Avatar: The Way of Water — The Return of James Cameron, King of Sequels

Was it worth it? A decade later and James Cameron’s aquamarine dreams have come to fruition. The new Avatar film is a great burden of trust: in James Cameron’s legacy with best-in-class sequels; in the capacity of mega-budget blockbusters still being the most relevant mode of expression; and in audiences to still care about Avatar. The last part is tricky. We may not remember the names of the characters but the broad strokes are undeniable. What we need to remember, instead, is the feeling of what an Avatar release was like. How it seemed to promise the next big thing in IP filmmaking and how in the time since its release, something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced twenty-some films, which now sit alongside the original release as the most popular films in the world. So, in the time since the halycon days of thinking maybe 3D was a possible future — or at least a relevant avenue for James Cameron movies only — the entire climate of the movie business has changed. We do not need to relive the last ten years. We’ve already lived them over and over again and the repetition of the movies that are now the most popular movies is wholly exhausting. The conversation has run dry around all of it, whether it’s any good, whether it’s cinema at all, none of it seems to matter we talk about it because it never really mattered. But does Avatar still matter?

Avatar: The Way of Water. Dir. James Cameron.

Avatar matters significantly more now than it ever has. The new movie is not just a technological advancement but a seismic leap forward for movies of a massive scale. It has more to do with the scope of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings than it does the actual impetuous for this franchise. Take that as you will, but if you loved the original Avatar, you will be astounded by the dizzying heights and oceanic depths of the new movie. If you were indifferent, but love James Cameron’s work on literally anything else he has made, all of that is echoed here more formally. The themes and central conceits of all his films are accounted for.

You can feel the reverberations of every interest James Cameron has ever had. The underwater creature feature appeal of Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). The replicant-based action thriller with genre undertones of The Terminator (1984) and the utterly immaculate understanding of set pieces of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). The hyper militaristic anti-war-for-profit screed of Aliens (1986). The globe-trotting expansive resource-thriller notes of True Lies (1994). The spirit of the sea and the merits of marine biology and underwater exploration in The Abyss (1989) and Titanic (1997). And most abundantly clear, of course, are the technological advancements forwarding the CG-work of the first Avatar. For the James Cameron fan, the film will feel like a recursive exploration of everything he’s ever done, a recirculation of all his best shots, set-pieces, and his fundamental interests both in the sea and what makes movies tick. Everything you want in this capacity is accounted for.

Avatar: The Way of Water. Dir. James Cameron.

The film, in every manner, is an extension of everything the first film did. Take the simple ho-hum politics of the original, pretty basic environmentalist stuff with little call to action. The new film leverages all of this in a broad resource war, but also more focally centers the plot around its characters, which allows the themes and motifs to better breathe on their own. The critiques then, are less centrally located, but more ably applied: the hyper militarization of the human “sky people,” is clearly shot with a political lens, and the sense of meaning about overfishing, taking care of the ocean, and also an earnest care for indigenous populations, is much more clearly expressed. Is it the job of a massive-budget movie with an endless development to tell these stories? Can such a resource-intensive production even meaningfully tell us anything about humans and their wastefulness of resources? Perhaps not without some irony, but it is now far more effective, pointed, and closer to the surface, less vaguely just a story about environmentalism in the jungle and now a political story that can be extrapolated in many different directions.

The watery biome of the new film is drop-dead gorgeous. It’s the most incredible thing. The underwater footage is just downright exquisite. Dump out all of your superlative adjectives, it’ll hold them all. There are few moments at the movies that are truly “awesome” in a way that can capture the awe-inpsiring true meaning of that word. When the film dives underwater, it feels like a total sea-change in the sphere of big budget filmmaking. Everything has changed. We can film gorgeous underwater sequences now. The film uses multiple frame-rates, sometimes even in one sequence, which makes the world’s underwater fauna feel like it is living and breathing, a totally separate cinematic space and claim than what the original film made. Apply any water-based jokes and puns. All of them will also work.

Avatar: The Way of Water. Dir. James Cameron.

Is anything worth a decade? Is the breadth of James Cameron’s passions just too overwhelming for the stability of a three-hour runtime? It’s complicated. The film is certainly overstuffed. It is one of the most visually overwhelming – and if you’re like me with 3D, migrane-inducing – propositions in all of cinema. Something about the frame-rate changes exhausts your brain. Generally it’s incredible but there are times you can tell and those moments are distracting, seeing things function at different speeds, blown out in 3D, feels terrible. There’s also the matter of risk. Given the power of his station, James Cameron gets to ask actors to do incredible things. Like learn how to hold their breath for extensive periods of time. You can view this a few ways but one way to view it is as an exploitative practice and a decision made by an industry figurehead wherein someone with less power in the process may have to comply with genuinely dangerous asks from the director, just to see his silly, bold vision through to completion. What it allows is some of the most breath-taking cinematography you’ve ever seen of oceanic spaces, but what it could’ve cost and the danger it implied, may be debatably more than any movie is worth.

The film is more than a remarkable work of action filmmaking and advanced underwater photography. This time there are memorable characters (you will remember some of them in a week this time, we promise). There is a larger multilayered story that offers actual stakes to many of its characters. Everyone wants something and has something to lose now. It is still a broad adventure and the new spaces get to explore the larger life interests of James Cameron, but the narrative arcs of Avatar have now been turned into a masterclass in action film storytelling. It is direct, touching, and retroactively solves any number of problems where the original film was too vague and perhaps technologically concerned to deal with something like the clarity of its script and the direction of the story, leading to a meaningful conclusion.

Avatar: The Way of Water. Dir. James Cameron.

This total multi-threaded glow-up is so big and multifaceted you cannot hope to summarize all of it. Moreover, you wouldn’t want to. This time, the true joy of the film comes in watching it. Living in the world. Experiencing the culture of a new underwater tribe and the animals they embody. There is a tendency to want to say, “never doubt James Cameron,” but really, that just means that his work is exceptional and that perhaps the last Avatar was a stepping stone, a check for this movie to cash.

The year now holds two mega-blockbusters. While Top Gun: Maverick owns the skies, Avatar: The Way of Water lays claim to the depths of the oceans. Without these films, it feels as though the cinema would be dead to all but a certain kind of hero movie. With them, it feels like cinema has one more chance at big movies and with Tom Cruise and James Cameron leading the charge, it almost feels like the last stage of a certain kind of movie, before the possibility of making them is all but snuffed out. It would be hard to live up to every expectation built over the last decade but if our interests are reasonable, James Cameron’s latest may exhaustively overwhelm with everything that might have been asked of it. It is a masterclass in exploring a great action director’s total contribution to cinema of which it is yet another great chapter, another great sequel nobody else ever could have made, and may never make the same way again.


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