Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is Worth The Wait

Director: James Cameron

Writer: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver

Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver

Synopsis: Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their home.

While there’s a lacking narrative infrastructure, containing occasionally clunky dialogue and repetitive story exposition, James Cameron’s sequel to the 2009 box-office hit, Avatar: The Way of Water, is easily worth the thirteen-year wait. It is a visually arresting and immersive spectacle that pulls you into the depths of Pandora’s deep blue sea, making that lengthy three-hour runtime easily fly by. 

Not only is James Cameron known for delivering great spectacles in the past, but delivering great world-building, even if the film in question has minor or plentiful flaws. In other words, I consider him an explorer – a filmmaker who branches out into the depths of cinema to create visually immersive tales. Cameron wields more than a camera in his backpack of cinematic serendipity; there’s a hammer to construct the awe-inspiring sets, binoculars for which he searches for the great beyond of visual presentation, and some paint to cover the atmosphere and setting with mesmerizing distinctiveness. It is pretty difficult to bet against the sixty-eight-year-old director when he has proven from time to time that when it comes to spectacle – what makes audiences around the world run to their local cinema – he’s one of the best. From Terminator (both the original and Judgement Day) to Titanic (which I admire more than I enjoy), Cameron has blessed us with plenty of cinematic moments and constructions that have stayed with us since their release, each time reimagining what grand scale high-budget blockbusters could do. 

That’s why I respect him; he takes his time trying to find something we have never seen before in the vast cinematic landscape through his exploration of nature and technological advancements, even if the project doesn’t end up working altogether. One of his most significant achievements (which, redundantly, I personally call it a “miscue” or “unfulfillment”) is the 2009 global box-office smash, Avatar – a film that tested the possibilities of the third dimension phenomenon. In my opinion, showing a movie in 3D is a gimmick; it is done more for the “fun rollercoaster ride” aspect of a cinematic venture rather than a storytelling mechanism. Distilled laughter fills the screen when everyone puts on their third-dimension glasses. While Avatar ultimately lacks a proper screenplay and cohesive narrative structure, it is an impressive picture, at least regarding its technological aesthetics. It demonstrates the possibilities of what 3D can do (like Alfonso Cuarón did with Gravity) and the growth of visual effects and specialized advancements. Everyone was hooked; every single person on earth (an exaggeration, but “somewhat” true) watched that film when it was first released. It was a global phenomenon. This brings us to the long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, thirteen years later. Not only was it worth the wait, but it easily surpassed the original while still, lamentably, containing the array of narrative drawbacks we saw in the first installment that somewhat hurt its cinematic experience. 

The first couple of minutes of Avatar: The Way of Water revolve around a collage-like procedure, where Cameron and crew deliver the backstory of the characters we know, like Jake Sully (James Worthington) and Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldaña), and how they have grown since we last them, both in terms of the relationship they have and as fighters of justice against the sky people. Immediately, you are immersed into the fantastical world of Pandora; even if you disliked the first one as I did, it is difficult not to be enamored by the brilliant visual effects and technological apparitions James Cameron has crafted. These first few minutes may be rushed to continue with the next chapter of Jake and Ney’tiri’s life, but they are equally enchanting. The sky people have begun a war against the Na’vi, burning most of its forests to build a base. However, they aren’t going to stand down. Their fight goes on and on for years to come (and it probably won’t end in the fourth or fifth Avatar sequel); even Jake and Ney’tiri have four kids while in the process of this ongoing war: Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Tuktirey (Jo-Li Bliss), and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton). They stick together no matter what, but they must leave their home and explore other regions of Pandora when the past comes haunting them. 

By the end of the gigantic canvas of its three-hour-plus runtime, which isn’t surprisingly felt, they will have to confront the ghost of the past; the sky people and the Metkayina (the “Avatar” sea people) will have to have a mighty battle. Meanwhile,, we get to see new territories, most of them being submerged to explore the depths of Pandora’s deep blue sea. And, of course, those scenes are an absolute highlight of the film. Extraordinary stuff is happening on screen, leaving you in awe from beginning to end. The visual rapture of Cameron’s creative genius is not only distinctive but tremendously immersive. The 3D effect, HFR mirrorings, 48 fps, and IMAX screens lift that cinematic experience to one of the best of the year. Still, most of the props have to be given to the world-building, from the sea creature designs to the innovation of that underwater world. It is just a marvel of cinematic spectacle, easily one of the best action/adventure films of the year due to its allure – the “oooh’s and ahh’s” factor is ever-present, and audiences will gasp upon these achievements, at least visually and in terms of technological advancements. 

In the last act, James Cameron takes us on a tour of his filmography, reenacting scenes from his most famous work, primarily Titanic (and its counterpart, Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure from 1972). It’s obvious, and those scenes arrive first-hand, without any subtlety, but they are tremendously entertaining. A flaming conclusion to a lavish film – what more would you want in terms of popcorn entertainment? Well… even though it might be a fascinating conclusion when it comes to its action, the screenplay falters heavily, causing some people to disengage entirely due to the bland lines written. When it comes to its narrative, that’s where it falls flat and feels lackluster. It is almost the same as the first one, but a bit better. Avatar: The Way of Water suffers from the same aspects as its 2009 introduction. While it might not be as increasingly annoying as the original, there’s a disjointed structure to the screenplay, containing repetitive expositions and some clunky dialogue (specifically Brendan Cowell saying the line “I have quotas to meet!” twice in the film, which caused a risible tidal wave upon some audience members when I watched it, including me). Lackluster character development is also a factor that is embalmed in both features. 

Since this film introduces an array of characters (and a new world to begin with), it needed more time to explore how this setting change affects all of the main characters and how their problems in the forest translate into the ocean. Because there’s a lack of characterization, the themes aren’t fully explored. Teen angst, colonization, our connection with nature, and other ideas that Cameron wants to touch upon are mostly navigated through imagery rather than text, yet it would have been more precise if there was a dialogue amongst the Avatars regarding these topics (at least in a more proficient way). At least, script-wise, it ends on a high note. Some of the best-written lines in the film are said during the last couple of minutes. Those lines capture the essence of the concept of family and tradition in the world of Pandora – what it means to be a family and how the bonds that tie us are spread through love and loss. In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water delivers what it says on the tin: a gigantic cinematic experience, unlike everything you have ever seen. However, it arrives with a few reminiscent drawbacks, 

This showcases that James Cameron’s only flaws are screenwriting and narrative structure. You can ignore many of those flaws due to the beautiful imagery presented on-screen and superior visual effects; I did a couple of times. Yet, it gets to a point where it is hard to ignore all of those dull lines or insipid remarks. Nevertheless, this Avatar sequel remains a top-notch cinematic experience when indulging in the whole show (IMAX screen and 3D glasses). Would you like to go on venture number three in the world of Pandora? After the first one, I would have said, “no, thanks”, but now, bring it on. 

Grade: B-

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