Cameron’s Sequel to the Biggest Movie of all time Scales down the Focus of the Story While Widening the epic World it is Based in.
DIRECTED BY: JAMES CAMERON/2022
James Cameron debuted Avatar 13 years ago, in 2009. The film went on to dethrone his previous film, Titanic (1997), to become the biggest box office film of all time (briefly losing it to Avengers: Endgame in 2019 before regaining it). For 13 years, Cameron has teased that sequels were coming, but first he had to work on some of the technology needed to bring it all alive. An innovator from the start, Cameron has always continually pushed the envelope on what he could achieve visually. This was evident with The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), but it was on The Abyss (1989) that he began working with George Lucas’ company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which helped him begin to realize how to practically use emerging technologies to be able to put the vision he had in his mind up on the screen.
He followed up that partnership with ILM with the groundbreaking effects seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and then 6 years later brought his passion project to life, which was Titanic. Twelve years later he developed his most ambitious project yet in Avatar. While its plot was very reminiscent of other works, being accused of being hybrids of Disney’s Pocahontas to Fern Gully and even Dragon Riders, Avatar was a visual epic unlike anything seen before. All of these years later, would a sequel be able to push those technological boundaries even further?
Many have wondered why it took 13 years to get a sequel to the screen. Time Magazine had a wonderful article, “Why Avatar 2 Took So Long“, by Eliana Dockterman (12.6.22), documenting the obsession Cameron had with the sea, even building a submarine to allow him to set the record for descending the 6.8 miles into the Mariana Trench solo. He filmed these with IMAX cameras, waiting to incorporate some of that footage into the future sequels. Summarizing the Time article: As he began developing this world of Pandora, he took the time to truly world build. Years were spent designing new biomes of Pandora, including the vegetation, customs and wardrobes of new peoples and characters, and more. The most important thing though was for Cameron to help develop new cameras that would allow him to film underwater using the same motion-capture they use out of water. He wasn’t satisfied with applying CGI after filming characters out of water so that they would look like they were in the water. Everything had to be captured so that it would look like it would look if it was in the water. That meant, filming under water and applying post-production artificial intelligence through the visual effects company Weta Digital, which worked with Peter Jackson on Lord of the Rings and They Shall Not Grow Old, among others. He also filmed part 2 and 3 simultaneously, which took nearly 3 years to complete.
All of the time James Cameron spent developing the world of Pandora and the technology to film it has truly paid off in bringing us back into the magical world of Pandora with mind-blowing visuals that are some of the best things ever committed to film. Again, Cameron has been able to fulfil the vision he has in his mind’s eye and bring it to life on the screen to wow audiences and transport them to this fictional land. As the film opens, viewers are quickly caught up on what took place in the original film and what has transpired in the 13 years since the “sky people” left Pandora, following the conclusion of the first film. We are taken back through the familiar landscapes of the Hallelujah “Hanging” Mountains, the lush forests, as we are introduced to the children that have been born to Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
When the humans return to take back their bases, and their desire to loot the resources of this planet to save themselves from a dying Earth, they are also looking to eliminate Jake (who was once a former Marine that became a full-fledged Na’vi through the adaptation of his Na’vi Avatar), who led the Na’vi in rebellion against the “Sky People” in order to protect their land and way of life. Leading the hunt to eliminate Jake, Neytiri, and their family, is Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the Colonel killed at the end of Avatar. How he is back from the dead, along with how Sigourney Weaver is back as a new character, Kiri, is explained rather easily through the narrative, and provides a sense of the gang being back together again.
While Avatar was an epic tale that painted in broad strokes, introducing us to the Na’vi through Jake’s fish-out-of-water interactions with Neytiri, who taught him the language and customs of her people, against the backdrop of the scientific vs. militarized and corporate goals Jake originally came to Pandora to carry out, it made quite a large epic adventure. For Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron has scaled down the story to that of a family who goes on the run so that the larger tribe doesn’t pay for the wrath of Quaritch and the Sky People towards Jake and Neytiri. In doing so, however, Cameron is able to expand the world of Pandora, while telling a much smaller story, which keeps the narrative grounded in the familiar.
Seeing this film in Dolby3D on the biggest screen possible is the way this film is meant to be seen. The underwater shots are breathtaking. Simply put, they are leagues beyond what was accomplished in the first film. Without any sense of motion sickness, the 3D works seamlessly to give the viewer the experience of being underwater with motion, sights, and sounds, that feel authentic, all without having to get wet. The motion-capture on the facial expressions of the Na’vi, and the details that are visible on these characters are also well beyond the 2009 original. This is evident in the opening shot, just studying the face of the Na’vi who appears, from their cracked lips, to tiny hairs on their arm or neck when either being blown by the wind, or moving with the movement of the water when they are submerged.
A new type of Na’vi are also introduced, with Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis serving as this new tribe’s leaders Ronal and Tonowari, respectfully. If you haven’t guessed, this new Na’vi tribe are not the forest dwelling, Ikran (dragon) flying type that Neytiri is from, but one that lives amongst the creatures of the water. As Jake and Neytiri and their children are a family on the run, we are provided a slightly different fish-out-of-water story for our protagonists, while a completely different one plays out for our antagonists Quaritch and a few of his fellow Marines, as they are hunting Jake and his family.
Some of the complaints one is bound to hear about Avatar: The Way of Water is that the narrative depth is lacking in a film that registers at 3 hours and 12 minutes long. Several plot threads are introduced, but not resolved, including some that are introduced in the last 30 minutes of the film. Try not to be bothered by this. Cameron is introducing them, fully knowing that they will be answered in the next installment, and beyond.
The story here is meant to be smaller, namely how does one protect one’s family. Fathers and sons is a key theme, as is immigration, grief, loss, greed, environmental responsibility, struggling to feel wanted vs. an outcast, and legacy. Through it all, we are told, flows the “Way of Water”, the connective tissue through all living things. If you are open to waiting another 2 years or so for some questions to be addressed, then you will find that this story flows quite nicely. The 3 hour and 12 minute run time wasn’t even noticed, despite there being only about 3 major action set pieces involving the Scully family and their Sky People enemies. A lot of this is a testament to the world building Cameron is doing visually, and a shifting of focus from Jake and Neytiri, to that of their children. Knowing Jake and Neytiri’s story from the first Avatar allows this shift of focus to complement what we already know, bringing the complete picture of their family into focus.
More could probably have been done to deepen some of the characters on the periphery, namely the two scientists who stayed behind in Avatar as they were loyal to the Na’vi, but I’m also willing to put that judgement aside until we see future installments. As James Cameron already has scripts for Avatar 4 and 5, and treatments for Avatar parts 6-8, he is pretty settled and focused on the story he is wanting to bring to life, having already storyboarded parts 2-4 before filming Avatar: The Way of Water. How much of his full story we get to see, however, is dependent on a box office that is much different from the landscape that existed when Avatar debuted in 2009. Following Covid, overall box office is no where close to what it had been prior to 2020.
With a few films starting to emerge into box office successes (Top Gun: Maverick and Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever), the test will be if Avatar: The Way of Water helps lead a cinematic renaissance, ensuring more tales from Pandora, or if the threshold to earn its massive budget back sinks the chances of any return trips beyond the already-filmed third installment? James Cameron is a man with a vision who has always seen his films find great success despite the odds against it. Let’s see if Avatar: The Way of Water continues that trend. I am pulling for him. He is a visionary film maker that makes films that demand a cinematic viewing, and this is definitely one of those films. See it on the biggest 3D screen possible. Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual masterclass.