Title:Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) Director: James Cameron Writers: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet
Many of us were swept off our feet when the original Avatar first glittered across the cinema screens back in 2009. The film revolutionized the special effects and use of 3D at the time and would be considered years ahead of everything else being shown back then; It was the start of James Cameron’s epos, a masterwork of world-building and science fiction and a bullhorn for his stance on climate protection and indigenous rights.
And surprising absolutely no one back then, the film came with the added political and ideological discussions. Even today, it is hard to discuss Avatar without discussing climate change. And for those engaged in climate change, it could be incredibly satisfying to watch three-meter-tall Na’vi (the indigenous species on the planet Pandora) kick the crap out of trigger-happy mercenaries and greedy capitalists bent on destroying nature in search of profit. Avatar‘s final confrontation, where the planet itself turns against the invading humans, inspired cheers and tears in equal measure in cinemas around the world.
However, not everyone was convinced by James Cameron’s new science fiction universe. Some would call his enthusiasm for climate protection and indigenous rights a politically motivated obsession, and true enough, the Avatar‘s themes aren’t exactly subtle. And in this new sequel, his focus is squarely aimed at oceans and marine life. The film’s unsubtle criticism against whaling, for instance, a practice sadly still legal in my home country of Norway, is as harsh as it can be.
If you watched the theatrical rerelease of the first Avatar in the months before the release of its sequel, you might have noticed a small added confrontation at the very end of the film. As the greedy industrialist Parker Selfridge (played by Giovanni Ribisi) is being escorted to the transport ship that will take him off Pandora, he manages one last attempt at intimidation: “You know this isn’t over.” I’m not sure if this scene was shot for the original film or later, but it says something about James Cameron’s tenacity and, yes, obsession. This isn’t over. Cameron has a whole series of these films coming.
During my recent stay in Wellington, New Zealand, I was invited to Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post Production for a very early screening of Avatar: The Way of Water. It was the post-production facility where the film was finalized for release, and watching it there with some of the people who had worked on it for so long was quite extraordinary. But when the film started, I realized how happy I was that it wasn’t over. The first Avatar was just a taste of Pandora. This felt like the main course!
Because in Avatar: The Way of Water, everything from the first film is dialed up to 11!
So let’s go back to Pandora. Avatar: The Way of Water picks up the story some ten years after the first film. Formerly a crippled marine, Jake Sully now lives as a member of the Na’vi after permanently transferring his consciousness to his avatar body. He now lives a happy family life with his love, Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldaña) and their kids. The idyll is complete, as the Na’vi lives in harmony with their environment, the planet itself and its representation, the nature deity Eywa.
But good things can’t last, it seems, and Parker Selfridge’s words were true. This isn’t over. And as a new star appears in the sky, human ships arrive in fire and destruction, burning whole swathes of the pristine jungle to set up their stronghold. They are not here to mine the hilariously named “unobtainium” this time. Now they are here to conquer. The natives are to be pacified, so the exploitation of Pandora can continue.
War is the only answer, and yet again, Na’vi and humans are going at it. And if there was any doubt in the first film which side we were to take, in some sort for “Team Na’vi” or “Team Human”, that’s all put aside now. The humans are the bad guys in this narrative. They are the alien invaders coming to take the planet. Even more, than in the first Avatar, the human forces are presented as cynical, greedy and violent to the point of caricature. But when it is backed up by near-perfect world-building, it is easy to believe in it.
Some of the main criticisms against the first Avatar were that the story itself was simple and unrefined and borrowed heavily from other sources. It seemed like director James Cameron was experimenting with a ridiculously high budget at the time and wanted to make something familiar. It worked for most of us, and despite the simple story, we were amazed by how Pandora came alive in front of our eyes. But over a decade of development and planning, the now confident (some would say over-confident) James Cameron is ready to tell us a much deeper and more nuanced story than what came before.
The themes this time around, besides the all-important ones about the protection of climate, are family and retribution. When it becomes known that the brutal Colonel Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) is back in his own avatar body, Jake Sully is forced to run with his family to protect his Na’vi clan. The journey takes them out towards the coast and the islands, where they must become a part of the island clan Na’vi and learn their ways to earn protection.
But Quaritch and his team of commandos in avatar bodies are on the hunt, and soon Jake must face his own enemy to protect his family and the society they have become a part of.
The first thing you will notice when watching Avatar: The Way of Water is how breathtakingly beautiful it is. It seems almost unreal – or the better word would be real – what James Cameron and his Lightstorm Entertainment have achieved with the help of New Zealand’s Wētā Workshop, Wētā FX and many other companies. Ten years of development make this film, or experience, stand out from everything. When it comes to visual effects, nothing today comes even close.
The state-of-the-art motion capture technology used in Avatar: The Way of Water makes it easy to forget that you are watching digitally created characters. It is also very evident that James Cameron and his team of world-builders have spent a significant amount of time building out their Avatar universe down to the smallest detail. The world feels so much more alive than in most other science fiction.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a visually fantastic experience set in a living, breathing science-fiction universe. With this film, it is clear that James Cameron wants to take the cinema experience to the next level, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it paves the way for a new era in 3D filmmaking, for better or worse. What is certain is that if you want to watch this, do it on the largest screen you can find, and make sure you have 3D glasses firmly placed on your nose when you do so.
Avatar: The Way of Water is the movie for those of us who have missed Pandora. Welcome back!