Thirteen years have passed since the release of James Cameron’s Avatar. So, it is probably right that we reflect a little on that film, its achievement, and how it has settled in the intervening years. Despite grossing close to $3billion at the worldwide box office, it is almost universally accepted that the film’s cultural footprint remains limited. There is little evidence of conventions, widespread cosplaying, or extensive amounts of fan fiction around. It was dismissed as a generic tale of the white saviour being accepted by the natives who he then leads in battle against his former people – just like Dances with Wolves, FernGully, The Last Samurai, and many others. Its profitability was boosted by the third dimension, at the start of another attempt to foist 3D on a generally unconvinced public. Jake Sully was a typical meat and potatoes-type of Cameron lead, portrayed with little charisma by Sam Worthington, back when Hollywood seemed desperate to make him a thing.
Add to this some really simplistic dialogue, walking cliches in Giovanni Ribisi’s golfing company head, and Stephen Lang’s over muscled, scarred-up soldier, Miles Quaritch, logical fallacies such as a multi-million pound investment given to a not-over-bright character without a day’s training or study in his life, ‘Unobtanium’ being chosen as the name for the McGuffin (yes, we know it is a real word, but it sounds stupid), and a general lack of complexity to a story that was killing it at the box office, whilst many were left baffled, and, it is fair to say, that Avatar remains a divisive film to this day.
What Cameron had done though, is to marry spectacle to heart, and execute it with attention to detail. We see only the top of the iceberg, but every facet of Pandora was designed with purpose and backstory. It was not hard to find people who experienced a visceral emotional reaction to the film. There was talk of depression at the forests of Pandora not being real, and a kind of separation anxiety being experienced by some.
It is possible that this speaks to the real purpose of 3D – not the marketed ‘wow’ factor, but that of immersion. The director has spoken of how watching in three dimensions affects how our brains not only experience the film, but how we store the memory of it. On a personal note, there seems to be some truth to that, as a film that was distinctly underwhelming thirteen years ago, and it remains deeply flawed to this day, has become a pleasant one just to hang out with from time-to-time. Almost against better judgement, wanting to see more of that world has been a feeling that has grown over time, even if the film’s cultural footprint has not.
So, finally, we have the first of four planned sequels, Avatar: The Way of Water. This has a similar time-jump to that we have experienced in real-life. The first five minutes or so of the film are Jake narrating us up to date. In short, he is the head of the Omaticaya clan we met last time out. He is married to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and together they have four children. Teenage boys Neteyam and Lo’ak (Jamie Flatters and Britain Dalton), an adopted girl, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver playing the daughter of Grace’s avatar – her character from the first film, whose pregnancy is, at least at this stage, a mystery). Their fourth child is a younger daughter, Tuktirey (known as ‘Tuk’ and portrayed by Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They also spend a lot of time with a semi-wild human boy, Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind when the majority of humans left for Earth around 14-15 years before, as babies cannot go into cryostasis. His parentage will be a plot point. At the end of this introduction, Jake and Neytiri see the sky lit-up by the returning humans.
Cutting to a year later, humankind has established an embryonic city as a base of operations, under the command of General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco). The goal now is no longer unobtanium, but a new home, as the Earth is now beyond saving. Jake and the wider clan have taken to sabotaging the human efforts, with an early set-piece seeing them derailing one of the supply trains. At the same time, we are introduced to the concept of a recombinant. This is where humans have had their minds stored on discs that can then be downloaded into a lab grown Na’vi, in much the same way that Jake’s Avatar was grown in the first film. Through this device, many of the slain soldiers make a return in new bodies, including Miles Quaritch, who has now been reborn with the face of the enemy, and, despite having no memory of his death, he is seeking revenge on Jake.
To keep his clan safe, Jake relinquishes leadership and decides to remove his family to the distant Metkayina people. The Metkayina are reef people, with body paint and tattoos that are evocative of Pacific Islanders. The are more turquoise in colour, have evolved webbed hands, bigger forearms, and much meatier tails, as they live an aquatic life, in close contact with the sea and its creatures. Their closest allies in the sea are the tulkun, large whale-sized creatures with a hint of crustacean in their design, and they are considered more intelligent than the Na’vi. They are under threat from humans who hunt them for their brain enzymes, which have anti-ageing properties that can sell for up to $80 million for a canister’s worth. Taken in by the Metkayina the Sully family have to learn how to live in and around water, Kiri needs to learn more of her connection with the deity Eywa, Netayam will learn about representing his family the right way, whilst Lo’ak will negotiate first love, and develop a kinship with the tulkan. All the while, Quaritch is looking for them, and he is willing to cause suffering to find them.
So, let’s start with the negatives. Cameron’s ear for dialogue has not improved. Much like George Lucas, it is as though that is his least favourite element of writing and filmmaking, though in the mouths of children it does not jar as badly, and in general there are fewer cringe-inducing moments than in the first film. The plot feels less consequential than the first, even if the scope of the filmmaking has grown. The very existence of the only Na’vi we had met were under threat last time out, with their entire way of life, and their most sacred places looking as though they would be destroyed for resources. Here, although there is a lot of destruction, the bulk of the plot is concerned with the Colonel’s revenge. As such, it simply feels like the next chapter, rather than a complete story: film three is very clearly on the horizon. Yes, we knew this, but the film is positioning itself for the next chapter in a way that makes it a struggle to see this as self-contained.
In the IMAX presentation, this film has a variable frame rate. In short, films are presented at 24 frames per second (fps). That is twenty-four still pictures that create the illusion of movement. Peter Jackson had experimented with 48fps for his Hobbit trilogy. There, it created a feeling of hyper-reality, all the sets looked exactly that – sets, rather than a home, or whatever it was meant to be, the lack of motion blur made it look more like a BBC costume drama, and the clarity of it meant that you could even see Gandalf’s contact lenses! It did not work, and it was worrying to see that it would be attempted here.
In the event both speeds work in isolation (for clarity the projector is running at 48fps, but for 24fps scenes each picture is shown twice). It remains cinematic at the higher speed and gives clarity to some of the action sequences. The problem is with the constant switches. Even within a scene, one shot will be at one speed, the reverse at another and this can cause issues with both as the brain re-adjusts. The higher frame rate takes a few seconds to get used to, and the lower rate can end up looking jerky as we have just moved off images that were much smoother. One or the other, at least for complete scenes, if not the film as whole, would have been preferable, but it must be said that James Cameron has proven that high frame rates can work in cinema, much as they now do in gaming, it is simply a matter of set and shot design.
On a more positive note – at least for the IMAX 3D presentation – The Way of Water takes the immersive achievements of the first film and dials them up further. Every frame is full of details that have had to be conceived and given life separately. The ocean is teeming with diverse creatures and fauna, and even some waste and detritus is in shot at times. Although clearly based on real tribes on earth, the Metkayina is a gorgeously conceived tribe, an attractive green hue that complements their environment, with eyes to match, and a well-conceived home village. At well over three-hours it freshens the experience up not just to be spending all of this in the same forests as first time out. It is to be hoped that future sequels build out even further, taking us to fresh tribes and different creeds.
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Fans of the first film will find much to love, as the beauty of that creation is clearly surpassed here. The director has created a family that it is pleasant to be with, to the point that Jake (played so much better here by Worthington that first time out) is often a side character (Neytiri is completely short-changed here). He has presented situations that are relatable to most: looking out for family, fitting in somewhere new, first love, dealing with bullying, and made it all something so much more than sequel-filler. Detractors will find nothing here to change their minds. The story is still relatively basic, the dialogue even funny in places (and not for the right reasons), and even those relatable plot points are somewhat soap-opera-like in their preoccupations.
If there is a desire to see this, then theatrically, in the taller IMAX format and 3D is the way to do so (and trust us, 3D is rarely something we would promote), as its only major calling card is that immersion in another world, something that will not be replicated at home. As such, and remembering that much of the enjoyment of Avatar: The Way of Water likely comes from the presentation, the event – and remembering that this will be watched everywhere from laptops to phones to drive-ins, we have to temper our initial enthusiasm somewhat. A wonderful feat of filmmaking, producing a work that is, on balance, stronger than its predecessor, yet when the initial rush fades, we will be left with something a little better than decent.
Avatar: The Way of Water is out now in cinemas.