Avatar: The Way of Water Review: Na’vi Gazing with James Cameron

The director returns to the fictional planet of Pandora and the Sully family, who are the heroes of the next three Avatar films
Avatar: The Way of Water Review: Na’vi Gazing with James Cameron

Director: James Cameron

Writers: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang

At a time when millionaires are channelling their fortunes into space travel and Marvel superheroes are looking to explore new universes, director James Cameron is going a different route. He’s staying put on Pandora, the fictional planet that he introduced us to in Avatar (2009). With the sequel Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) — which has been 13 years in the making — the director doesn’t just take us back to Pandora, but also puts down roots for the next three films that will (in all probability) be set in this world. Considering how beautifully it’s been rendered, you can see why Cameron wants to stay here and why much of Avatar: The Way of Water feels like the director was making his version of The Blue Planet documentary series. Although the nature we see is imaginary — it’s staggering to think this intricately-imagined planet is entirely digital art — Pandora is very much a love letter to Earth and its natural inhabitants. So much so that one could argue that the real hero of the film is a whale-like creature who gets the best action sequence when he goes from the Pandora equivalent of a fail whale to the hero who saves the day. 

Much of Avatar: The Way of Water is a hunt, although the film has little sense of urgency. This is a film you watch not for story or tension, but for spectacle. However, since there are three people who wrote the screenplay and five people who developed the story, it seems only fair to pay some attention to the plot. The snarling Colonel Miles Quadritch (Stephen Lang) has been resurrected into a Na’vi avatar and dropped back on Pandora to deal with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is now a respected Na’vi leader. While Miles was dead, humans and Jake have been busy. Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have a brood of kids who are blue-skinned and topaz-eyed like their Na’vi mother, but five-fingered like their alien hybrid father. Their idyllic life in the forests of Pandora is rudely interrupted when humans, or Sky People, return to Pandora — this time to colonise the planet by force. As Miles is told when he meets the new commanding officer, things are very different from how they were when Miles was in charge. The Sky People have built their own fortified city, they are systematically stripping Pandora of its natural riches; and Jake, who leads raiding parties and lives in a secret hideout that the humans can’t breach, is a thorn in the colonial side. 

Miles may be an American military asset, but all he wants is to avenge his own death by killing Jake. Jake realises this and tries to protect both his family and Pandora by disappearing with Neytiri and their kids from the forests that were their home. The former Marine appeals to Pandora’s marine clan of Metkayina for shelter, thus paving the way for Cameron to take us on an underwater tour. The ways of the Metkayina, with their beautiful tattoos and connections to sea animals, are evidently modelled on Polynesian culture. However, despite much of the film being set in a Metkayina village, we get only the most superficial sense of this culture. The whole point of bringing the Sullys here seems to be to show us the Tulkun, a whale-like species with which the Metkayina have a special connection and which the Sky People hunt because Tulkun have in their skull a miraculous chemical called Amrita. Some of the most moving moments in the film feature the Tulkun and you’d be forgiven for thinking Cameron cares more for these magnificent creatures than he does for the characters voiced by his star cast. 

Avatar: The Way of Water is designed to work as a standalone, but you’ll appreciate it better if you’ve watched the first film. The film is very much a big-screen experience, but the wonders (and dangers) of Pandora were woven into the storytelling better in Avatar. In this second film, there’s less of a sense of wonder associated with this world — exquisitely beautiful as it may be — and this makes sense. Pandora is no longer new territory to either Jake or Cameron. It feels more familiar now, with species, landscapes and plants that look reminiscent of Earth (in the first film, Cameron emphasised the strangeness and otherworldliness of Pandora’s nature and environment). If Avatar was a cautionary tale about human greed and nature’s power, this sequel is a love letter to what we’ve lost and are in the process of losing on Earth. There’s something deeply tragic about the imaginary nature in blockbuster film being more easily accessible (and affordable) than real natural beauty. Particularly for those of us in Indian cities, the pleasure of seeing Pandora in an IMAX theatre says as much about the pitiful state of our green spaces as it does about the film’s talented visual effects team.  

Cameron’s Avatar films are as much climate fiction as they are the story of colonisation, told from the perspective of an in-betweener. There are a lot of interesting ideas folded into the trope-riddled narratives of the two films, but in Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron seems to deliberately steer away from exploring them. It’s as though he’s just alerting the viewer and setting the scene for the three films that will follow. In Avatar, Jake was a paraplegic American Marine who got a new identity thanks to his Na’vi avatar. Technology allowed him to slip between the worlds of the Na’vi and the Sky People, and he found himself in the middle of a collapsing relationship between the indigenous and the colonisers, who (following a long-standing historical tradition) came to Pandora disguised as traders. By the time of Avatar: The Way of Water, the lines between these two species have been blurred and the question of identity and belonging are complicated. The colonisers are represented by metal, machinery and fire. They’re all about cruelty and greed, without any redemptive qualities. The Sully kids must navigate the challenges posed by the fact that they have the blood of Sky People in them. They are different from the other Na’vi, but they are definitely not human and neither are they like Miles, who has a very different experience with his Na’vi avatar than Jake did. Cameron has chosen outcasts as the heroes of his science-fiction epic — people who don’t belong anywhere; people who are more attuned to nature because they’re not accepted (or understood) by society. In both Avatar films, it’s an outsider who has the deepest connection to the natural world despite not belonging to the indigenous people, which feels uncomfortably close to the White-saviour narrative. 

Even though Avatar: The Way of Water is teeming with old and new characters as well as plot points, it feels languid, disjoint and predictable for the first two-thirds of its 192-minute runtime. The sights are gorgeous but the family drama hits clichéd notes as Jake struggles to discipline his teenaged sons (of course, one of them is a rebel). Their adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is troubled with questions about her parentage. The youngest Sully is there only to look cute. Fortunately, Cameron redeems himself and the film in the final act, which is jam-packed with action, beginning with a brilliant sequence in which a Tulkun hunt does not go according to plan. It’s in the spectacular set pieces of action at the end of the film that you see the work of a director who has delivered some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, ranging from the Terminator films to Titanic (1997).

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