Love him or hate him, James Cameron understands the cinematic experience.
Over the last 40 years, Cameron has made a name for himself of creating spectacles on the big screen. Through his career, Cameron has become known for his insane attention to detail, his lack of care for budgets and his passion for making the cinematic experience come to life. And, for the most part, the gambles have paid off. On three separate occasions (Terminator 2, Titanic, Avatar), Cameron has made what was then ‘the most expensive movie ever made’ and, each time, has made more money than the last.
Of course, arguably, the crown jewel in Cameron’s cap remains Avatar itself. When it was released in 2009, Avatar was viewed as a technological marvel. Featuring entirely fresh characters and a story that was not based on any pre-existing franchise, Cameron blew away the box office years before the Avengers faced their Endgame. But then, despite racking up nine Oscar nominations, the film only won three, all for technical achievement. As a result, Avatar felt like a surprisingly forgettable entry for what became the biggest box office film in history. Other than a physical manifestation of Pandora in a Disney theme park, the Avatar franchise was largely lost amongst a cinema dominated by caped crusaders and super powers.
Now, Cameron is bringing us back to Pandora once again with Avatar: the Way of Water… and you will be glad that he did.
I won’t tiptoe around this: Avatar: the Way of Water is one of the greatest visual spectacles ever to be put on the big screen. That may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you that it is not. Cameron is notorious for waiting for technology to meet his cinematic, visions, often delaying production until he can create a spectacle so stunning that it leaves an imprint on your eyes. And he has done so again here. As such, Way of Water is so remarkable that one cannot help but experience a sense of wonder unlike anything we have seen since Spielberg first stood us in front of a brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park. This is the type of film which justifies the cinematic experience in ways that you have forgotten.
As Cameron takes us under the ocean, the 3D effects and sound editing are so enthralling that you will believe what you see. (While I confess that there are brief moments that feel a little closer to a video game than reality, those moments are few and far between.) This is the type of film that reminds us why we go to the movies. Way of Water quite literally transports us to another world, awakens our senses, and makes us feel like we are breathing for the first time in a new environment.
Although over three hours long, Cameron packs a surprising amount of story into its runtime. Featuring some complex relationships and tensions, Way of Water is not merely a retread of the original film, although it certainly echoes it. In light of this, although not absolutely necessary, the first film is probably worth a rewatch before stepping into the sequel as Cameron expects that you remember the characters from his ‘magnum opus’.
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: the Way of Water revisits Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Sandana) as they navigate life and family on the world of Pandora. With four kids at home, Jake and Neytiri balance life as parents with their responsibilities with the Na’vi leadership. However, when the ‘Sky People’ return with an old foe at the helm, Jake and Neytiri must fight to keep their people (and family) safe, sacrificing the home they know in the process.
Since his first trip to the Floating Mountains, Cameron has continued to develop his world and especially it’s oceans. Whereas the first film emphasized the beauty of the natural world that we see, Way of Watershowcases the natural world that we do not. Taking us under the waters of Pandora for the first time, Cameron has created another world that still feels familiar. Cameron has always been passionate about the Earth’s oceans and, without question, the goal here is to emphasize the value of the world under the sea. Here, he wants us to understand the connectedness that exists between humanity and the aquatic world… and he is not subtle. (Though, to be fair, he never has been.) Crafted with meticulous love, each scene of Way of Water fills the viewer with a sense of awe and wonder, unlike any we’ve experienced in decades. In doing so, even if these landscapes are not of Earth, the film also serve as a call to protect our own natural world as well. (It’s also worth noting that, without giving too much away, themes of the perils of the whaling industry coming to play as well.)
Although a decade has passed since the first film, there are some things that have not changed. Given the amount of cultural change that has taken place in conversations about gender equity and toxic masculinity during that time, Cameron shows very little change in his characters. (For example, although he has been accepted in adapted into the Na’vi culture, Jake still lives his life through his lens as a marine.) This leads to a certain level of bravado within the film’s characters and relationships that feels like a throwback to 90s action films. Admittedly, from Alien’s Ellen Ripley to Terminator’s Sarah Conner, Cameron has always been the forerunner of strong female characters yet something still feels a little dated in the film’s writing.
Nevertheless, this is very much a film about fathers and sons. As Jake attempts to step into the role of fatherhood, so too does he struggle to understand his teenage boys. Torn between his family and his people, Jake believes that the ability to protect those they love is directly tied to his role as a parent and a father. (“A father protects his family. That’s what gives him purpose,“ Jake growls.) To Jake, protection is tied directly to masculinity his role as a parent, and as a father. However, as his young sons begin to display their own ideas and desire to step into adulthood, Jake has difficulty with his changing role. No longer are they the young boys that he had to care for. Instead, they are stepping into their own, and it causes tension within the family.
Without giving any spoilers, this notion taps into the franchise’s ultimate theme of seeing one another fully. (For instance, “I see you,” is the mantra of both the Na’vi and the franchise’s new tribe, the Metkayina.) This is a franchise that is passionate about understanding the other in the fullest of senses. By being willing to recognize their strengths and abilities, Way of Water reminds us again of our connectivity as people and the importance that we have to one another.
It goes without saying that this is a film that needs to be experience of the big screen. With so much content in recent years, it has become more common place to say that we might as well wait to screen a film before it makes the jump to streaming.
This is not one of those films.
In short, Avatar: The Way of Water is an experience that must be seen on the biggest screen possible in order to be fully immersed into the dream world that Cameron has brought to life. Somehow, he has done the impossible. James Cameron has managed to bring the franchise that few remember back in such a way that you’ll have an experience you’ll never forget.
Avatar: The Way of Water is available in theatres on Friday, December 16th, 2022.