Na’vigating second album syndrome in Avatar The Way of Water

Director: James Cameron Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Cliff Curtis Running Time: 192 minutes

Was Avatar notably un-notable or un-notably notable? That’s been the conversation about the highest grossing movie of all time since before it was even out of cinemas in 2009. Where once the divide was between those who were supposedly depressed not to be able to live in Pandora while many struggled to see the hype, the intervening years have seen people question the ‘footprint’ of the film, noting, repeatedly, that it failed to make a lasting impression on the minds of the many, many, many people who saw it. James Cameron’s ambitions for a series of sequel were dismissed as folly from the off, but then so has every other time in the veteran director’s career when he’s gone on to make a billion dollars and box-office history.

Does Avatar: The Way of Water make fools of Cameron’s doubters, ushering in an opulent new era of high definition, ground-breaking visual cinema in an exciting, memorable instant classic? Or is it an outrageous disaster, crashing and burning in an excessive act of hubristic that embodies all the worse aspects of late-stage blockbusters?

Ah, neither. It’s grand like, decent. In the race to crown The Way of Water dead on arrival or the latest Cameron megahit, don’t believe that you shouldn’t believe the hype. Rather let it wash over you, drink it in and test the waters for yourself.

In the years since Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), fully in his Na’vi body, has started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and settled into life in the Pandoran forest. The expo-heavy opening sees Jake grunting about how “happiness, is simple”, dialogue never having been Cameron’s strong suit, while he catches us up with his kids and other characters. Sigourney Weaver improbably returns in mo-cap as Kiri, their adopted teenage daughter born improbably from the Avatar body of Weaver’s scientist). Lo’ak is the younger brother eager to prove himself, constantly yanked out of trouble by wiser older bro Neteyam, and the impressionable youngest daughter Tuk. Also hanging around is teen human Spider, a mix of the snot-nosed twerpery of John Connor in T2 and the rabid jitters of Donnie from The Wild Thornberrys.

The humans make their unwelcome return to the planet, the relentless churn of capitalism looming large in potent mix with petty revenge. Old enemies make convoluted but inevitable appearances and so Jake literally uproots Neytiri and their children from the familiar forest of the first Avatar, hoping to protect them by moving across Pandora and making a new life in with the Metkayina, a Na’vi water tribe.

The story is an uneven mix of more saviour narrative, well-meaning but vague environmentalism and, oddly, television teen drama. For long stretches of the second act, it’s welcome to the OSea bitch, as the focus is on Jake’s kids and their struggle to fit in – they tussle with the popular kids, they angst about not being the same as everybody else or not being good enough for their dad, they crush on the chief’s daughter. It’s all a bit CW, but in a good way? There is something endearing about the pairing of hyper expensive cinematic spectacle and low stakes, cheesy teen melodrama. The kids are that bit easier to relate to than slabhead Jake, while Zoe Saldana is given absolutely nothing to do as Neytiri. Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet as the water tribe chieftains are similarly flat, whereas Sigourney Weaver as a moody teen is odd, but at least has a bit of meat behind it. The result makes it a little disappointing when the bad guys come back gearing up for big loud fight scenes, which Cameron stages with intricate detail, expansive spectacle, and very little emotional investment. But then he’s always wanted you to look at what’s happening more than care about why.

It’s no big shock perhaps that the story is silly and simple, but the film’s near $400 million budget wasn’t spent on brainstorming sessions in the writers room. Cameron wants a carefully controlled visual masterpiece and it’s maybe on this, more so than if you find subtitled alien-whales silly, that The Way of Water should be evaluated on. Cameron’s fixation on the sea goes back a long way, and seeing water effects rendered in such precise, loving detail, you start to get the feeling that the original Avatar and its neon forest was just a proof of concept, a precursor to the parts of Pandora Cameron really wanted to play in. The crystal-clear underwater scenes, the realistic splashes and sharp reflective lighting, it seems like the Cameron made the most financially successful movie of all time as a kickstart to fund these tricky water effects. The film makes you remember that the impressive element of the original’s 3D wasn’t that it looked like it was jumping out at you, but rather the depth reaching backwards into the screen, the better to pack in more environmental detail.

But even the film’s USP isn’t all smooth-sailing. Or rather, the sailing is too smooth. Many scenes in The Way of Water are shown in a higher frame rate of 48 fps. The intent is to see everything in more fluid motion, particularly when we get underwater, but it’s counter-productively immersion breaking. Action scenes look like they should have the familiar words of video game trailers “not actual gameplay footage” attached, with explosions and body blows that lack tactile impact, pretty pixels that look like they’re skating passed each other in pro-wrestling precise staging. Cameron has said that he didn’t want to use this effect for the more grounded dialogue scenes because it looks too glassy-smooth. It takes away from the action in the same way, but it makes every little detail identifiably perfect, you can see why the man himself would be satisfied with it. Fully immersed in his work, for better and worse he has full trust that it will work the same magic on his audience, when the results are much more likely to be mixed.

Trying to break new ground in digital effects, again, was always going to be a tricky task for the Avatar team. But then they’re probably relaxed enough in the knowledge that the technology is evolving all the time, and they’ll get a few more bites at this cherry. The visuals at least inform the story, rather than the modern blockbuster effort to wear the viewer into submission with wallpaper effect CGI. The sanctuary and self-discovery that the Sullys find in the water tribe, the beautiful and abundant life that thrives until humans show up unthinkingly destructive, they come from the water and Cameron, a surfer burnout in the body of a ruthless industry bigwig, is at pains to show why that world is majestic, moving, meaningful for his self-insert space aliens.

The Way of Water’s ambitions to innovate and educate, however rote and trite, can be traced to the personal pursuits of an actual person in its director, and not the quarterly apathetic avarice of a corporation and its willing customer base. Who remembers anything about Avatar? Well, James Cameron does, and his effort to make you care too through overwhelming financial muscle and an army of technical skill doesn’t amount to much depth, but at least there’s something alive beating in its centre. Silly but sincere, overlong but ambitious, Avatar The Way of Water is an uneven epic that’s not without its charms, with all the aversion to restraint that comes from the biggest cinema cup that ever runneth over.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Where to watch Avatar

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