Avatar: The Way of Water Review: The Way of Big Popcorn Cinema Defined - mxdwn Movies

Raymond Flotat December 13th, 2022 - 9:00 AM

It’s been a long thirteen years since James Cameron graced us with another of his movie industry changing spectacles, the 2009 box office smash, Avatar. The first Avatar film revitalized the ancient technology of 3D and promised to give cinema as a whole a calling card not easily replicable in a world of Internet piracy. It was a landmark to be certain, bursting at the seams with a bold depth of detail that most never imagined possible. Until the 2019 release of Avengers: Endgame, it legitimately became the biggest box office draw of all time. It showed a movie business that had not learned its lesson betting against Cameron’s unparalleled vision for epic movie experience all the way back in 1997 on his record breaking film, Titanic, that he was still the pace car for innovation in his medium. The first Avatar’s success was so big, that it was quickly announced there were two sequels planned. As the years ticked by, two became three, then three became four. So, this long awaited sequel to an unbridled masterpiece, Avatar: The Way of Water, has finally arrived. A full thirteen years on and Cameron now four decades into his career, will Avatar 2 hit with the power and authority that Avatar 1 did? Fancy Pants Popcorn

Avatar: The Way of Water Review: The Way of Big Popcorn Cinema Defined - mxdwn Movies

The first film centered on enveloping the viewer in the world of Pandora, a moon far away in the Alpha Centauri star system. Humanity’s hope for Earth dwindling, yet their technology strong enough to speed through the stars, they came to Pandora looking to mine a material called “unobtanium.” Their efforts are hindered by the Na’vi, a blue colored species of lithe humanoids that live in harmony with nature. Until the film’s third act and final showdown, much of the story centered on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) piloting what the humans call an Avatar, a Na’vi host they can pilot through a super advanced form of VR, in an effort to learn how to secure the cooperation of the local inhabitants. The first film focuses on explaining how every living thing on Pandora is physically and spiritually connected through Eywa (essentially the goddess of the planet), as Jake and Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) fall in love. By its conclusion, it’s pretty firmly cemented how much it matters to care for a “planet” rather than using it an endless resource pile and/or ashtray.

So following that epic smackdown, we find Jake Sully fully integrated and carrying the mantle of chief of his wife’s tribe. They have a large family with numerous children and are living in pretty much perfect peace. Until, the humans return that is. The story shifts into the aftermath of an even larger squadron of humans coming to lay waste and strip mine Pandora for its resources and Sully leading a resistance effort to attack and steal their gear at every turn. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say old nemesis Colonel Mile Quaritch (Stephen Lang) returns, resurrected by the RDA and begins a blood hunt to find, capture and kill Sully as the head of the snake using whatever means necessary. This opens a cat and mouse adventure where Sully and Neytiri take their family to a remote island network where on one particular island hides the Metkayina tribe. They ask for asylum with the Metkayina and attempt to learn their ways. Sully and Neytiri try to acclimate to this majestic and remote form of life while navigating some pretty relatable parental difficulties with their four children. Where the first movie very effectively drove home the spiritual and literal connection Pandora’s inhabitants share between each other and Eywa, The Way of Water has it as somewhat of an after thought.

The journey is magnificent on the way through the film; do not doubt it for a second. But if there’s any fault to the film its that it pins your expectations as a viewer as that you get how important that is (and as a stand-in for saving our actual planet Earth) without you having to be convinced of that again. It’s there, but it’s not the centerpiece of this film. This time, the focus is on the film’s strongest single attribute, just how luminously beautifully rendered the planet Pandora is. The first film showed the promise of what 3D technology could do when really layered into the building of the film. Of course, Hollywood as a whole used it somewhat avariciously, using it as a cheap way to boost box office revenue rather than a committed part of the art form. Naturally, less and less films came out focusing on 3D as the years went by. It’s almost like no time passed as this film shows all over again just how marvelously beautiful of an experience it can produce when done with a sensitive and skilled hand. The forest and skies of the Hallelujah Mountains, the oceans and hidden caves and eclipses are positively breathtaking. Just sitting in the moment in the first third of the three-hour epic is enough to forget our own troubled world completely. It feels as if Cameron was determined to expand upon this beloved world of Pandora as much as he could and fully explain complex biology and behavioral patterns of numerous fictional species of this oceanic world. Hate to put it like: “Come for the visual spectacle, stay for the tulkuns—Pandora’s version of a whale,” but there it is. The wonderful National Geographic documentary on Disney+ Secrets of the Whales ends up feeling like important research for its Executive Producer James Cameron on the way to rendering this mythology.

So much time is invested in this “world expanding” that Worthington and Saldana’s parts in the story feel thinner than they could be or deserved to be. They play their roles as well as expected, but it feels thinner than you would hope for after investing so much time in getting to know them in the first film. On the far side, The Way of Water’s finale is as climactic an ending as you’ve likely seen in years. Even the full battlefield war at the end of Avengers: Endgame feels nowhere near as stressful as the way this film all comes together. No spoilers here for those that need an unblemished experience, but Cameron takes this crescendo to an extent beyond even his own action movie masterpiece Aliens’ ending. That closing was so intense Roger Ebert famously derided it as being far too stressful. Avatar: The Way of Water goes for that, practically on steroids. The question to ask yourself—whomever you are at this point in your life after surviving a global pandemic—is whether that kind of intensity and stress feels like your idea of entertainment following the insane three years we have all just gone through. It brings home the themes it aims to, but man, what an anxiety-inducing vault to the finish line.

Avatar: The Way of Water Review: The Way of Big Popcorn Cinema Defined - mxdwn Movies

Salted Caramel Corn There’s no denying it. Avatar: The Way of Water will be a gigantic smash hit at the box office. This will hold a spectacle many movie viewers have been languishing without these last several years with the notable exception of Spider-Man: No Way Home; the kind of big popcorn cinema that used to be so common, that James Cameron mastered decades ago. Moviegoers will marvel at the sheer scale and detail of this film. The question for anyone else, after four decades of being the forefront of what big budget cinema could be, is James Cameron the face of the last forty years of cinema, or the next forty years?