By Andrew Jenck
Over a decade in the making, James Cameron’s follow-up to the highest grossing film comes with lofty expectations. Production stalled not for story reasons, but the technology needed to be developed to bring the auteur’s vision to life. Applying the same environmental themes to the oceans as the original to forests, The Way of Water tackles one of the most challenging compounds to both animate and film underwater. The result is a gripping, beautiful film that justifies its series’ hiatus with a more intimate story that plays with high concept sci fi.
Cameron continues his strategy of using a well-charted story to ease audiences into the alien world of Pandora. Some audience members may question the lengthy production and still get a simplistic story, but again, the visual means to tell the story resulted in an extended production. Water is challenging to render with its unique physics and reflective nature, so the effects team needed to develop new tools to make it look natural. Even as technology advances, the effects, having the proper lighting and weight to it all, will age very well. Any digital and practically shot scenes are near-indistinguishable. The Na’vi are on screen for nearly the entire three plus hour runtime, so the character models and environment needed extra care to feel real. Rushed productions have made artificiality too common in action films while Pandora’s return is a testament for careful crafting.
Filmed with 3D cameras, instead of converting in post-production, the exact focal point leaps from the screen. Cinematographer Russel Carpenter frames the shots so the exact focal points leap from the screen, adding to the immersion. Perhaps the greatest effect is when objects come from behind the camera and really makes it feel live. I saw Way of Water both at the Tillamook Coliseum and Regal Lloyd Center’s 3D IMAX screen. IMAX also shows the film in a larger aspect ratio, showing more of the film, though the Coliseum still showcases the film gorgeously. Regardless of the chosen format, the film is immersive, and well warrants a trip to the cinemas.
As stated in my Avatar 1 review, the original could’ve benefited from more lengthy scenes of ambiance to enhance the characters’ development. Such is a strength of the sequel, containing a balance of intimate moments and surreal visuals while keeping a brisk pace. Characters take in more of the wonders of Pandora, adding a sense of relatability. At times, witnessing the physics of the world can resonate with the audience more than the character moments. This familiarity allows Avatar to explore high concepts, such as the identity of the Na’vi, militarized clones to colonize the planet, and interacting with other species. Indigenous culture serves as inspiration of the setting and tone and is treated with respect. It is still a white person’s interpretation commodified by a corporation, so mileage will vary regarding its authenticity.
A common motif in Cameron’s sequels is that of parenting (i.e., Aliens and T2). Jake and Neytiri feel like a genuine couple trying to protect their kids while having differing parenting styles and experiencing culture clash given Jake’s background as a Marine. Worthington and Saldana add rawness and fidelity to what could’ve been underwritten roles. Some characters are more developed while others feel written as plot devices, but collectively, they make the Sully family feel complete. Although not groundbreaking, it’s fundamental to the film’s success. The effects are the main selling point, but the characters are relatable enough, their interactions with the world create empathy for it, and rallies the audience to protect it from colonization and exploitation. I know a film resonates when the audience applauds, which occurred at both of my screenings.
I expected Avatar – The Way of Water would be fun, but I underestimated Cameron’s ability to utilize scope to deliver emotional scenes. Although not my favorite, this is a culmination of his filmography: every production prior helped form his vision to craft one of the most cinematic experiences in the last ten years. Although a high budget IP, it still has the spirit of an original film daring to explore new territories while using familiar narratives to indulge the audience in an authentic feeling world. Most blockbusters are slightly enhanced by the big screen. For this movie, it’s mandatory to experience the full vision.