I’ve said it before…and I’ll undoubtedly say it again – I love James Cameron.
The man is a triumphant Canadian export that us crazy Canucks should truly be proud of. He wrote and directed what has long been considered My Favorite Film Ever – Aliens, which would be his masterful 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s legendary Alien (1979). With the obvious exception of his so-called ‘first’ film – 1981’s hilarious Pirahna 2: The Spawning (there is definitely a story of production woe behind that one), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, or even loved, virtually every film he’s created since then. The one thing that does suck though, when it comes to Cameron, is his perfectionistic tendency to take a REALLY long time between projects, and this one was a doozy.
The first Avatar hit screens at the tail-end of 2009 to monstrous, record-breaking success (that has yet to be out-matched)…and he hasn’t done anything since, except tinker around in the world of Pandora for the last dozen years, preparing several, let’s be honest here, unasked-for sequels. Sure, he guided his long-gestating adaptation of the Battle Angel Alita manga into fruition during that period, finally released in 2019*, but in the end handed off directing duties to Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) as a result of his commitment to his blossoming Avatar franchise.
*Where’s the sequel, guys?!
I’ll be honest, right off the bat – while Avatar still ranks as the single coolest 3D experience I’ve ever had, and I love the ‘world’ and the Cameronisms of it, I do not place it high on my list of preferred JC flicks. The movie, ground-breaking as it was, oddly lacks a certain staying power within the cultural zeitgeist (unlike say Aliens and The Terminator, movies which to this day are gleefully revered), which I also find to be an interesting anomaly, given it’s near mythic Box Office status. I do think it wears its influences (Pocahontas, Ferngully, Dances with Wolves etc) on its sleeve a little too obviously and the strong pro-environmental messaging (which I’m normally all for) is very on-the-nose, almost obnoxiously so.
There’s also the cringey dialogue and flat characterizations scattered throughout.
Though some of these aspects do unfortunately carry over from flick-to-flick, they aren’t as big a deal here as compared to the first one, likely due to Cameron wisely sharing writing duties this time around.
That being said, I’m still never bored when I rewatch the original (Extended Cut only, thank you very much!) and can safely say that I definitely like it…a lot. I just don’t love it, like I do the aforementioned Aliens, The Terminator (1984), The Abyss (1989), T2: Judgement Day (1991) and True Lies (1994).
But James Cameron is James Cameron…and I’ll always look forward to whatever his next ground-breaking project may be. And, almost 13 years later, we are finally gifted with more JC content, in the form of Avatar – The Way of Water.
Finally. But was it worth the wait?
For the most part…I’m happy to say yes.
The story picks up approximately 15 years after the events of Avatar and we catch up with ‘Jake’ (Sam Worthington) and ‘Neytiri’ (Zoe Saldana), now parents to 3 kids (2 boys and a girl), who they are raising deep in the forests, in the Omaticaya way, along with the seemingly immaculately conceived daughter of the deceased ‘Grace’ (Sigourney Weaver), a pouty but determined teenaged Na’vi named ‘Kiri’, also played by Weaver.
Added to the Sully clan is a human kid named ‘Spider’ (Jack Champion), who has family ties to an old enemy and who was left behind when the RDA staff fled all those years prior, leading to his adoption of sorts by the Na’vi. This family unit’s wholesome forest existence is threatened by the inevitable return of the ‘Sky People’; the human scum with Earth’s Resource Development Administration, hell bent on again raping Pandora’s bevy of rich natural resources. Among this vengeful space armada (their arrival is a genuinely awesome sequence!) is the newly ‘reincarnated’ ‘Col. Miles Quaritch’ (Stephen Lang) who, despite have gotten very killed in the last movie, has had a digitized copy of his brain patterns grafted into a newly grown Na’vi hybrid body based on ‘Quaritch’s DNA. He is put in charge of a special ‘Blue’ squad, comprised of other hybrid’s formed from the deceased remains of some of his old comrades-in-arms (the look of this team is admittedly pretty sweet) and they are tasked with hunting down ‘Jake’ and ‘Neytiri’, who the RDA considers to be traitors and terrorists. The two fugitives figure this out and flee, family reluctantly in tow, after the devastating arrival of the human ships, heading to the coast where they encounter a clan of sea-dwelling Na’vi, who reluctantly take them in. As they learn to appreciate Pandora’s majestic oceans and are embraced by their new people, ‘Quaritch’ and the RDA’s powerful naval (and whaling!) forces close in, threatening first the local marine life and ecosystem, before turning their destructive attention on the sea people themselves.
Like the first film, I had a really good time with this one at the theatre. It’s a legitimately good sequel, and on a technological level, it’s a clear triumph, especially with the 3D being as immersive and detailed as ever. The years have clearly been kind to Cameron’s incredible film-making apparatus and it shows. This movie, like it’s predecessor, is awe-inspiring in its beauty, its imagination, and the keen attention to detail, especially during the action scenes, of which there are several.
But…it’s not perfect.
For starters, it’s over 3 hours long. Don’t get me wrong, Cameron has done several long films, especially his Director’s Cut versions, but they never felt long-winded (to me, anyway). If I’m simply being honest, and I should be, this one DOES suffer from some of that, most noticeably in Act Two, which felt like numerous rinse and repeat sequences of either the Sully kids getting into shit somehow or admittedly gorgeous dreamlike montages of their interactions with the local sea life. And this is after Cameron allegedly cut 10 or so minutes of additional gun-play, for his own moral reasons. This hefty length would be just fine on disk, in fact I’d welcome it, but I do see the merit in trimming down and tightening up the narrative for a Theatrical run.
Rumor has it that there is no Director’s Cut planned for this one, which I do understand, from a narrative perspective, though I would like to see any and all Deleted Scenes on their own.
Next up is the elephant in the room – HFR.
High Frame Rate – I now know I’m NOT a fan of this technical stylistic choice and I think ole Jimmy C. actually fucked up in trying it out here. For some reason, he decided to ‘push the envelope’ and shot large chunks of this one at 60 or so frames per second, whereas normal shooting speed, to make a person or object move ‘normally’ onscreen, is typically 24 frames per second.
Subjectively speaking, this was very distracting!
My wife wasn’t bothered by it, but if movies are your thing, the bizarre, overly-clear and sped-up looking sequences will stick out like a sore thumb. The sexy motion-blur of film, that imperceptible flicker at 24 FPS, gives movies that specific filmic quality, that flavor or veneer that adds to the cinematic allure, the escapism. What was even stranger was how he would frequently cut from one of these annoying HFR shots right into a normal, movie-looking 24 FPS, that looked amazing…and then back again.
Jim, from the heart, bud…I know you’re a proven technological pioneer, but please let this one go. It doesn’t work and I don’t know what you’re going for. It looks weird and distracting and is, honestly, stylistically beneath you (along with your new penchant for smash zooms!). I just hope they adjust it down it for the Home release version.
As with the first flick, there’s also some narrative laziness that pops up that felt uninspired, like place-holders in the script that simply weren’t filled in or expanded upon by the time cameras rolled (Unobtainium, anyone? *snicker, snicker*), sneaking their way into the final product:
*possible SPOILERS ahead*
-Like the explanation for why ‘Grace’, who died in the first film, SOMEHOW birthed a Na’vi daughter post death? They openly acknowledge it as some big mystery…and just conveniently move on, giving no further insight.
-How can the Na’vi communicate via spoken and hand language with giant space whales…who can somehow talk back?! This actually struck me as an absurdly silly concept. I understand why, but still. Like taking the ‘connection to the world’ element that one step too far.
-How can ‘Kiri’ (Sigourney Weaver), with no explanation, seem to have a near Messiah-like and highly plot-friendly control over the natural surroundings? *shrugs* I’m left wondering if this is some kind of set-up for her character in the inevitable third entry, sort of a delayed narrative pay-off.
-Or how the left-over crew of RDA’s Avatar Program, who all became mutineers in the first film (detailed even more so in a couple cool Deleted Scenes), have managed to comfortably survive the last decade or so at the same Hell’s Gate complex they took over, seemingly without any worries about supplies or retaliation* from the very corporation they fucked over in supporting the Na’vi uprising. This came off like a glaring plot hole to me and should’ve been expanded upon.
*For the third film, they could definitely tackle this, especially since we’ve seen the RDA’s massive stronghold of ‘Bridgehead City’ and it’s ability to strike. The peril that our Na’vi protagonist’s human allies could find themselves in could be a catalyst for new conflict, both physically and internally, as ‘Jake’ may have to remember or come to terms with the fact that he is (or was) human, first and foremost, and those people risked it all to do ‘the right thing’.
-Where from, and how did, the offspring of a certain key antagonist actually come to exist in this world? There was zero hint given in the first film that this would be a ‘thing’, yet…here it is. There isn’t any reason why this added subplot CAN’T exist, it just feels slightly unearned.
These questions in particular stood out and I feel that maybe another pass at the script could’ve helped add a bit more ‘flesh’ to these potentially intriguing plot points.
So…yeah…like I said – not perfect.
But my bitching aside, this is definitely a James Cameron film and I do look forward to seeing it again, just maybe not in the theatre, as sexy as the 3D was.
It’s a solid, if a little repetitive and preachy, sequel that does feel like it’s the middle part of a bigger story, which is apparently what JC has planned. The visuals are terrific, the action is slick, and the world building continues to amaze, with some cool new future-tech weapons and vehicles featured prominently, much of which gets destroyed in a variety of spectacular ways. Being a studious fan of JC’s, I was happy to effortlessly embrace that particular Cameronesque shooting n cutting style during several harrowing sequences involving sinking vessels and people trapped within them, clearly taking pages from his previous amazing work on The Abyss and Titanic, and I loved it. Peak Cameron rising again!
Beyond that, there isn’t much more I can say without delving into a whole lot of specific and possibly boring movie-nerd fan-boy minutiae, so for the purposes of my kneejerkreaction, I’ll keep it simple – if you liked the first Avatar, especially as a theatrical experience, then I can safely predict that you’ll happily embrace this new entry and likely have a really good time with it. As I previously mentioned, on a technical level, this movie is expectedly terrific, boasting exceptional CG (that’s so good it’s really easy to forget you’re watching complex patterns of 1’s and 0’s at work), a thoroughly detailed production, and a robust sound design, while also narratively expanding upon the lived-in futuristic universe we started with back in ’09. Those points alone warrant a hearty recommendation to get those asses into those theatre seats to properly experience JC’s latest foray into the lush cinematic world that he’s has clearly invested tons of time, cash, and heart into.
At the risk of redundancy, I’ll again say that Avatar 2 is a very good, but not terrific, sequel that will hopefully bridge the first and the third films into a wholly satisfying trilogy (assuming Cameron DOESN’T move on with the threat of entries 4, 5, 6, and beyond…please purge that urge, dude! We want to see what else you may have in store for other cinematic endeavours!).
So, dive on in and get wet with Avatar – The Way of Water! It’s a good time!
*Cameron’s very (overly?) direct environmental messaging, especially concerning the horrors of the very outdated and evil whaling industry, had my wife (a Vegan) quietly in tears, unbeknownst to me as I was geeking out on the tech and gunplay that was exploding across the screen. Just saying.