The Movie Waffler New to VOD - AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER | The Movie Waffler


When Pandora is once again invaded, Jake Sully seeks refuge with his family.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: James Cameron

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement

Avatar: The Way of Water poster

Alfred Hitchcock maintained that a film's running time should never exceed what he called "the bladder barrier," the length of time an audience member could last before having to run to the bathroom. He set this duration at a little over two hours. At three hours and 10 minutes, Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron's first sequel to his ground-and-record-breaking 2009 sci-fi adventure, will stretch viewers' bladders to the limit. And just to be even more sadistic, Cameron has only gone and filled his movie with liquid. Lots and lots of liquid. When his Space Smurf heroes the Na'vi aren't swimming underwater they're being rained on, and whenever their human antagonists are on screen they're constantly guzzling cups of coffee. I see you Mister Cameron, you cruel bastard.

The reason there's so much water in Avatar: The Way of Water is because it's set mostly on an alien archipelago. But it's mostly because water has long proven extremely difficult to recreate digitally. Cameron has always liked to push both himself and the limits of the cinematic form, and by committing himself to this franchise for the remainder of his career he appears to have doubled down on breaking new ground in the realm of digital visual effects. Nobody can deny that Cameron and his crack team have done an outstanding job here, heralding a new era of VFX. The digital water is impossible to distinguish from the real thing, and the way it flows naturally off animated characters and creatures is ridiculously impressive.

Avatar: The Way of Water review

High Frame Rate, the experimental technique that has broken filmmakers like Ang Lee and Peter Jackson in recent years, has also finally been conquered by the self-proclaimed King of the World. Previous attempts to employ the technique - which involves filming at 48 frames per second rather than the customary 24 and is believed in theory to provide an image closer to that seen by the human eye – have resulted in an image that looks like an Australian soap opera played at double speed. This isn't an issue with The Way of Water, with smooth-flowing movement throughout. Even the 3D isn't irritating here, though I still maintain it adds nothing to the experience.

Whether or not it repeats the box office success of its predecessor, The Way of Water has guaranteed itself a chapter in the history of visual effects. Take a bow, Mister Cameron, you've done it again. But just as the morally objectionable Birth of a Nation is an undeniably important and ground-breaking piece of cinema, you'll likely wish the techniques developed here had been used for something more palatable. Next level visual effects are all well and good - and for the first 30 minutes of The Way of Water you'll be so hypnotised by what you're seeing that you won’t care what the images are in service of - but at a certain point you'll find yourself pining for those old-fashioned elements of an involving story and interesting characters, both of which are in short supply here.

The first movie told the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic space marine who returns to service by becoming an "Avatar" of the Na'vi, the alien race who stand between the military forces of Earth and the lush, resource filled planet of Pandora. Befriending the Na'vi and falling for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, providing a bit of blue for the Dads in the audience), Sully fought alongside the Na'vi and repelled the human invaders. Where the first movie was a reworking of Dances with Wolves, this one is more Dances with Whales, with Sully seeking refuge for his family with a Maori-esque island dwelling people when the humans return to Pandora.

Avatar: The Way of Water review

Set 13 years after the first film, this sequel sees Sully now married to Neytiri with a brood of kids, including the adopted Kiri, the "half-breed" daughter of Sigourney Weaver's character from the first one (Weaver plays Kiri). This sees Cameron do his best to evoke John Ford, with themes of sons desperate to impress their gruff fathers and half-breeds seeking their true identity clunkily shoehorned into what is largely just a dumb shoot 'em up with a few Esther Williams swimming routines thrown in. Also seeking his true identity is Spider (Jack Champion), a dreadlocked feral human kid who is so annoying he's like the unwanted love child of Wesley Crusher and Jar Jar Binks. The movie's silliest subplot borrows from Star Trek IV and sees characters conversing with whale-like creatures. Elsewhere there's a half-baked creatures from the blue lagoon romantic narrative between a couple of horny teens.

We're supposed to care about all this hippy-dippy stuff but none of it's very convincing because Cameron has never seemed like a natural fit for this sort of stuff. His best films are dark and tough movies like The Terminator and Aliens, with tough-talking heroes who don’t have time to express any sentiments, at least not verbally. It's no coincidence that The Way of Water feels most like a James Cameron movie when we're in the company of the team of Marines hunting Sully. Led by a returning Stephen Lang, whose deceased human general has had his memories implanted in a hulking Na'vi avatar (a Navatar?), they recall the badass grunts of Aliens and will have you wishing Cameron could take his new toys and deliver a regular sci-fi actioner once again. If there's a surrogate for Cameron among his characters, you imagine it's Lang's villain rather than Worthington's hero. When Lang issues a threat of "I'll be nice once, then I won’t," it sounds like something you might imagine Cameron saying to a crew member forced to cancel an anniversary dinner with his wife because he needs to spend the weekend perfecting the design of a space lobster.

The Way of Water shares more than a few similarities with Steven Seagal's infamous vanity project On Deadly Ground, including a script so bad it could have been written by the ball-breaking Buddhist himself. The dialogue is truly atrocious, with lines a six-year-old kid would be embarrassed to have come out of the mouths of toy soldiers in his back yard. Cameron finds a way to quickly dispense with subtitles by having Sully tell us the Na'vi language sounds like English to him now, but it's very much 21st century American-English, and much of the visual world building is undone when you have to listen to aliens calling each other "bro" and exclaiming "shit!"

Avatar: The Way of Water review

Those visuals are also undone whenever the movie takes us away from the jungles and deep seas of Pandora and puts us in relatably real world environs. The HFR soap opera flatness rears its ugly head, with cinematographer Russell Carpenter unable to light sets with the same depth created by his digital counterparts. In some scenes the camera goes underwater to treat us to a magical fantasy world, only to surface to what has all the visual sheen of an episode of Baywatch.

Cameron has threatened two more instalments of this franchise. I have no doubt that he'll break some more new ground in future films, but I just wish he could break that ground with the sort of action movies he's more suited to. Regardless of what I might want from Cameron, he's getting to make the movies he wants to make, and he may well be one of the last blockbuster filmmakers allowed to do so.

Avatar: The Way of Water
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.