Avatar: The Way of Water (directed by James Cameron) may be a sequel, but it is not a film that attempts to ride on the successes of what came before. The grand, picturesque Pandorian forests that the native inhabitants, or Na’vi, attempt to save in Avatar does set the stage for this new chapter, but its appearance seems insignificant next to all of the new environments, fauna, and ways of being that this new film creatively brings to life.
The Way of Water is quite clearly a passion project, not simply because it takes a lot of inspiration from sea exploration, but because it delivers a narrative that skilfully traverses the wide expanse of human concern. The film jostles you around like a pinball; one minute you are thinking about the struggles of raising a family, the next of human expansionism, the next of intercultural relations, the next of ethics, and so on. The film gets you to think about these topics on a deep level, and are naturally evoked through the narrative as opposed to being shoehorned in. The film features concurrent storylines with intertwining themes, and imagery that pushes the current state of visual effects to its limit. Although I would usually find 13 years much too long of a wait, after seeing the film, I am satisfied that we could not have had it any other way.
In this chapter, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are faced with the difficult decision to abandon their people in an attempt to shield their family from the ever more determined Resources Development Administration, who have prioritized the elimination of Jake in preparation for mass human relocation, due to the Earth apparently dying.
Their family consists of Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the eldest and most obedient son; Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the younger, troubled son who is frequently misunderstood; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the adopted daughter who is mysteriously the biological child of Grace Augustine; an Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), the youngest daughter. Another member of the family is Spider (Jack Champion), a human raised by the Sully’s who also happens to be the biological son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a relentless military officer and the primary antagonist of Avatar.
The theme of belonging is explored through the actions and behaviours of various characters in this film, including but not limited to Lo’ak, Spider, Kiri and even a whale-like creature (a tulkun) called Payakun. Spider’s character is particularly interesting because of his unique situation – not only is he a human who calls Pandora home, he is aware that his father was Jake’s nemesis and a key accomplice in the razing of the Omaticaya clan’s Hometree. Throughout the film, we are given subtle hints that Spider is not completely at ease with the Na’vi. Not only is his place in the family questioned, he begins to react with noticeable discomfort at the sight of the Omaticaya’s makeshift weaponry, an emotion no doubt exacerbated upon watching a video recording of his father’s death. Spider’s sense of belonging is complicated further upon being captured by the RDA and joining the company of a reborn Colonel Quaritch – not the same Quaritch who died on Pandora, but an Omaticayan Avatar possessing his memories. Although Spider never loses sight of his conscience, what he feels as a character gives the viewer a perspective on the Na’vi that is exciting from a thematic point of view, and will likely take the Avatar series to bold new directions.
A question on everyone’s mind is the quality of the visual effects, how immersive it is, and what it does for world-building. Fans will be pleased to learn that The Way of Water is no less of a visual feast then Avatar, the primary difference being the change in setting, with this film showing highly detailed, vibrant and colourful underwater environments. The imagery is not only eye-candy, but integral to the narrative, as it serves to illustrate what the Na’vi are fighting for. Cameron goes beyond appealing to our general concern for the environment by positioning the aquatic life as either characters of their own, or as part of the life force (known as Eywa) that exists harmoniously with the local inhabitants. The senselessness of the humans’ barrage of attacks really comes through when we are constantly reminded of Eywa’s sentience and the accommodating nature of various creatures. One such example are these semi-transparent, butterfly-like wings that allow the wearers to remain underwater for longer periods of time. These creatures reside in an area of Pandora inhabited by the Metkayina clan, a Na’vi group that possess evolutionary features unique to their environment. Whether it be underwater creatures, the diverse character models of the Na’vi, or the cosy raised shelters of the Metkayina, they are all treated with the same, loving attention to detail.
For all its visual splendour, The Way of Water is not meant for those with short-attention spans. Some sequences in this film spend a great deal of time underwater, so much so that some would find it verging on tedious. But there is a benefit to drawing some of these sequences out – it gives the viewer an opportunity to inhabit the psyche of the characters exploring these environments, and in turn experience what they are experiencing in real time. Such was my experience during the Lo’ak-Payakun sequences, which I found meditative and genuinely heart-warming – for a significant portion of the runtime, we are given an intimate view of the two characters bonding over their shared ordeals as outcasts.
Just as in Avatar, Cameron encourages us to position ourselves on the side of the protagonists. Although humans are supposedly colonizing Pandora for their survival (a tricky ethical subject), it becomes evident that the RDA is not entirely focused on this mission, but operate based on greed and a blatant lack of empathy. The writing is particularly clever in communicating this. Any writer can add a few scenes showing oppressors burning down villages or torturing people for little gain, what The Way of Water does is unique in how it incites an antipathy towards the human cause. What I found to be particularly effective was a scene where a tulkun is killed and has an orange liquid extracted from its cranial area. The liquid is revealed to be particularly potent, and it is implied that this is the result of the tulkun’s enlarged emotion centre, allowing the species to engage in artistic pursuits no different to that of humans. Here’s the best part – the liquid is revealed to be an extremely precious commodity, used to delay the aging process. Given the cost of acquiring this liquid, and the fact that it will likely only be available to a select few, what does this show, if not the vanity of a certain type of human existence?
That being said, I would not view The Way of Water as highly as I do if there were not also a bit of nuance in the film’s exploration of good and bad. The film reminds us that no clan or species is perfect – all are prone to bickering amongst themselves, and all are prone to losing their way. The saying, “violence breeds violence” is an idea that is frequently thrown around in this film, but what is made clear to us is how quickly these words lose meaning in cases of war, and how quickly we can come to resemble the enemies we are fighting against. “Violence breeds violence” is also an idea made all the more complex when taking strong emotions, such as grief, into consideration. A key character (whose name I will not mention) delivers an exceptionally riveting performance that got me to question whether one actually has the right to judge those who have just had their world taken from them.
Avatar: The Way of Water is just as epic, grand and exhilarating as it is philosophical. It displays all of the passion and sophistication of an opera, and yet retains many of the crowd-pleasing elements of a blockbuster. While ambition of this degree has sunk many a film in the past, The Way of Water not only stays afloat, but impresses.
Viewed at Golden Apple Cinema, RGB Liptov, Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan