The Beauty of Avatar: The Way of Water Is Unsurpassable, at Least until the Next Avatar Surpasses It

Movies Reviews James Cameron
The Beauty of Avatar: The Way of Water Is Unsurpassable, at Least until the Next Avatar Surpasses It

Avatar: The Way of Water is a promise—like the titular Way as described by a beatific, finned Na’vi fish-people princess, the film connects all things: the past and the future; cinema as a generational ideal and one film’s world-uniting box office reality; James Cameron’s megalomania and his justification for Being Like That; one audience member and another audience member on the other side of the world; one archetypal cliché and another archetypal cliché; dreams and waking life. This was pretty much the philosophy of 2009’s Avatar, which never hesitated to literalize everything, and to do so with a degree of corniness and self-actualization that has become Cameron’s brand. Beyond trembling with a Thoreauvian spirit of deliberate existence in respect for and deference to every living soul, Cameron’s Avatar presented Cameron’s Pandora—the moon of a gaseous giant in the Alpha Centauri system and home to the tall, spindly cerulean Na’vi—as a giant physical network, a global, biological supercomputer/chthonic god that has nodes, or soul trees, all over the planet, providing the Na’vi with interfaces where they can basically upload their whole selves. When the malevolent Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) barked, “We will blast a crater in their racial memories so deep that they won’t ever come within a thousand clicks of this place ever again,” he likely wasn’t speaking metaphorically. Thirteen years later, Avatar’s sequel can be nothing less than a delivery on everything Cameron has said, hyperbolic or not, he would deliver. Which it will be, because he is manifesting it. Self-fulfilling it. He can do that now? He can do that now. At this moment, as he works on the third Avatar movie, he is clearly doing that now.

What’s less clear is exactly what Cameron’s intending to deliver. The Way of Water’s story is a bare bones lesson in appealing to as many worldwide markets as possible, the continuation of the adventures of Bostonian Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who’s spent the past decade trying not to sound like an outback chimney sweep) as he raises a Na’vi family with like-warrior-minded Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, screaming from inside her golden prison) and realizes that Earthlings aren’t going to stop colonizing Pandora just because they had their shit kicked in a lifetime ago. So Jake amasses a rebel army of forest Na’vi to conduct raids against the returning corporate monolith, meanwhile treating his family like a mini-military-unit to toughen them up for the long haul. His oldest son, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), serves the role of oldest son well. Jake’s rebellious younger son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), does the same, proving to be the perfect outcast and fatherly disappointment, all the ingredients for a new franchise hero. The family needs a lovable youngling, so it has one in the adorable Tuktirey (Trinity Bliss), as well as a parent-like older daughter, Kiri, played by Sigourney Weaver mo-capped as a teen Na’vi beset by symbolic puberty involving Captain-Planet-like superpowers, who also happens to be the miracle progeny of Dr. Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) Avatar body. Rounding out the Sully family is Spider (Jack Champion), Col. Quaritch’s son abandoned on Pandora, a feral boy with a sophisticated sense of morality and the demeanor of a SoCal beach bum. “This family is our fortress,” Jake tells Neytiri, and one briefly believes James Cameron will make walls from their bones.

Meanwhile, Quaritch resurrects as an Avatar, possessing all of the memories of the human Quaritch up until he left to get killed in the finale of the first film, ready to take revenge on the Sullys and, with the full support of General Ardmore (Edie Falco) and the military industrial complex, cut off the head of the Na’vi revolution. Knowing Quaritch will hunt him down by any means necessary, Jake leaves with his family to protect their Omatikaya forest tribe, hoping Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), leaders of island-based Metkayina clan, will take them in. Thus: the Way of Water, which the Sully family must learn in order to find haven with the sea people. Fortunately, they’re familiar with the basic spiritual tenets. So far, Avatar movies operate similarly to seasons of The Wire.

The Way of Water’s true achievement is that it looks like nothing else but the first Avatar, unparalleled in detail and scale, a devouring enterprise all to itself. Watching The Way of Water can at times feel astonishing, as if the brain gapes at the sheer amount of physical data present in every frame, incapable of consuming it, but longing to keep up. We believe that this film will redefine box office success because Cameron presents it—making the absolute most of high frame rates, 3-D, and IMAX, normalizing their use, acclimating our brains in ways Ang Lee could only wish—as the next evolutionary step in modern blockbuster filmmaking. This is immersion for its own sake, moviegoing as experience vaunted to the next level, breathtaking in its completely unironic scope. After so many hours in Pandora, untroubled by complicated plot or esoteric myths, caring for this world comes easy. As do the tears. The body reacts as the brain flails.

Then again, the incomparable beauty of this film is evidence enough that maybe Cameron’s attempts to usher in the future of digital filmmaking is a fool’s errand. The first Avatar is still a gorgeous masterpiece of CGI, a claim no film since could attempt. Except The Way of Water, which looks even better. No film will ever be this beautiful in my lifetime, at least until the next Avatar. Cameron wants to welcome us to the new frontier, but he also knows we are unprepared, that other filmmakers will let him, and us, down. The crab mechs, my god. What delicate symmetry. This movie has surpassed our capacity to see. We may still be lost in the wilds of the Uncanny Valley, but James Cameron is here to lead us to higher ground. It’s good to be alive.

Avatar proved it and The Way of Water codifies it: James Cameron is cinema’s only great colonizer, a man who inhabits and takes over ideas, genres, currencies, studios and the ends of the yet-discovered world to translate awe in human innovation and industry into populist spectacle that’s built to grow exponentially, swarming with tropes and genre to hide the dearth at the heart of his storytelling. Avatar has consumed James Cameron; it is his everything now, the vehicle for every story he wants to tell, and every story anyone may want to tell—the all-consuming world he’s created is such a lushly resourced aesthetic wonder that anything can be mapped onto its ever-expanding ecosystems. Pandora is a toolbox and ready-made symbol. At some point in The Way of Water’s 192 minutes I wondered if James Cameron ever thought about having gay Na’vi. I also wondered if Jake taught his children Earth slang like “bro” and “dude” and the perplexing “perv,” or if he heard the equivalents in Na’vi as their anachronistic counterparts. The film leaps from the screen; my heart leaps in kind, both so close I can grab them, all of it feeling unabashedly real. So then we have to wonder: How do Na’vi have sex? Poop? Give birth? Does James Cameron imagine their genitals, their organs, their waste and bodily fluids and everything hilariously hidden by a leaf or braid? How far below the surface does James Cameron’s imagination delve? I realize this is like the question Nicolas Cage asks at the end of Bad Lieutenant—Port of Call: New Orleans: “Do fish have dreams?” This is James Cameron’s dream; he dreams it for our sakes.

Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Bliss, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Jack Champion, Jemaine Clement, Joel David Moore, Brendan Cowell, CCH Pounder
Release Date: December 16, 2022

Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

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