There was a lot of skepticism (and understandably so) since James Cameron announced not one but four more sequels to his 2009 hit Avatar, a film which still holds the record for being the highest-grossing film.
But 13 years later, the box office numbers don’t equate to a positive public perception with many expressing their criticism towards the seemingly basic plotline and the white saviour trope that Sam Worthington’s protagonist Jake Sully embodies. After all, the sci-fi blockbuster deals with a human (referred to as the "Sky People") infiltrating the “indigenous” Na'avis on the moon of Pandora and then turning into their leader to fight his own race. After all, in his new "avatar", Jake literally gives a battle speech that ends with “This is our land.”
More than a decade later with The Way of Water, you would expect the 68-year-old Canadian director and writer, James Cameron, might have learnt his lesson. The answer is both yes and no.
In terms of its narrative, the sequel has definitely witnessed a massive improvement with the ambitious 3 hours and 18 minutes duration not just centering on Jake, but also his family and the other blue-skinned clans that inhabit Pandora.
While Cameron’s screenplay has definitely toned down the white saviour trope, the dialogues do essay the rehashed tropes of “humans vs environment” and “balancing science with nature” that we might have recently seen in a more nuanced manner in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. So, yes, the politics of the new Avatar film might be too simplistic for some but then again, most of the viewers would be paying for a 3D ticket (an IMAX one for those who are willing to spend more) for the VFX alone.
And as a visual saga, The Way of Water hardly disappoints. While we saw the Na’avi climb trees, fly those dragon-like creatures (called Mountain Banshees in the canon), and engage in hand-to-hand combat in the forests, the action now shifts to the underwater realm.
With Jake and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri starting a family of four young half-breeds, the Na’avi couple’s peace is disrupted as the Sky People return with their usual flair for capitalistic greed and environmental destruction. As mentioned earlier, some viewers would find the premise to be a rehashed version of the prequel but in terms of the aesthetic grandeur, Cameron and his crew give their best to introduce us to a new world; this time, that of the water.
As the forest-dwelling Na’avi family seeks shelter under a newly-introduced water clan called the Metkayina, they must learn the titular way of the water. A good deal of the runtime goes in the couple’s children exploring the coral-rich marine landscape and taming wild whale-like creatures that are thankfully developed as intelligent beings of nature instead of being reduced to mere sea monsters.
Playing with the familiar shades of blue and purple from the first film while also adding a tinge of orange reflected on the water during the sunset scenes, Russell Carpenter’s cinematography builds an immersive world to behold on the big screen. Move over the laughably flashy Atlantis of Aquaman or even the multi-coloured Mesoamerican Talokan of Wakanda Forever, the underwater abyss of Cameron’s Pandora takes aquatic cinematic worlds to a new level.
With most of the action sequences also set in the backdrop of the crashing waves, the stunt choreography too is amped up to improved levels and stunt department coordinator Eva Yang definitely deserves praise. Also watch out for Saldana’s stunt double Alicia Vela-Bailey especially as you witness Neytiri’s skills with the bow and arrow. Even when she’s out of arrows, she can turn the bow into a fatal accessory against modern firearms. Marvel’s Hawkeye should learn a lesson or two!
To execute his claustrophobically engaging water-based action, Cameron also takes out a page from his Titanic handbook. Much like the 1997 hit’s second half, expect a lot of sinking and a lot of swimming as The Way of Water doubles as a sci-fi drama and a disaster film.
Talking about genre-blending, the Avatar sequel also serves as an effective (although arguably cliched) coming-of-age story. Worthington and Saldana feature heavily in the emotional and action scenes but when it comes to exploring the world around them, Britain Dalton (a new actor with the whitest name possible) also gets the spotlight as the couple’s son Lo’ak.
Brash, impulsive and quite curious, Lo’ak is that adolescent who gets overshadowed by his “perfect big brother”. Most of his interactions with Jake end up with the latter coming off as the strict dad. After all, despite Lo’ak’s Na’avi heritage, he still refers to Jake as “sir”. Maybe, that’s just the simplistic whiteness brimming out of Cameron’s screenplay but this “sir”-based relationship with his father works in building his character motivations as he tries his best to stand out on his own.
Fitting in is a struggle for other adolescent characters too such as another Na’vi misfit Kiri (whose role better not be discussed for otherwise we will be going into spoiler territory) and a “Mowgli” of a human boy called Spider.
Sporting dreadlocks and roaming around half-naked, Jack Champion’s Spider is a friendly member of the Sky People who has been adopted by the Na’avis and even attempts to be one of them. Well, what’s stopping him given that the current Na’avi leader himself was once a human! Spider might come off as just a white boy trying to appropriate another culture (*coughs* the Indian boys saying the n-word and copying “hood talk”) but his inclusion with the rest of the young ensemble shows how Cameron is willing to explore new arcs within a shared universe.
This universe is still not fully fleshed out despite the long runtime but the director has definitely no plans to stop exploring Pandora. With Avatar 3 shot simultaneously and planned for a 2024 release, it will be amusing to see where the Na’vis go from here. But the upcoming sequel comes with its own fears.
The Way of Water might come off as “Avatar Redux” but its visuals still feel richer and fresher given how it has come out after a 13-year span. If the new chapters outdo the current two films, then Cameron can give even Marvel CEO Kevin Fiege a run for his money. But if his Avatar saga doesn’t stick the landing till the very end, then the franchise might just create another fatigue like the one birthed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Still, for now, if you stick to the present and need a theatrical experience that goes beyond the usual DC/Marvel binary, then The Way of Water is the way to go. It has its imperfections and cliches but they are excusable in the face of its technical superiority.
I am never the “cinephile dudebro” to scorn at people who watch movies on their mobile phones but try watching it on the biggest screen if possible.
We’re going with 4 out of 5 stars for Avatar: The Way of Water.
READ MORE | Opinion: I re-watched Avatar before going into The Way of Water. The 2009 film is garbage.
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