When Avatar hit screens in 2009 it was an event. With his obsessive vision and drive, James Cameron transported us to Pandora, a lush paradise plundered for its mineral wealth. While the “colonizers vs. Indigenous warriors” story was familiar, audiences were transported by the technological tour de force — CGI and 3D combining to service a gung-ho sci-fi epic.
Avatar wasn’t just a hit. It redefined what blockbusters were capable of accomplishing and still rests proudly on top the box office charts. Now, 13 years later, Cameron welcomes us back to the far-off world of Pandora, with some familiar faces, new cultures and a butt-numbing 192 minutes run time.
This is the Cameron way, no concessions, no compromise — a wildly ambitious story which he sees as part of seven-film (!) cycle. A movie so expensive Cameron estimates it will need to earn $2 billion to break even.
The Way of Water is everything 2009’s Avatar was, but amplified. Cameron spent over a decade building out the world of Pandora and imagining lush new ecosystems for us to explore. But as with the first film, the story is still built on the bedrock of “white saviour” tropes, even its saviour Jake Sully transferred his consciousness into a Na’vi body.
The Way of Water begins with what seems like the greatest hits of the last film. The humans return to Pandora led by Col. Miles Quaritch, a memory-copied clone of the former commander, who’s been upgraded from stomping around in an exoskeleton to inhabiting a Na’vi body of his own.
While Quaritch adjusts to being blue, Jake leads the battle to repel the invaders. This time there’s more to worry about than just Jake and his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). They’re now parents to their own little brood, a mixture of human/Na’vi hybrids and adoptees. There’re the brothers Neteyam and Lo’ak; Tuk, the young sister who always tags along; and Kiri, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine.
If you’re saying “But wait! Didn’t she die in the previous film?” Yes, but also she somehow gave birth to Kiri, who shares Weaver’s facial features in a very eerie way.
Oh, and they’ve also taken in Spider, the son of Quartich, but not the blue one. The dead one. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot to take in, but if there’s a key to enjoying The Way of Water it’s to go with the flow.
Realizing he’s become a military target, Jake and the family flee, taking refuge with the Metkayina clan, the reef people. “This family is our fortress,” proclaims Jake in a line of dialogue that is pure Cameron — clunky but effective. But the decision to leave rather than fight marks a turning point for the film and Cameron as a storyteller.
Part of what drove the creation of The Way of Water was Cameron’s own evolution as a parent. In interviews he talks about trying not to be as domineering. When Jake orders his kids around like fresh recruits, it sounds like a marine talking but there’s also an echo of a director used to getting his way.
With the re-invasion of Pandora seemingly on pause, the middle of the film shifts into a story of exploration and adaptation as the Sullys learn the ways of Metkayina. A different branch of the Na’vi species, they have finned tails and wide forearms. To these turquoise-coloured creatures, the Sullys are the freaks; especially the five-fingered human hybrids. But just as Jake quickly conquered the planet’s flying creatures in the first film, the teens are soon learning to ride the water-skimming creatures the reef people depend on.
This is all part of Cameron’s master plan. Long impressed by how George Lucas invented different planets for various species, Cameron envisioned different biomes for the various Na’vi villages spread around Pandora. If you can stomach the high frame-rate effects, it’s a wondrous realm filled with talking whales and pulsating coral creatures.
The experience is so immersive it’s easy to forget it was made by actors performing underwater in massive water tanks, free diving to hold their breath and rigged up in motion-capture suits.
Beneath the special effects there’s a fascinating contradiction at the heart of Cameron. A committed environmentalist, he’s spent over a decade crafting a film about a world where species can plug into a Gaia-like planetary consciousness. But he’s also the filmmaker who populates his film with “oorah”-hooting jarhead marines. The last third of the film is a tidal wave of testosterone as the marines attack the Metkayina with a massive flying fortress of a hovercraft which spits out whale-chasing boats, mini-subs and more.
It is at this point my critical brain disengaged while I happily devoured half a bucket of popcorn, hypnotized by the large-scale movie mayhem. Cameron is not known for his subtlety. When it comes to action, large and small bodies falling, burning, dipping and dodging, he (and we) are in our happy place.
Compared to that, the simpler dynamics of the Sully sibling strife are obvious but heartfelt. Like Lucas, Cameron’s movies seem better pitched to a young adult mindset. Did it need to be a bloated three hours and 12 minutes long? Of course not. But as long as there are those ready to dive into the worlds he constructs, Cameron will continue creating them.