Who can deny that James Cameron knows his way around a blockbuster? In fact, ‘knows his way around’ is an unforgivable understatement. His track record is unlike anyone’s when it comes to sheer scale and spectacle (and that’s before we even talk box office figures). You could say the likes of Villenauve’s Dune or The Russo Brothers’ Endgame are of the same ilk and as such, should be talked about in the same breath. And there’s some substance to that, sure. But Cameron was swinging box-office-busting haymakers in the form of Aliens (or should I say Alien$) and Titanic before Villenuave et al were even on the directorial scene. Cameron isn’t the most frequent filmmaker, but when he commits, he leaves nothing to chance. He oversees every frame, down to the last imperfection on a Na’vi’s cheek, and though that could be seen as overbearing, the end result speaks for itself. Clocking in at over 3 hours, Avatar The Way of Water is a lot of movie, but a visually exquisite, sonically staggering and perfectly rendered one.
However, as with the original Avatar, narratively speaking, The Way Of Water is left desperately wanting. Thematically, nothing feels fresh or different, in fact it is more or less a re-hash of the first film which was itself a heavily criticised, less-than-subtle metaphor for colonialism. So to seemingly ignore that feedback and churn out the same broad strokes in a slightly different context seems at best arrogant, at worst, lazy. But knowing what we know about Cameron, it’s probably the former. The children of Sam Worthignton’s Sully and Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri offer a slightly refreshed perspective. We spend quite some time with the youngsters, each of an age that informs their actions well, giving them credibility and authenticity. Some of the highlights of the film are when we get to just spend time with these kids, exploring the new reef-based world with them. Admittedly it starts to feel a little sluggish and repetitive around the half-way mark. Kids breaking the rules then subsequently being reprimanded by their parents is a beat that happens four or five times and gets pretty tiresome.
Unfortunately, the emphasis is weighted so much towards the antagonists and the Na’vi characters, the villains seem all the more mundane and basic. Stephen Lang reprises the role of Quaritch, the bland, one-note antagonist from the original. The only twist being he is now big and blue due to his consciousness having been backed up into an Avatar before his death 10 years prior. The idea of a Na’vi-hating, trigger-happy psycho-villain being stuck in the form of his mortal enemy could be an interesting dichotomy to explore, but such nuances are of no interest to Cameron, evidenced by some throw away dialogue about the Avatar’s superior strength, size and speed. Perhaps it will become more of a theme in future films, but it feels like a missed opportunity to soften the edges of Quaritch’s attitudes regarding indigenous inhabitants of Pandora.
All this said, it’s hard to argue with the cold, hard stats. Globally it has raked in a colossal $2.172 Billion, making it the 4th highest grossing film of all time so clearly the appetite for this world and these characters is there. Yes, those numbers are bolstered by the 3D market sure, but still, with 3 of the top 4 biggest films ever in his pocket, Cameron is truly one of the greats.
Ruling – An audio-visual onslaught of colour and spectacle, showcasing the phenomenal strides of performance-capture technology and solidifying Cameron’s place at the forefront of blockbuster cinema, sadly hampered by a lackluster plot told through only semi-interesting characters.