After more than a decade, coming back to the fantastical world of Avatar feels like a throwback to different times. It’s not only been some time since James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic but also many years since I’ve seen a film with 3D glasses and an increased framerate. I settled in and got used to the cumbersome glasses covering my prescription glasses. Slowly, Cameron once more works the magic many have come to associate with the director, who always goes big with what he throws on the IMAX screen.
Cameron expands on the world of Pandora in a way that goes beyond the superficial and overused theme of imperialism. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has become a part of the Na’vi blue creatures by permanently taking residence in his avatar body and assuming the role of his tribe’s leader. In addition to leading his people, he also leads a family of many children with his wife Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldaña). Some are his own, and some are adopted, as with the teenage Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Some are even human, like the orphaned Spider (Jack Champion).
The planet of Pandora once more finds itself facing familiar problems. The human race has returned to mine the planet’s resources again and attack the locals, this time with much greater efficiency and aggression. More avatars are present within the attacking humans, once more led by the vindictive Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). You might recall he bit the dust in the last film, but sometimes evil that vicious never dies. Of course, Miles has it out for Jake and goes against all orders to exact his brutal vengeance.
While the conflict seems familiar, the thematic focus has a new coat of paint. There’s a constant concern about acceptance and diversity among the humans and Na’vi tribes of Pandora. Jake seems to be doing the right thing by expanding his family and reaching across cultures. He’ll have to face a much tougher battle of ensuring the next generation won’t be bound by hatred and discrimination, lest they end up as terrible as Miles. The multi-arc narrative allows for multiple characters to develop well, including one Na’vi who has a mental disorder but is loved enough to blossom and become an essential part of her tribe.
In what I’m sure is not a surprise to those familiar with the director, Cameron spends much of this movie underwater. We get to spend a lot of time witnessing the majesty of a Na’vi water tribe and how they interact with ocean lifeforms. These many underwater sequences are gorgeous; Cameron lets us drink it all in. This is the type of film where the teenage alien creatures can delight in swimming among colorful fishes and maybe take a moment to admire the lights flickering above the water’s surface. A lesser film might’ve tarnished these scenes by having characters remark on how pretty this all looks. Cameron doesn’t need to waste such words in a visual treat. This wondrous world doesn’t need an exclamation point to prove it.
Running over three hours, The Way of Water is a heavy investment of time, but the freewheeling format works for how long it goes. As the film continues with its scenes of learning about the tribes and lingering on such subplots of helping a whale-like creature with an injury, the world of Pandora feels enticing and transcendent. Cameron’s richly defined world is given so much detail and texture that it’s fun to get lost in the visual splendor. For a major blockbuster to take time out of its expected action to have so many quiet moments of absorbing this sci-fi world’s lighter side is a real treat.
Those expecting some action won’t be disappointed by the film’s explosive fourth act. In the same way that Cameron favors the natural qualities of underwater life, he is right at home in sequences involving giant airships, mechanical crab suits, and lots of gunfire and explosions. Naturally, the environmental message still carries as the film identifies the deforestation and animal-hunting profiteers as the easy-to-read villains. This also leads to a rather comically violent death for one greedy poacher who has it coming so badly.
The Way of Water has familiar shades of the first Avatar film but enough eye-popping special effects and compelling arcs to more than warrant a return. There’s much more to explore within Cameron’s complex world of the fantastical that he doesn’t harp on all the same beats or dazzling sights. While perhaps not as mindblowing as the trailblazing first movie turned out to be, Pandora still feels like a cinematic world that is vibrantly colorful and stunning enough to get lost within for hours. After so many years since its predecessor, it was refreshing to feel Cameron’s magic on the screen, presenting a film that can be as beautiful with creatures as chaotic with mech suits.