Avatar: The Way of Water
3 out 5
Avatar: The Way of Water (henceforth Avatar 2) starts with so much confidence that it immediately conjures up the workings of the universe first experienced in the first Avatar film. This gave me even greater respect for the boldness of this sequel. Part of the discourse in the lead-up to the film has been about its importance in pop culture since the first Avatar appeared 13 years ago. But can we remember anything about it apart from the design of the Na’vi, the planet Pandora and the fact that the film was in 3D? It’s not as if Avatar became burned into our collective consciousness. After all, this was not The Lord of the Rings, nor was it The Matrix. In short, Avatar had the feeling of a moment specific to 2009: the big-event film of the year, an anti-colonialist space epic inspired by Pocahontas and made by the same man who directed The Terminator and Titanic.
And that last detail explains why Avatar was such a roaring success back then: it’s a James Cameron film, and no one tickles the collective brain like he does. It’s an old saying in Hollywood: never bet against Cameron. This man is told every time that his next film is certain to be a flop. Romeo and Juliet in a sinking boat for an epic four hours of viewing? Two billion dollars in box-office revenue. Dances with Wolves, but with blue cat people versus space marines? Just shy of three billion dollars. Never bet against Cameron.
And here’s the reason. Cameron makes a film that resonates in any era. His special effects are painstakingly perfected, to the point that they stand the test of time: Terminator 2’s liquid effects still look as good today as they did in 1992. The stories he concocts are delivered with the savviness of someone who’s studied the art of storytelling for an entire lifetime. He doesn’t re-invent the genre, doesn’t stray from the rules of storytelling. Story beats and arcs are developed with mathematical precision, to keep the audience entertained for as long as possible. Cameron is dedicated to the idea of cinema as a transcendental emotional experience. Not an intellectual experience; just something that is exciting and entertaining.
And no one does it like he does.
Still, Avatar 2 is a risky project. It’s been 13 years, and Hollywood has changed too much since then – it’s now a den for superhero franchises and high-concept sci-fi epics that all have to be part of the same expanded universe. Its offerings have to be multicultural, genderless and funny. The villains have to be generic and emotionless, and the benevolent rich often have to step in to save the day (Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, etc.). Cameron loves his working-class hero who bands together with the forgotten to fight a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
But still you don’t bet against Cameron. He transports us directly to the universe of Pandora, without setup or buildup. I almost mistook the first frame for the introduction of a production logo.
The story starts by re-introducing Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), once human, now forever a Na’vi, who lives in the forest with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and his four (!) children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), an adopted teenager.
Over a decade after the first film, the humans downloaded the memories of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to their own Na’vi Avatar so he could lead a group of Na’vi space marines to hunt and kill Jake, now the leader of the tribe.
The return of the humans forces Jake and his family to run away to join another community of Na’vi, who live in an archipelago of tiny islands. This new faction has different physical attributes, which makes it more difficult for Jake’s family to adapt. And Jake’s family also poses a threat to their hosts: the men who are after them could bring war to these peaceful waters.
The rest is precisely what is expected of a Cameron spectacle. Big, loud, and in-your-face. There are long sequences showing the connection between the Na’vi and whale-like animals who are more intelligent than other species and know how to communicate. Humans, captained by characters played by Brendan Cowell and Jemaine Clement, hunt these animals to harvest their oil. This annoys the Na’vi, and attracts to the area the marines who are after Jake and his family. See? Simple stuff just made on a larger-than-life scale.
The other big issue is the representation of the Na’vi. Previously, Cameron has been criticised for being influenced by Native American cultures. Interestingly, though, people from those cultures saw themselves so well represented in the anti-colonial message of the film that they embraced it. In Avatar 2, the depiction of the new Na’vi is inspired by Māori culture, from the tā moko on their faces to their war stand. Cameron cast some Māori actors to portray them, including Cliff Curtis as the leader, with his son playing Duane Evans Jr. However, this is still a tone-deaf approach that could be easily be termed disrespectful.
Cameron has the best intentions. Indigenous cultures worldwide have embraced Avatar as an inspirational story. And maybe that’s just the simple power it holds: to galvanise. We can intellectualise it as much as we like, but at the end of the day the film delivers. And that’s why you never bet against Cameron.