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Avatar: The Way of Water – once again, extraordinary technical wizardry

Avatar: The Way of Water – once again, extraordinary technical wizardry
Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

James Cameron’s sequel drowns the audience in jaw-dropping visuals, just like the first film did in 2009, but if you’re after more than visual awe, be warned: The Way of Water copies its predecessor and suffers from middle-chapter syndrome, quickly dissipating from memory and broader cultural significance.

It’s safe to say that 2009’s Avatar occupies a weird place in pop culture history. It’s the second highest-grossing movie of all time; it was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three, and it heavily popularised 3D films.

But, as big a splash as it made then, the ripples disappeared quite quickly. Despite its record-breaking and long-lasting success on paper, Avatar really doesn’t have much of a legacy. This is mostly thanks to a forgettable plot and characters that were overshadowed by the visual effects, leaving a pop culture footprint that has eroded significantly in the intervening 13 years.

Yet, here we are, back on Pandora, in James Cameron’s first of (possibly) four sequels. Set more than a decade after the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water follows the Sully family – Jake (Sam Worthington), once-human army grunt turned full Na’vi and leader of the Omaticaya clan; Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Jake’s mate and future Tsahìk spiritual leader of their clan; and their gaggle of children: golden-child eldest Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), troublemaking middle child Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and youngest Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as an orphaned human child, Spider (Jack Champion), who sort-of adopted them.

As stated at the end of the first film, the humans weren’t going to stay away from Pandora for long, space travel notwithstanding. The 10 years between the events of Avatar and The Way of Water’s present – treated mostly as a voiceover flashback sequence – was peaceful and prosperous for the Na’vi, until mega-corporation Resources Development Administration (RDA) returned and started up operations again.

Obviously, mineral Unobtanium is too precious to leave unmined. Supporting their plans, the humans have some new tricks up their sleeves in the form of “Recombinants”, autonomous Avatar clone bodies embedded with human memories, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who is out for revenge after Jake and Neytiri killed him as a human.

Having Quaritch return as the main bad guy is just the start of the déjà-vu that persists throughout The Way of Water. There are very similar story beats. Jake and his family escape the human-Na’vi war and shelter with the Metkayina tribe, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), who occupy the reefs at the coast.

As rainforest natives, they must learn how to fit in with the new tribe and go through the whole fish-out-of-water experience that Jake endured originally. Jake and his kids, especially Lo’ak, are seen as outcasts and treated with suspicion and derision, as the Avatars themselves were.

Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Meanwhile, the humans aren’t just back on Pandora for Unobtanium – there’s a new MacGuffin that’s worth even more.

Luckily, there is more to explore with The Way of Water. Found families and the bonds we share, living up to expectations, facing tragedies, and dealing with being different are all themes that are touched on – albeit lightly. There’s a fair amount of stop-start storytelling while the plot takes a back seat to the visual spectacle.

Here, it’s impossible to find fault. Once again, Cameron sets the bar for filmmaking in terms of technical wizardry.

On one end of the scale, the well thought out attention to detail is astonishing, like the Metkayina’s evolution of fins and extra eyelids. On the other end, the world-building is even bigger and more ambitious this time.

The beach setting is close enough to recognisable geography while also feeling completely alien, which is the perfect blend to give the impression that The Way of Water really was filmed on another planet.

Just sitting back and drinking in this jaw-dropping world makes the three-hour runtime fly by surprisingly quickly.

The Way of Water works best in the quiet, character-driven scenes when both micro and macro SFX aspects are present. The motion capture work is as good as it’s ever been and, even though the script is a little basic, it’s delivered by genuine, heartfelt performances. Unfortunately, between lengthy, sweeping visuals showing off Pandora, the clashes from the ongoing conflict (which feature a more convincing marriage of CGI and human characters), and jumping between various locations, there are too few of these emotionally authentic and involving moments.

Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Elsewhere, the fight scenes feel far more vicious this time around, in terms of both brutality and impact, but the big, final showdown isn’t the world-shaking spectacle of the first film.

The stakes possibly need to remain lower so that they can be raised in the upcoming sequels, and plot threads are left very obviously dangling (or mentioned once and never addressed again) to facilitate this. This includes the somewhat forced subplot of Kiri and her parentage, which is delivered via an unusually awkward and oddly accented performance from returning cast member, Weaver.

Whether we eventually get four sequels or just two, The Way of Water feels very much like a middle film, standing as a bridge between the last one and the next.

There’s more of the same from the original, with enough unanswered questions to tease a future film. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It just means that The Way of Water probably isn’t going to distinguish itself in popular culture any more than the original did. DM/ML

This story was first published on Pfangirl.com
Avatar: The Way of Water is in South African cinemas from 15 December.

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