Dec 19, 2022 • 17M

Avatar: The Way of Water - Movie Review (No Spoilers)

2
 
0:00
-17:15
Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Bhekani Khumalo
Impactful ideas that challenge my thinking. I hope they'll challenge yours too.
Episode details
2 comments

This weekend has been pretty phenomenal. First, I just watched the best world cup final of my life and I’m only now getting enough composure to sit down and write. Second, and this is what we’re talking about today. After a very mediocre year for movies yesterday, I experienced absolute cinematic bliss. I’m glad this is the movie we’re closing the year with. I’m talking about Avatar: The Way of Water, of course. Let’s talk about it.

For those who don’t remember, here’s a quick summary of the first movie. Avatar is a sci-fi film set on the planet Pandora, where a diverse group of intelligent humanoid creatures known as the Na'vi live. The film follows Jake Sully, a disabled Marine who is given the chance to take part in an experimental program that allows him to take on the body of a Na'vi avatar. Jake becomes deeply connected to Pandora and its inhabitants but finds himself torn between his loyalty to the humans who sent him there and his growing respect and affection for the Na'vi. The film explores themes of imperialism, environmentalism, and the struggle to balance progress with preservation.

Overall, Avatar is a thrilling, thought-provoking sci-fi epic. It's a must-see for any fan of the genre or anyone who appreciates groundbreaking visual effects and an interesting story. But more relevant to everyone is that it is also the highest-grossing movie of all time after destroying the box office records with a whopping $2.9 billion.

Avatar: The Way of Water is the sequel to Avatar. It’s been many years for us and it’s been many years for Jake and his Na'vi warrior wife, Neytiri. They have kids now. Life is great! Until the “sky people” come back and that sets up the conflict.

I’m glad to say the second movie delivers on that same promise.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way.

The Avatar movies have a poor reputation. However, before discussing the sequel, it's important to acknowledge the valid criticisms of the original movie. James Cameron is known for making highly successful blockbuster films, including Titanic, Terminator, and the Alien franchise. He is known for including fast-paced action, new technology, and well-written characters in his movies. However, this success may have led to an over-inflated ego, resulting in self-indulgent and excessive creative decisions that negatively affected the quality of Avatar. While Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all time, box office revenue does not necessarily reflect the quality of a movie. In fact, sometimes bad films make a lot of money while good films do not.

So here’s what’s wrong with the movie. First, it’s lazy with its storytelling, basically ripping off many classic stories and adding nothing else to them. It's a fine line between ripoff and homage, between plagiarism and legitimate use of tropes within a genre, and Avatar straddles that line from start to finish. Here are some things James Cameron has been accused of ripping off for the original film.

  • Dances With Wolves (1990) follows a wounded veteran who moves to a new frontier and initially works for the group exploiting the land's resources. The veteran eventually befriends the Indigenous people, falls in love with one of the women, and turns against his own people to defend the tribe and their land against invaders.

  • The Disney film Pocahontas (1995) shares themes of racism and colonialism with Avatar and features a romance between a white man exploring a new frontier and a Native woman. The Native woman, Pocahontas, is betrothed to an uninteresting tribesman before falling in love with the white man, similar to the plot of Avatar in which Neytiri is also betrothed to an uninteresting tribesman before falling in love with the white main character Jake Sully.

These are just two examples, but the list is long, featuring other stories like Dune (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997). While there’s nothing wrong about reusing classic tropes and ideas and if you boil them down enough, most movies comprise the same basic foundational elements. But you can at least add a bit of original spin to it and some nuance to it. And encourage the audience to look at a well-told story from a new perspective.

The second issue is with the antagonist in Avatar. He lacks depth and has no compelling motivations for his actions. The best antagonists are the ones with understandable motivations. The guys that you feel you would almost agree with under different circumstances. Like Thanos in Infinity War, who has witnessed the consequences of overpopulation and seeks to solve the problem on a universal scale using the most brutal of methods. He doesn’t really want to do it and he takes no pleasure in it, but he knows he’s the only one with the will and the means to see it through. So he’s utterly ruthless in pursuing his goal. He’s still doing a terrible thing, but he’s doing it to serve a higher purpose and you can at least see his point of view even if you don’t support it.

It would have been more interesting if the antagonist in Avatar, Quaritch, had a similar motivation, such as a desire to protect the troops under his command or a desire for revenge because of personal loss caused by the Na'vi. As it stands, Quaritch is simply a one-dimensional, irredeemably evil character.

Ultimately, Avatar has been criticized for being overly focused on superficial spectacle and shallow emotions. While it may be visually impressive, it lacks substance and depth. Without the 3D and large cinema screen, the plot of Avatar is seen as shallow and derivative, borrowing elements from other classic stories. Its success can be attributed to a combination of Cameron's reputation, financial resources, timing, and positive word of mouth, rather than its actual merit.

The Good.

I love the Avatar movie. I loved it when it was released. Since then, I have watched it several times and enjoyed it. And one thing that can’t be denied is that while story-wise, it had been done before in several ways. Technically, it was a massive leap, and it was a very entertaining and crowd-pleasing movie. That made it feel fresh and exciting.

I remember vividly Jake Sully waking up for the first time in his avatar, feeling the sand with his new feet, taking his first run, and testing his new strength and agility. I was right there with him and I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement he was feeling. That, to me, has always stood out about Avatar and it is one of the biggest things that James Cameron did well and that he has done well again: Fully immersing the audience in the world of Pandora. Avatar is more than just a movie. It’s a full sensory experience that transports you to another place and makes you feel you are truly a part of the action. This is something that James Cameron has consistently excelled at in his work,

With the way the cinematic landscape has changed over the years, big-budget movies have really become big cash grabs by studios for the most part. Sure, they work on the story and the action and characters and the visuals and all that, but they lack that “something else.” Sure, Avatar made a lot of money (and I hope this one will too) but it feels like more than just money to me. It feels like James Cameron’s passion project and that passion really shines through. Watching it is like witnessing a creator emerge from their cave and unveiling the thing that’s kept them hidden all this time.

Technologically speaking, this movie is ahead of anything we’ve seen on the big screen. It’s a marvel—pun not intended. It’s blue monkey people in a completely made-up world, yes, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s all computer-generated. Don’t judge it from the visuals you saw in the trailer, go and see it for yourself, on the biggest and best screen you can find. In 3D and IMAX if you can. You will not regret it. It is visually stunning!

At first, when they’re in the forest, it feels a little like, yeah sure, this is stunning, but we’ve seen it before. But the moment they get to the water places, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. One thing I kept thinking about is that it really shows that Cameron spent a bunch of money diving in the sea and exploring the Mariana trench. He presents the oceans here in such breathtaking detail. It’s pretty clear that for him, being part of the world of Pandora and experiencing it along with the characters is an integral part of the movie. So he gives you several moments of these awe-inspiring scenes where he slows down to just let the audience take it in. In fact, the characters also pause and take it in along with you. It’s that incredible. From what I hear, the underwater scenes are even shown at double the frame rate to enhance the experience, but I didn’t notice it.

If you care at all about filmmaking, there will be many places in this movie where you will be absolutely stumped about how they did it. Sure, we know actors were in motion capture suits, but beyond that, it’s a mystery. Everyone is comparing it with the mystery we all felt about how they shot those fighter jet scenes in Top Gun Maverick. It’s absolutely stunning!

One of the things that I really liked about Avatar 2 was the way it incorporated both old and new characters into the story. Jake Sully and the other familiar faces are still the main focus, but we also get a lot of time with the new characters, especially the kids. And the best part is that these new characters aren't just there for show – they're actually really important to the story and have their own arcs and stuff. It would have been easy to just make this a Jake-centric movie, but the fact that they gave the new characters so much screen time and made them a crucial part of the plot was a really nice touch. Overall, it was a great balance of old and new.

Story.

One of the things that came out of reviews of Avatar 2 was that the story was too simple. And I get it, the plot is pretty straightforward, just like in the first movie. But to me, that's kind of the point. James Cameron tells these really basic, relatable stories—like protecting the environment or taking care of your family—and then he goes all out on the visuals and the world-building and all that stuff. It's like he's taking a simple story and painting it on this giant, colourful canvas with all these amazing, otherworldly details. He's taking something we can all understand and making it into this big, epic adventure. And I think it works really well. It's the same thing that was done with Top Gun Maverick—a simple story, told in a visually stunning way with outstanding action scenes. I think it's a really effective way to tell a story.

It’s not the best movie I’ve ever watched story-wise, but it’s clear that a lot of passion went into making it an amazing movie when you put everything together. Let me highlight a few elements that stuck out for me.

So the first movie was about Jake integrating with these new people and learning to be a Na'vi. That element is here as well, in a different form. Their family has moved to join this different tribe that lives in the sea, which has evolved to live and do everything in the sea. Their technology is based around water and they even ride sea creatures. Jake and his family aren’t like that. They’re forest people, so a big part of the movie is them integrating with this new tribe and learning “the way of water.” I was sceptical about this theme showing up again and it feeling monotonous, but I think it was handled well.

Another thing I was concerned about was the return of Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch and Sigourney Weaver. Bringing back people who died in a story can break the immersion in the story and make deaths feel cheap and meaningless. However, the way they brought back Colonel Quaritch was quite masterful. And his story arc and Jake’s are quite similar, even though the major conflict is between the two of them. He’s still pretty two-dimensional as a villain though and is just being used as a pawn to drive the plot with no meaningful motivations of his own. But given how it ended, this might still be redeemable in the sequels.

But just like the first movie, the first half of the movie isn’t very emotionally engaging. We’re still learning the environments, acquainting with many characters and learning what they’re all going through in their lives. But then around the midpoint, something devastating happens, and that’s when I got hooked. I was feeling everything with the characters and I wanted all the people who did the thing to pay. And there’s this action sequence with Neytiri that was just amazing! The last half of this movie was absolutely thrilling.

In the wake of woke messaging that’s rife in movies and TV these days, Avatar is a story about a typical nuclear family with a father who is trying hard to protect his family. It’s a family story, and I loved it. There’s one particularly heartbreaking scene , but that also made it all real for me. I can’t wait to talk about it with those who have seen the movie. There are no gender-swapped characters, no random new black person, no awkwardly placed gay character and no “strong female leads” taking over the spotlight from their male counterparts. It’s your run-of-the-mill traditional society, but in the current landscape, it feels new and refreshing.

Now, of course, just like how there was a strong message to protect the forests in the last movie there’s a strong message to protect the sea and sea creatures in particular. I mean, the movie is called “The Way of Water” and the trailer has shots of people marvelling at things under the sea. I’m sure you probably already expected it.

Final thoughts.

In the end, I think Avatar: The Way of Water is proof that you probably shouldn’t bet against James Cameron. If it weren’t that movie-going culture has declined since the pandemic, I think this movie had a good shot at breaking its predecessor’s record. Even in this unfamiliar landscape of massive Marvel superhero blockbusters. It really is a breath of fresh air to see a big-budget film that’s not about superheroes. Not just that, but one that really brings back that old feeling of going to the movies.

However, if you didn’t like the first Avatar movie, this one likely won’t win you over. But for fans of Avatar, The Way of Water is a fantastic next chapter. And make a great setup for the rest of the sequels that we know are coming. It also builds up on the theme that Pandora isn’t just something you’re watching, you’re living and experiencing it along with the characters. James Cameron took that Marvel movie budget and poured it into his multi-decade passion project and it shows.

It was a memorable experience. The visuals look amazing. It has a classic storytelling spirit with family at the centre of it and the last 45 minutes of the movie was a brilliant action spectacle. It really feels like what movies used to feel like and it was absolutely entertaining!

Go and watch it, let’s take it to two billion again!