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THB #276: Avatar: The Way of Water Review(?)
How does one review Avatar: The Way of Water?
In so many ways, it is a fool’s errand. Kinda like these guys on the boat…
Bilge Ebiri at Vulture does 4 full paragraphs before getting to the movie that is being released.
It seems like most of the reviews this morning are about Jim Cameron and the original film and how this film fits into that context… before getting to the parts you really should avoid, telling you story you don’t want to know before seeing the film.
One of the classic Hollywood-isms is that audiences want (and studios try to give them) the same thing they loved, but different. Individuals will disagree on detail, but Avatar: The Way of Water is very much The Same, But Different.
The quality of the effects has improved, though looking at the first film, it was pretty amazing back then. Alternately, look at the 2002 Spider-Man vs anything now… let’s just say, it was cutting edge then and the edge has moved… a lot. Of course, it was 1978 when Superman: The Movie told us we would believe a man can fly. And we did. Now, not so big TV shows now have much better effects than that classic.
The big visual change in Avatar: The Way of Water is the amount and variations on water. Again, I remember visiting ILM in 2000 for The Perfect Storm, when the water they created for that film was on the bleeding edge. But that was just images of the seas. As Madge used to say in the Palmolive ads, now we are soaking in it.
In the first Avatar, Jake was the outsider to the Na’vi family, embraced by Neytiri, but Jake’s journey was about being embraced by the whole. In that film, the Na’vi was, at least thematically, a universal family representing nature.
Here, Jake - as you know from the first film - is a full Na’vi, having left his human body behind. And from the start here, he and Neytiri have a family of kids to parent. So that is a change… but not completely. It is a literal change of immediate family status, but the themes of right and wrong and love of the collective are all still there.
The first act establishes the family and its personalities in the part of Pandora we know as Pandora. The woods. The trees. Those cool animals.
Meanwhile, there needs to be a villain, right? Second verse, same as the first.
The puny humans are back, though this time, they not only want unobtanium (still funny), they want the entire planet. You see, the earth has made a mess of things and we need somewhere to move… soon.
This brings us to an issue with the film that isn’t the biggest issue for me, but still, I noticed… this film is much more about the boys than the original. The leader of the callous humans is Edie Falco, who gets a couple scenes and is never really seen again. For that matter, Neytiri is not as much the driving force that she was in the first film. She’s still fierce and emotional, but Jake is much more the driver here and she spends a lot of time being sad or fearful. Sigourney Weaver is back, cleverly, playing her own child. And Kate Winslet is… in the movie… but not really as important a character as I expected Kate “Fecking” Winslet to be.
Jim Cameron has always had strong women in his films. And this one is no different. They are there. Including amongst the kids. But this one leans a bit heavier into the testosterone, intentionally or not… consciously or not. It’s not a block for me, but I will not be the only one navigating this speedbump.
The next 2/3 of this movie will be in Pandora’s water world, Metkayina, specifically Awa’atlu. Here, we get the first sense that Pandora has multiple 2-legged species/races/ethnicities. They are still blue, but a lighter shade. They are a water-based community, but it’s not at all clear that they are physiologically different than the other Na’vi (they are all Na’vi) in their abilities to manage life underwater. The abilities seem to be learned, not grown (unlike, say, Namor).
At this point, we mostly put humans in the rear view. How is that possible while maintaining the tension? The new film offers the old “human in a tanning bed while operating a Virtual Na’vi” option, but the central “humans” in this one have had their souls place in artificially grown Na’vi bodies - not a lot of explanation, thankfully - and now roam Pandora like the locals.
And smart. Cameron lopped off the part of the first film that people liked less… that first act that was mostly in the military base. No more trying to kill the human or the virtual Na’vi by destroying their connection to their virtual selves. Much cleaner.
Cameron also adds more humans in the improved air masks running around in the jungle or in the water. There are story points where this matters - I’m not spilling - but it is also an interesting part of the experience… more on point than the first time around.
So we spend that 2nd act of the film mostly with Jake, Neytiri and the family adjusting to the water… which is not to say that it’s not beautiful and compelling. We also get a lot more of the kids socializing and trying to find their place, both as growing kids and as outsiders in a new culture.
Third act… the showdown between the humans - led by the man/Na’vi who most hates Jake and is completely, irrationally obsessed by Jake - vs Jake, The Na’vi and nature itself.
And man… no film director has ever earned his superstar status based on his third acts more so than James Cameron.
It would be dumb to seriously claim that Cameron could have someone reading the phone book for the first 2 hours of his films and they would still be the most popular films in the world because the third acts bring you somewhere you have never been, seeing things you have never seen, and feeling strongly about it, even if you are an action cynic.
But it’s only a bit of an exaggeration.
Yes, you care what happens in the third act because you have spent all that time with the characters. So yes. I am not goofy. I’m not stoned. But…
What can I tell you about the 3rd act?
It’s a lot.
And it’s almost a Cameron family movie album.
We get a little Aliens… a little Terminator (1 & 2)… a good chunk of The Abyss… a little True Lies… a little Titanic… maybe even a little Piranha, if you want to push it.
We also get a bit of The Ace/The Great Santini, Whale Rider, Red Dawn, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, The Jungle Book/The Road Warrior, Turning Red, Breaking Away, Encanto, The Neverending Story, Moana, Hero, The Brady Bunch, and more.
It’s relentless. And every time you think you are about to feel like the sausage has been overstuffed, somehow, Cameron pulls you right back in.
I’ve seen the film twice. I look forward to seeing it again… mostly for that 3rd act. It just… it’s just… it’s really beyond description. It would be an act of vanity for me to try… at least before doing a timeline piece next year. You need to experience it. And, damn it, you should experience it in 3D on as big a screen as you can find.
The big theme… nature good, uncaring humans bad, remains. Jim’s world has never been about the subtleties. Heroes can be villains. Villains can be heroes. But when it’s time to add it all up, you know where things stand.
I am leaving out a lot of detail… because you reading it here is not going to make the movie any better or clearer. You will get it. There is no tricky subtext. There are no layers of disagreement on deep issues. You will feel what you feel and for you, that will likely be the truth of how you feel about this film forever.
Avatar: The Way of Water is the most classic movie-movie you will see this year (or most others) and it is the most remarkable, newfangled, nothing-else-like it, how the hell did they do that? game-changing entertainment at the same time.
I subscribe you.