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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is cinema spectacle writ large

Avatar Way of the Water

Never bet against James Cameron, they say. And with good reason. The “Titanic” filmmaker’s record is ridiculous, riddled with miracles of achievement and beating the odds, propelled by a fierce, burning ambition and can-do attitude.

This is a man who, frustrated by the limits of what was available, ended up creating and building new technology to do what he needed: whether it be cameras, lenses, motion capture and motion control rigs, to full deep sea submersible vehicles. Practically all of it has been in service of cinema: making better tools for the stories he wants to tell. And over the decades, he’s given us films that explore themes that are very personal for him, wrapped in epic, bombastic spectacle.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” continues this record. Coming 13 years after the original “Avatar” broke worries and suspicions and went on to become the highest box office grosser ever (for a decent chunk of time), it is another entry in his auspicious canon of Cinematic Spectacle Writ Large: a sprawling, sensuous epic of adventure and exploration.

Tensions

We return to the world of Pandora, where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are now parents to four children, one of whom seems to be an immaculate conception from the Avatar of the late Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who also plays the teen Kiri[!]). Things have been peaceful since the “Sky People” (Earth humans) were sent packing, but like a bad cold, they’re back, with more forces and more destructive than ever.

They raze the forests where the Na’vi live and are hunting Jake, even bringing back the first film’s Big Bad, Quaritch (Stephen Lang), now in an Avatar of his own. Jake’s presence endangers the Na’vi, so he gives up his title of leader and he and his family abscond far away to the sea tribes of Pandora, where they are given refuge. Tensions are still present, though, and the way of life is water-based, so the Sullys have some learning and adjusting to do.

A third of “The Way of Water’”s three hour and fifteen minute runtime is the Sullys (and by extension, the audience)’ exploration of the Metkayina clan and their ways. Led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet, in her first reunion with Cameron since “Titanic”), they teach the Sulllys how to bond with new creatures, how to travel, how to fish.

The children are taught how to hold their breath for extended periods of time, a freediving requirement that Cameron had the cast learn as well in training. There are moments of struggle in their adjustment; already seen as outsiders, things are worse because Jake and the children aren’t considered “full Na’vi.”

There’s also internal strife, the children chafing at their new surroundings and the parents’ disagreement about how to address the issue of the Sky People hunting Jake.

Special effects

On the other end, Quaritch is also undergoing his own adventure, adjusting to his new Avatar body, learning its strengths and capabilities. If there’s a criticism to levy against “The Way of Water,” it’s that it repeats several beats that were also highlights in the original. However, it’s a minor complaint because with new areas, new locales, new fauna, the same awe that was sparked over a decade ago is here as well, aided by improved imagery.

The special effects teams have outdone themselves in “The Way of Water.” Seeing it on IMAX 3D HFR (high frame rate) is often breathtaking, frame rates actually changing within scenes. The 3D also works well since so many scenes are underwater, and that lessening of a reference point for gravity is more potent.

The underwater scenes are undoubtedly the highlight of this sequel, as the air scenes were in the original. The creature/plant designs are beautiful, and the film itself could be used as an advertising campaign for scuba diving. Of course, the vehicle designs are no slouch either, the crab machines especially.

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While this next statement used to be a pejorative, it’s not meant to be: some of the most effective moments in “The Way of Water” are like playing a VR video game, except with terrific graphics, and without the ability to look around. Instead, you have a master guiding your eye, showing you points of interest, composing beautiful shots and crafting graceful, powerful scenes.

Such is the use of perspective and POV, even over the shoulder shots help to really immerse you in the story and world of Pandora. While the graphics are better than any AAA title from a big game studio, the ethos is more akin to Jenova Chen’s Thatgamecompany titles like “Flower” & “Journey.”

Master with an instrument

Amazing visuals aside, “The Way of Water” still holds family at its core. “Sullys stick together” is the family’s mantra, for better or worse, and they learn and grow and suffer together. A beautiful moment near the climax features the children coming into their own, allowing a reprieve for the parents who’ve spent the entire film worried.

While Cameron’s dialogue remains fairly basic, and most characters remain one-note stand-ins (this one’s greed, this one’s capitalism, you are cruelty, you are nature, etc), and the plot is fairly expected/repetitive (colonizers/capitalists are here for your precious natural resources and will destroy everything in their path to take them), they are still classic, primal structures and themes, and play well when handled with his particular artistry.

Cameron knows what works, and plays action scenes like a master with an instrument. He can build emotional crescendos, quiet meditative grace notes, and rousing violent catharsis as well as the best of them, precisely because he is among the best to ever do it.

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