Friday, December 16, 2022

Review: Holy cow, "Avatar: The Way of Water" is actually really good

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, I was feeling walking into Avatar: The Way of Water. When we revisited the original film on The Weekly Stuff Podcast in September, I described my main takeaway as ‘a bad script brilliantly directed,’ putting a bit more emphasis on the ‘brilliantly directed’ part given how aesthetically bankrupt Hollywood blockbusters have for the most part become in the years since its release. The ‘bad script’ part absolutely shouldn’t be overlooked, of course; it’s a film with ludicrously thin characterizations, often laughably terrible dialogue, and a ‘white savior’ narrative so extreme and overbearing it makes past Hollywood ventures into this territory, like Dances With Wolves, look positively sober and progressive. But it’s a film that imagines and executes on a greater creative scale than virtually anything else the industry is capable of these days, and even though I’m sometimes on the less enthusiastic side when it comes to James Cameron – I think the original Terminator and Titanic are genuine masterpieces, but I’m less high on Aliens and Terminator 2 than most – I’m never going to deny that he’s one of the most formidably capable cinematic craftsman in the media’s history. There’s plenty of good raw material in that first Avatar to mine for a sequel, and especially with this second film heading to Pandora’s oceans – underwater-aficionado Cameron’s home turf – I was cautiously optimistic The Way of Water might be something special. 

In short: It absolutely is.


Not perfectly so. The sequel inherits a few of its predecessor’s problems, and the first hour in particular is more bogged down in narrative throat-clearing than it should be, tying itself a bit too directly to the events of the first film when the pieces are in place for a cleaner break. But it also inherits all of its predecessor’s strengths, focuses in on them, and dials each up to 11. This is a ridiculously beautiful movie, a VFX spectacle dropped in from an alternate reality where CGI, compositing, and motion capture all got steadily better over the last 13 years, instead of rapidly devolving under the influence of Marvel. Cameron and company conjure a steady stream of images that are consistently among the most stunning this industry has ever produced, building to wildly imaginative set-pieces that, even viewed in good ol’ fashioned 2D, are absolute out-of-body experiences. The almost incomprehensibly deep world-building done for the first film is cranked up here, but with a much more interesting side of Pandora to explore, and all in service of a story and characters we really care about, with a thematic intent that lands its punches to a degree nothing in that first film could ever muster. 


The most immediate difference here is that characterization is dramatically improved across the board. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, seen here for the first time since…Wrath of the Titans? Is that what that sequel was called?) is still a problematic protagonist – more on that in a bit, as it remains this film’s single greatest flaw – but one suspects Cameron and his creative team are at least sort of aware of this issue, as both he and Neytiri (an underused Zoe Saldaña, who is, as always, extraordinary when given the space to act) are heavily deemphasized in favor of a narrative that’s really about the ‘second-generation’ characters: Jake and Neytiri’s children, native-born and adopted, and the children of another chieftain the Sully family meets on their travels. This is a much better ensemble of characters than our heroes from the first film – that they’re all actually wearing the skin they were born in, instead of inhabiting the cloned body of a colonized alien race, certainly helps! – and perhaps because Cameron is working with an entire writer’s room this time instead of flying solo (consisting of Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno), they’re all written as much more interesting, fleshed-out characters, whose voices are more rich and diverse than the ‘meathead from a passed-over 90s action script’ voice that defined everyone the first time out. It’s a coming-of-age story, essentially, with the kids all working to find their place in the world and with each other, and while it’s never doing anything revolutionary – Jake’s kids feel like outcasts, his second son feels overshadowed by his heroic big brother, etc. – it executes what it’s reaching for extremely well, and with a real sense of heart. The last act in particular shifts from having the parents rescue the kids to having the kids rescue their parents, and there’s a feeling of culmination and growth that’s immensely satisfying, Cameron executing on the big archetypal character beats with the kind of skill previously seen in Terminator 2 or Titanic. This film, like its predecessor, builds to a big emotional climax where one character looks another in the eyes and says the customary Na’vi phrase “I see you”; where it’s a bit of an eye-roller in the original Avatar, it damn near jerked tears out of me this time, and I know I wasn’t the only one in my viewing party feeling the same way. 


Most importantly, The Way of Water makes visceral an ideal that was very much central to the first film, but never felt fully realized due to the overbearing white savior tropes and shoddy writing and characterization: That violence against nature is violence, full stop, and that because we are a part of nature, it is, inevitably, violence against our own bodies and spirits. The ‘Home Tree’ destruction at the end of the first film’s second act is, on a production level, the highlight of the original Avatar, a wholly immersive apocalyptic sequence where the heart of this intricately crafted, well-explored fictional landscape is brought burning down. The scale and execution of it is humbling, and while I would never go so far as to say it feels ‘perfunctory,’ the fact that we’re seeing this tragedy mainly through the eyes of a white (hu)man in a native person/alien’s skin-suit blunts the impact of it. We aren’t made to feel the loss of the tree as the Na’vi – for whom it is the center of their world – feel it, but as Jake, an empathetic outsider with severe (white) guilt over his role in its destruction, feels it.


The Way of Water shifts from the forest to the sea, and makes two key moves in making the eventual violence enacted against this biome by the human antagonists feel real: First, the film is just incredibly skillful at introducing us to this environment and the way the Na’vi live symbiotically with it. Many of the same ideas seen in the first film return here, like the Na’vi linking their minds and spirits to local creatures via their magical braids (that sounds silly when I type it, but it’s probably my favorite conceit in these movies), and in lesser hands it could easily feel repetitive. It instead feels incredibly fresh, both because the cast is a lot more compelling – having native Na’vi teenagers learn their way around their world is substantially more appealing than watching Jake learn the ropes while working as a double agent for the Marines – and because Cameron is, obviously, a certified maniac for this stuff. It’s no secret the man has spent several fortunes and decades of time researching, exploring, and documenting the depths of the earth’s oceans – he’s spent more time in the 2000s as an oceanographer than a filmmaker – and there’s a degree of creativity, detail, and overwhelmingly palpable passion on display here that surpasses even the best of what the original Avatar had to offer with its (admittedly very cool) bioluminescent forest. 


Second: It makes the whales characters, and they fucking rock.


OK, so technically they’re not whales – they’re Tulkun – but the major thread of the film’s second half involves the Sully family going up against humans hunting the Tulkun for profit, and it’s a fight we’re fully on board for because these whales are incredible. The film really kicks into gear for me with an extended sequence where Jake’s son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton, giving a wonderfully raw adolescent performance through the motion capture) is saved from an underwater predator by the whale Payakan, who he then bonds with as a real friend. The scene is mostly wordless, and it’s one of the most extraordinary things Cameron has ever directed, an incredible feat of visual storytelling that is beautiful and heartfelt and shockingly moving. Payakan and the other Tulkun are amazing visual designs, but moreover, they’re fully-realized characters; they even speak, sort of, with Papyrus-shaped subtitles of their own (yup, 13 years later and Cameron will part with Papyrus when you pry it out of his cold, dead hands). When the interstellar whalers start going after the local Tulkun – this film’s equivalent of the Home Tree destruction – it hurts, viscerally, immediately, painfully. There’s not only a sense of this being real, embodied violence, but a sort of spiritual transgression, an almost biblical evil being unleashed on the environment and on these creatures. It’s the point Avatar always wanted to make, I think, the righteous ecological furor Cameron always wanted to channel in this universe, and it comes alive here to a degree that when the Na’vi finally start fighting back, there’s a catharsis to the action that practically begs the audience to start cheering. In the world of Avatar, eco-terrorism isn’t just virtuous – it’s heroic. And in the big climactic battle, Payakan even takes center stage as the hero leading the charge. He’s such an effective, creative combatant that I think I have a new favorite cinematic superhero; that he’s shaped like a big nonverbal space whale only makes him cooler. 


There are no words to properly describe what a stunning VFX achievement Cameron and the artists at New Zealand’s Weta Workshop have pulled off in The Way of Water. As with the first film, even though the finished images are primarily animated, Cameron shoots every inch of this thing like it’s live-action, aiming for a sense of immersive verisimilitude as though he and the crew actually took camera into space, landed on this planet, and started rolling. It remains remarkable how often the first film achieved that goal; it is another degree of miracle entirely to look at The Way of Water and find oneself unable to pinpoint a single moment where the illusion is anything less than all-encompassing. The film is a parade of light and color and motion and texture, Cameron setting the majority of the action against the most difficult, demanding backdrops VFX artists can encounter. Water is hard, but water making contact with fully CG-characters, for hours on end? Nobody’s ever attempted anything like this. And yet the end product looks almost effortless. If you somehow didn’t know Na’vi were fictional – if you’d lived in the woods all your life, and then you came into civilization, and you made friends with a prankster who decided to make you believe that some people were actually tall and blue, and then showed you images from this movie – I honestly think you’d be fooled. 


Cameron throws every challenge at his crew that he can conceive of, and there are apparently no limits. The last 2 hours of this film take place almost entirely in, around, or under water, and every inch of it looks stunning. Moreover, the set pieces Cameron imagines here are insane, practically delirious symphonies of finely interwoven motion and mayhem – again, all in or around water – and I think it’s the best action he’s ever directed, all of it surprising and thrilling and increasingly tense, but also playful and creative in a way that recalls George Miller and Mad Max as much as it does prior Cameron productions. That the VFX are capable of some of the images or action beats Cameron dreams up here is positively jaw-dropping. I wrote earlier that this film feels like it feels like it fell from an alternate dimension, but in truth it feels like it’s from the far-off future; if you, like me, have grown up following the development of digital effects, not just in movies but just as importantly in video games, The Way of Water feels like a significant breakthrough in what is artistically possible with existing technology, a landmark visual text everything playing in or around this space will be compared to for a long time to come. 


When you put it all together – the winning young ensemble, the amazing environments, the out-of-body action sequences, and the goddamn whales – I’m tempted to say the last two hours of The Way of Water are my favorite thing James Cameron has ever created, or at least up there in the same league as The Terminator and Titanic. I say the last two hours, specifically, because the first hour is where The Way of Water is at its slowest and clumsiest; it picks up over a decade past the end of the first Avatar, but is a surprisingly direct sequel to that movie, with the humans returning for Colonization 2: Here We Go Again, and even the previous film’s villain being resurrected in a new body. Going into the film, I was hoping we’d maybe just leave humanity behind entirely, and while the film eventually sold me on the necessity of keeping Earth’s denizens around as antagonistic foils, there is an awful lot of throat-clearing needed to get from Point A (the humans return!) to Point B (Jake and his family leave the forest to live amongst the Reef people). Some of that involves the return of the aforementioned lead villain, Col. Miles Quaritch, which I ultimately think is a boon to the film; Stephen Lang gave easily the best performance in the first Avatar, and he’s no less committed here, but with a far more nuanced and thought-provoking version of the character, Quaritch’s memories and personality having been transplanted into a Na’vi body. It’s a compelling, deeply weird sci-fi concept the film takes surprisingly rich advantage of – a sequence where Na’vi Quaritch finds his desiccated human body in the jungle is an early highlight – and one of the threads I’m most interested to see pulled in future sequels, as it feels like Cameron and his team have opened up a shockingly rich arc here for the character to follow.


The bigger problem, for me, is Jake Sully himself: Both that he hasn’t gotten significantly more interesting since the first film (he still talks like the playable character in a particularly cheesy 90s FMV game), and that he is an unconscionable coward in this movie, to a degree that I think the film is only partially aware of. The act 1 to act 2 transition – the moment the characters move from the forest to the sea – is the messiest part of The Way of Water, primarily because of how awful it makes Jake look. His reasoning is that Quaritch and the humans are looking for him, specifically, so the further away he and his family get, the safer everyone will be. This is patently ridiculous, of course, as it involves Jake abandoning the forest tribe that so graciously took him in with a giant human colonization effort right on their doorstep; and because Pandora is a relatively small place – it’s a moon, technically, not even a full-fledged planet – where the Sully family would inevitably be found eventually (and make every place they go a target). Now, in principle, none of these issues need to be problems for the movie; characters are allowed to make mistakes, and if the point of the film was Jake having to come to grips with his unconscionable cowardice and make a significant change in perspective, then so be it. The film pays lip service to this idea in its final moments, but it’s too little too late, after Jake’s actions have resulted in the deaths of at least one whale family, the destruction of at least one village, and other losses I probably shouldn’t spoil here. I think the film wants us to view Jake’s actions as logical, if not necessarily righteous, when in truth they are neither. A cleaner, simpler, shorter version of this film could have dispensed with most of the first hour and had Jake and company flee the forest as soon as the humans invade, instead of sticking around for a year to organize an entire armed resistance they then abandon at the drop of a hat. 


But the more I write and think about this film, the less I find myself caring about these issues. Jake isn’t the center of The Way of Water – his kids are, and they’re better than anything the film brings over from its predecessor. This is a bigger, smarter, more thrilling, more beautiful, more moving experience than the original Avatar provided 13 years ago, and if it isn’t perfect, its problems feel surprisingly small in comparison to every wonder this sequel has to offer. First act hiccups not withstanding, I even think this is a significantly better paced film than the original, it’s 3+ hours flying by much faster than the 2.5 hours of the first film, and even at its clumsiest, the film is never anything less than supremely watchable. 2009’s Avatar, for all its commercial success, wasn’t creatively rich enough to sustain a franchise, and you’d be forgiven for feeling baffled at the scope of Cameron’s plans for continuing the adventure (the count of planned sequels is, at this point, up to a whopping four, with the next already filmed and planned for release in 2024). The Way of Water isn’t at all sequel-bait-y – the film tells a fully self-contained story that is perfectly satisfying on its own merits, a refreshing change of pace in the increasingly Marvel-dominated Hollywood landscape – but after seeing it, I’m ready to spend as much time in Pandora as Cameron and his collaborators think necessary. There’s magic at work in this film, and if there’s more of it on the way, then I think I can finally say I’m properly excited at the prospect of more Avatar. 


I know. I’m just as surprised as you are. 

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