A stunning visual spectacle, as expected. But does the story match up with the eye-popping CGI?
Last week I wrote an article titled I Love ‘Avatar’ and Haters Can Choke. An aggressive response to a nearly decade and a half of people unfairly singling out James Cameron’s 2009 smash hit, and beating it over the head for its supposed lack of originality, simplistic story, or sometimes for no reason whatsoever.
Avatar haters really are a special breed. Filled with glib self-righteousness, dismissive of the titanic efforts that went into making the groundbreaking special effects, all while ignoring the scores of big dumb sci-fi/action franchise films like Transformers, Star Wars, or 80% of Marvel products, that don’t even possess half the technical precision, directorial vision, much less box office gross of the Pandora-set film.
Frankly, I get second-hand embarassment just thinking about them.
But we’re not here to talk about those with clearly lesser-developed frontal lobes. We’re here to talk about the monumental, long, looong-delayed sequel, that’s just finally premiered this week. We’re here to discuss Avatar: The Way of Water.
AWOW, as I call it, (which is pronounced “Hey, wow!” by the way) starts off over a decade after the events of the original film. Jake Sully, now a full-bodied Na’vi member, having transferred his consciousness into his avatar form with the help of Eywa in the first film, is married to Neytiri, and has a growing brood. This includes Neteyam, his eldest son, their second son Lo’ak, and “Tuk,” their youngest daughter. 14-year old Kiri, born of an apparent immaculate conception from Grace Augustine’s avatar body, and played by Sigourney Weaver, and Spider, a human male, and son of Colonel Quaritch, are the family’s adoptive son and daughter.
Unlike the first film, where Jake only had his own safety to be concerned with, now he has a family to worry about. So when humans in powerful warships descend from the sky over Pandora to recontinue their quest for the planet’s minerals, he must balance his role as a protector of the tribe, with a protector of his immediate family. At first he’s able to make this arrangement work. He leads the Omatikaya clan in derailing (literally) a train system, stealing weapons and supplies to be used against further encroachment of the “sky people.”
However, it isn’t long before an old enemy resurfaces, who has made this restarted colonization process a personal matter rather than one staking the future of a dying earth, and Jake is forced to go on the run with his family. Leaving their home in the forest, Jake leads his wife and children to the Metkayina clan, who live near the ocean, in harmony with the vibrant aquatic life forms. But Colonel Quaritch, now reincarnated in an avatar body, but with all of the old soldier’s maliciousness, eventually catches up to the Marine that betrayed him, leading to an explosive (and watery) showdown.
Visually, this film is a masterpiece, of course. It’s even unprecedented, despite being a continuation of the original. It makes 2009’s Avatar look like an early 2000s Playstation game (Resident Evil: Nemesis, anyone?), even though Avatar’s CGI still looks pretty good, or better, than films made in the past five years. It all goes without saying that Cameron has raised the bar again, having pioneered underwater mocap suits for AWOW. See it in 3D and IMAX and it’s as transportive as the original, maybe even more so. There are sequences that just look impossible. Cameron sought to create a cinematic spectacle that was like “dreaming with your eyes wide open,” and he certainly pulled it off. Except while dreams are usually chaotic and messy, Way of Water is a focused, entertaining spectacle of the highest order.
All that said, what about the story? While I’ve defended the original as vigorously as an attorney who knows his client is innocent, it’d be the height of intellectual dishonesty not to acknowledge the film’s shortcomings. The Godfather, it is not. But then, no four-quadrant tentpole science-fiction/action/fantasy that costs a quarter million to produce is either. It’s a simple story told on a vast stage, which is what most of your big budget spectacle films try to do.
However, there is a noticable upgrade when it comes to nuance, in the character work and plot of AWOW, versus the original. People who liked the first but left wanting a little more, will likely be satisfied with this latest sequel.
In fact, some of that extra narrrative weight actually proves the film’s weakness, as well as its strength. In AWOW, Cameron does something I don’t think he’s ever done before in any of his films. That is, balance a large central cast filled with intricate relationships. This is a story about a family, not about a man (Sully), as in the original. Sometimes Jake recedes to the background in favor of his colorfully characterized children, only to resurface when needed. Neytiri almost fades away after the mid-point, only to come back powerfully at the climax. Almost all of Cameron’s films involve a single, central relationship. In The Terminator, it’s Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. In Aliens, it’s Ripley and 8-year old Newt, the lone surviving colonist. In T2, he steps it up with John Connor and the good T-800, and John and his mother, Sarah. Titanic it’s Jack and Rose. In Avatar, it’s Jake and the Omatikaya, and Jake and Neytiri.
In AWOW, there is no one central relationship to steamline the story. There are like five interwoven ones. Jake and his overall role as patriarch to his family and husband to Neytiri. Jake and his relationship to his “disappointing” second oldest son, Lo’ak. Lo’ak, and his relationship to Payakan, a whale-like creature. Kiri, and her spiritual relationship to Eywa. And lastly, Spider, and his relationship to his sorta father Quaritch.
It’s all pretty big and cumbersome. Almost unwieldy, were it not for the film’s monstrous 3 hour and 12 minute running time. Cameron gives ample space for most of the major plot threads. Though some are no sooner started than minimized to background noise. For instance, after Spider is captured by Quaritch and his avatar-embodied marines, he largely disappears, save for a few short sequences, until the film’s final fight. Meanwhile, Lo’ak encounters the friendly and misunderstood Payakan, while Kiri explores her abilities to connect with the planet’s maternal entity, Eywa. Most of the threads come together for proper payoffs, save for Kiri’s epileptic reaction to plugging in to Eywa. It’s stated by human medics that if the teenager attempts to access the spirit mother again, she could die, in an apparent set-up to a future sacrificial moment. But this never comes comes to fruition, and is never mentioned again.
All of these relationships in AWOW are meant to reflect the bigger theme — which is mankind’s relationship with nature itself. This film is a “love letter to the ocean,” as Cameron puts it. More specifically, it’s a calling to be more mindful of what we put in the ocean, and in our environment. Reinforcing that theme is the appearance of a cruel, Captain Ahab-like character, who’s hunting Tulkuns (Payakan’s species) for their highly valuable brain fluid, which can evidently “stop aging” in its tracks. Though one wonders why humans would want to live forever on a “dying planet.” The metaverse must be significantly improved to Matrix-like levels in the future earth of Avatar.
While it’s possible sequels will resolve some of the missing links in AWOW’s great chain of relationships and plot points, it’s fair to say that this latest film is a ten-pound story stuffed into a five-pound bag. Even though it’d never be financially feasible to construct an Avatar streaming series given the technical requirements (not to mention Cameron’s time-consuming perfectionism), you all but one need one at this point. If the visionary director who submerged to the lowest point in our oceans has his way, we could be seeing at least three more sequels. Might five installments (or more) be enough to contain the whole story? It’s hard to tell, but part of me thinks this is a bit of a runaway train. Not that I’m complaining.
It would be impossible to count off every CGI marvel in AWOW. But for me, the most impressive, and honestly most touching visual, was a brief shot after Payakan splashes his new human friend, Lo’ak. The Tulkun dives under the water, but not before casting back a self-aware, playful look in his eye. I don’t think I’ve ever seen behavioral subtlety done that effectively in an animal character before. For sure, humanoid CGI characters like Thanos emote quite realistically. Or the chimpanzee protagonist Caesar from the Apes films. We’ve become spoiled with all the computer-generated wizardry. But to make a whale’s personality shine in a brief moment — that takes things to another, emotional level. Quite impressive and stellar, to say the least.
Overall, I’d give Avatar: The Way of Water 4.5 stars out of five, losing half a point only for its overstuffedness, and some minor excessive indulgence. There were some sequences that could have been trimmed for a leaner run-time. But that’s like complaining about there being too much food at a long-awaited for feast. AWOW is the best you’re going to see in IMAX 3D, and absolutely worth checking out once, twice, or more times. I just hope part three arrives in a timely fashion. I’d like to see this franchise come to a completion within my lifetime.