James Cameron is still out there, trying to push the envelope.
My showing of Avatar: The Way of Water was not only 3D, but in HFR (High Frame Rate), which threw me for a loop. The only other movie I’ve ever watched on a large screen in HFR was The Desolation of Smaug and what was by mistake. The underwater scenes in the film are a sight to behold, but your eyes and mind need to adjust to it. HFR is that thing Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise warned us all about earlier this year, the feature on most modern tv’s that enable a ‘smoothing’ effect. Films that normally look grainy are suddenly “live” under the HFR. It works really well for nature shows and sports events, and with a land as lush as Pandora, it’s good if you know what it is. I’m just not sure how well that will translate for audiences at home or for individuals who are new to it all. I can’t even begin to know what the underwater shooting was like for this film. James Cameron is known to be hard on his cast & crew. Ed Harris supposedly decked him once on the set of The Abyss and Mary Elizabeth Mastratonio once walked off set after they had a film issue on one point. I want to say that whatever they went through for The Way of Water seems to have paid off, but the state of movie theatres overall may have something else to say about that.
There were maybe only 3 people in my 3pm showing, and they seemed to stay for it. I know Cameron wants to save it all, but I feel the theatre experience is still dying. That’s a discussion all it’s own, but not here and now.
The Way of Water finds us having moved on some years after the events of the first film. Jake (Sam Worthington, Man on a Ledge) and Neytiri (Zoë Zaldaña, Guardians of the Galaxy) have a family of five now, living amongst the Omaticaya clan of Na’vi in the lands they moved to since losing Hometree in the first film. The boys, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters, Black Dog) and Lo’ak (Britian Dalton, Ready Player One) are like teenage Marines in training, dutifully following their dad’s orders up until the point where curiousity gets the best of them. The daughters, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, Aliens) and little Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), take a bit after their mom in some ways. There’s also Spider (Jack Champion, The Night Sitter), a young human who is close to Kiri. When humans return to Pandora, the Sullys find themselves once again under attack and on the run, colonization being the big bad it always was. Jake’s just trying to protect his family as best he can, something any parent can relate to. This takes them to a separate water based Na’vi tribe that takes them in and shows them their way of life. That, I really enjoyed. Though I’m mostly a loner at heart, seeing families and communities gel and work together plucks all the right heartstrings for me. There’s nothing that good teamwork can’t resolve and the story keeps circling that with Cameron’s “Family as a Fortress” theme.
If the Saw Movies taught us anything, it’s that you can always expand on a single story with fillers. They took one film, and weaved tons of side points without damaging the main thread. The Fast & Furious films did the same, making sure to keep the continuity, while adding additional content in between. Cameron had four other writers on board along with himself – Shane Salerno (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem), Amanda Silver (War of the Planet of the Apes), Rick Jaffa (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). With The Way of Water, I felt they were pretty successful at doing the same. The film even plants a few seeds here and there for future installments, should Cameron get the green light to go forward with his other 3 films.
If the plot suffers from any problems, it’s that they also took a page out of the Top Gun: Maverick flight manual in following the first film’s flow a little too closely. While The Way of Water has a plethora of new content – vehicles, machines, animals, locales – the story still moves along the path of the first film, making it just a little predictable. I was able to call out two scenes before they occurred. Other than those moments, I spent most of the film either really worrying about the Sully family – they’re outgunned, after all – and marveling at the views.
The editing is also a little weird. I understand this is a big undertaking, but some of the cuts between scenes seemed really abrupt to me, as if someone said…”This scene is out to explain this..you got it?! Good! Moving on to the next…” ..while the audience is still frantically taking notes on what just happened. At 3 hours and 12 minutes (just 11 minutes longer than Avengers: Endgame), there’s a lot to see, but I felt the pacing was okay. If there’s any part of the movie that could be used for a bathroom break, there is an extended sequence with a whale-like creature that could be your best opening. The movie might require more than one viewing to take it all in, but perhaps this is Cameron’s plan all along. One never truly knows.
The sound in The Way of Water was good. Explosions are sharp, animal sounds are cute and the hissing/wailing of Na’vi are clear (though strangely annoying after a while – we get it, you’re in pain or angry, ). The one element I was concerned with was the music. With James Horner’s passing in 2015, those shoes would be a little hard to fill. I originally hoped that Marc Streitenfeld would get the nod, based of his work on Prometheus. Composer Simon Franglen picks up where Horner left off, having worked together on the original Avatar score. Franglen knocks it out of the park, with a score that pays homage to Horner’s work while still making it his own sound.
The Way of Water introduces some new characters and cast. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Kate Winslet (Titanic) and Cliff Curtis (Sunshine) as the leaders of the Water Na’vi. Bailey Bass (Claudia in AMC’s Interview With the Vampire) plays their daughter, who helps to train the Sully children. Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) is on board as a General charged with operations on Pandora. Jermaine Clement (What We Do In The Shadows) is also on hand as a marine scientist. Although everyone’s performances are good, the movie really belongs to the Sully children, with Weaver’s Kiri being the standout. Kiri’s a great character, reminding me a lot of Jinora from The Legend of Korra, and her story arc might be the best one of the lot.
Overall, Avatar The Way of Water is some serious eye candy. You might feel a little sad coming back to Earth after all the wonder Pandora has to offer. Disney could go wild on the merchandizing on this if they wanted (and they probably will). It manages to drop a number of surprises and information on the audience, though the overall trip may be a little too similar to the first film. I’m hoping Cameron gets the 3rd film set.