Directed by: James Cameron
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios
Written by Taylor Baker
Where do you begin with a behemoth like “Avatar: The Way of Water?” The 13 years it took to gestate since the 2009 original? The groundbreaking technical accomplishments that Cameron and co. made to create it? The differences one will find between viewing formats? The stereotypical contrivances of the narrative? The manifestation of Cameron’s pet themes and focuses?
The most important thing you should know about “Avatar: The Way of Water” if you haven’t seen it yet is that it has the most viewing formats available for audiences ever. Austen Goslin over at Polygon has put together this excellent article detailing the differences between formats, and why you may or may not prefer to view it in said format. The visual experience is as immersive and ahead of its time as the 2009 original that spawned a sequence of bad 3D Hollywood wannabe movies, like “Clash of the Titans 3D,” “Gulliver’s Travels 3D,” and “The Last Airbender 3D.” In addition to those shoddy big-budget Hollywood 3D knock-offs, there was a slew of poorly realized 3D televisions that served little utility other than their ability to allow home viewers to watch “Avatar” in 3D, a number of poorly executed 3D movies made almost exclusively in the early 2010s, and play a handful of PS3 games in 3D.
The visual effects created by Wētā have long been industry-leading and are now as with the original film likely industry-altering. The believability of the water, the vast and detailed underwater expanses, the texturing of the wildlife most notably the tulkun (whale people), and the size consistency and eye tracking between different bipeds–here between humans and the Na’vi–has never been as fully realized. One can’t help but wonder if Hollywood learned its lesson already or if we’re in for another failed slew of 3D blockbusters trying to recapture the magic of 3D that so few filmmakers seem capable of creating.
The meat of “The Way of Water’s” story is largely unimpressive and more reliant on the word “bro” than any blockbuster or three-hour-plus film that’s ever come before. Its narrative hems together whole chapters if not books of the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and as such is formulaic to a T. But “The Way of Water” does juggle its legions of characters and their respective arcs well. Alternating comfortably between long plot-based sections, small character asides, and expository segments. There is a cost to this effective threading and that is the cartoonishly bad dialogue. At one point we hear Lo’ak (Jake Sully and Neytiri’s son) instruct some beach bullies on how to tighten your four fingers to make a fist right before he wallops ’em. You’ll hear almost all the younger male characters call each other “bro” and when they don’t they’ve likely exchanged it for a far less cliche word like “cuz.”
Whether seeing Robert Patrick dissolve through bars in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” or watching the orchestra play as the ship sinks to the depths in “Titanic” there’s always something about Cameron’s films that’s just fucking cool, and “The Way of Water” is no exception. With a giant finale action set piece built on and around a vast sinking whaling vessel (see “Titanic”), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) wielding nature itself, a tulkun (whale-like creature) named Payakan racking up a kill count (to the cheers of the audience), harrowing kidnapping sequences, and a close encounter with a carnivorous sea creature “The Way of Water” in many ways ups the ante of the original. Delivering almost the entire final hour of the film as an action spectacular with the briefest of asides to establish significant character points and events.
This dazzling imagery of explosive metal and awe-inspiring nature comes at a cost though. If you see the film in IMAX 3D HFR (high frame rate) you’ll notice wonky scenes (generally in the pulled-back action sequences) where you feel more like you’re watching the cut scene between levels in a video game than watching a film. The counter is of course the eerily gorgeous and lifelike images we get underwater and when things are slower and more close up. These framerate/animation issues don’t ruin the film, but they do reduce the experience of the other segments and the whole severely enough that it’s easy to say that this, depending on your sensibilities will be either the number one or number two issue you’ll have with the film alongside its boorish dialogue.
But we don’t come to Jim Cameron pictures for their complex themes, peerless dialogue, or superlative character depictions. No, we come to Jim Cameron pictures because he makes “bangers,” he conjures films that can all be placed on a “Greatest Hits Movie Playlist” together that you can watch with your friends, family, or just the people at your local multiplex and have a whale of a time. “The Way of Water” is an all-ages theme park ride with no height restriction. A film that’s simultaneously pushed and redefined high frame rate and 3D filmmaking. If that’s not a picture worth rolling out from your sofas as you stream the latest 12-hour binge-watch of “content” from your favorite “content” purveyor then I don’t know what is.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” Trailer
You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on Letterboxd, Twitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.