. It could have been quite easy to phase away from the tech-based science fiction elements from the first movie and focus on the alienness of Pandora. Kiri and Quaritch both represent a surreal submerging of the natural and technological interventions of 22nd century humanity. Both are products of human integration within the world of Pandora, something that is likely to become more common and eccentric as the franchise progresses.
Cameron has a solid track record when it comes to dishing up sequels. In similar fashion to Aliens and Terminator 2, Avatar: The Way of Water builds upon its predecessor, giving us a film that provides more in terms of scope, spectacle and character development than its predecessor. Not only are the jaw dropping visuals a marvel to witness – particularly on an oversized Imax screen – we have a story significantly more engaging than last time around. Following the Sully family, as well as Quaritch and his estranged son, as they navigate amidst the Titanic oceans of Pandora, helps maintain a healthy pace that prevents it’s 3+ hour runtime from ever feeling like a chore.
Is it perfect? Certainly not. The worldbuilding can feel bloated on occasion, there are numerous points in which Cameron evidently gets swept away in his self-assembled fascination with Navi culture, and the dialogue does have a tendency to evoke involuntary groans whenever the script tries to crack a joke. There is also a little too much familiarity here, that oddly gives this less of a unique identity to that of Cameron’s previous sequels. Aliens and Terminator 2 managed to feel tonally unique from their predecessors, all whilst maintaining the illusion that they belonged within the same universe as their prior chapters. While The Way of Water does evidently feel like a follow on to Sully’s first adventure, it feels almost tonally identical to its predecessor in a way that does compromise its identity. The soundtrack, lighting, pacing and structure all feels a little too familiar to that of Avatar. This may seem like a strange criticism, yet by having this one adopt so much of its predecessor’s identity, one can’t help but feel Cameron’s long awaited sequel lacks that feel of tonal expansion which his previous sequels have excelled in.
Be as that may, the engaging characters, gorgeous visuals, emotional storytelling and thrilling Cameron-heavy third act makes this a belter not worth missing. While it may not satisfy those hungry for the sort of narrative-rich romps frequently cooked up by fellow blockbuster bigwigs such as Christopher Nolan, this is blockbuster spectacle at its most finest.
Once again, Cameron has manged to push the envelope and deliver a cinematic experience capable of charming the masses. If anyone may have been wondering whether changes to the pop culture landscape over the last decade have faltered Avatar’s chances of flourishing in the future, The Way of Water may well just prove that Cameron’s billion dollar pet project may well have legs after all.