Best Picture Showcase: Avatar: The Way of Water
James Cameron Further Proves Himself as the King of Sequels With His Long-Awaited Return to Pandora
If the Babylon finale taught us anything, it’s that film has come a long way since the simple shorts of the Lumière Brothers. What began simply as thin strips of plastic held against illumination transformed into an art form that changed the world. Then along came splicing, sound, and color, expansions that revolutionized how we told and conveyed stories. And with each evolution came a slew of monumental epics that redefined what could be put on screen. Unlikely films like Casper The Friendly Ghost and Young Sherlock Holmes implemented the first use of CG characters, while more popular feats like The Matrix and Antz introduced new features such as bullet-time slow motion and elemental VFX. Yes, film has come a long way since Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, and no movie perfectly shows this quite like Avatar: The Way of Water.
Coming off a thirteen-year wait, many wondered if Avatar still had the appeal it did back in 2009 during its monumental box-office run. I mean, even for a 2.7 billion dollar making film, thirteen years is a long time to wait for a simple follow-up. Would people still care about the Na’vi and the world of Pandora? And if they did, would it be enough to get them back into a theatre after a rocky few years pacified with streaming and VOD? But with 2 billion and counting, audiences have responded to Avatar: The Way of Water with a resounding yes. And it sure deserves it.
Mirroring real life, Avatar: The Way of Water picks up thirteen years after the events of the first film. Jake Sully, now fully integrated with the Na’vi culture and recognized as Toruk Makto, has formed a family with his love Ney’tiri. Their days are spent tending to their kin, while their nights are filled with endless wonder and awe as they take flight on their mountain banshees, gliding over the luscious color and vibrant atmosphere of Pandora. It’s only when a familiar threat returns to finish what was once started that Jake and his family are forced to leave their clan and find a new place to call home. From here, we’re introduced to a new side of the world of Pandora, this time on the waterfront.
Much like the first entry, Avatar: The Way of Water spends a substantial amount of time world-building, immersing viewers into a world that’s fully realized and appropriately rendered (unlike some other CGI-driven blockbusters). And while most of this exposition could be trimmed down, it’s ultimately justified through the introduction of the Metkayina clan, a water-based tribe that takes in the Sully family. Just as he did for the Omaticaya clan in the original, Cameron crafts the Metkayina with a distinct touch, allowing them intimate moments of interpersonal conflict that make the tribe feel real and believable. And if this wasn’t enough, Cameron also juggles the introduction of this pivotal tribe with that of Jake and Ney’tiri’s children. All four (technically five with human-born Spider) of the Sully children are fully fleshed out, each with their own distinct personality filled with different faults and motivations. While other films often make a mess of their younger characters, Way of Water feels refreshing as it supplies its adolescents with enough depth and meaning for audiences to care about their dissensions and tribulations just as much as the central conflict.
But as the story of Avatar attempts to tread deeper and deeper into its thematic material, it always comes up short, like a one-note piece that beats you over the head with its central melody. Even in all its beauty and wonder, the film’s emotion feels forced, its conflicts contrived and formulaic. Yes, Cameron dazzles with countless awe-inspiring set pieces and shots, but there’s no denying the lack of substance underneath all the visual flare. But the director brings enough action and thrill to compensate for his lack of significance, at least for this critic.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a milestone of a film that will be marked for years to come, no matter how much Twitter hate it receives. It’s one that thrills and wows, providing us with the ultimate escapism. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was witnessing the dawn of a modern-day Star Wars. Something that pushes the boundaries of visual storytelling and transcends the viewer to a world unlike any they’ve seen before. No matter what you take away from Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, you can’t help but sit in amazement at the sheer spectacle of it all. I, myself, can’t wait for the next outing in the world of Pandora.