The major reason Ratatouille‘s Anton Ego is so many critics’ favorite depiction of a critic (other than the dream of having a velvety Peter O’Toole voice) is that he shows how much we all want to love the things we take in. Beneath his imposing veneer lies the soft heart of a man who wants to be completely bowled over by a piece of art. It may not always work out that way, but no self-respecting critic wants to find a piece of art mediocre or bad. Lovers of art want to have a reason to love even more art and, even if we feel reasonably certain that a given film is going to disappoint us, we still hold to the hope that maybe it won’t. True film critics start every film hoping, praying to be surprised. And when that happens, there are precious few experiences more rejuvenating and magical. I never disliked James Cameron’s 2009 world-beater Avatar. Not by a long shot. I always though it was pretty good and I still basically feel that way. Its environmentalist message is definitely earnest and cheesy (even if pitched entirely to my viewpoint), but earnestness has never been the Cameron trait that bothers me. Obviously the visuals were and are staggering. But the visionary director’s nakedly sentimental action extravaganza never hit me with the emotional intensity of Cameron masterworks like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens or Titanic. It wasn’t that Avatar was dopey, because of course it was. It’s not like Cameron has ever been particularly script-focused to begin with. His plots and characters deserve a lot of praise, but he’s the furthest thing from writerly or subtle. Maybe it was just that the 2009 Avatar‘s New-Agey ideas felt too borrowed and obvious, even for someone as broad as Cameron. It was as if he had just registered for Facebook and stumbled on a cache of well-meaning but hackneyed climate change memes that he couldn’t wait to share. Avatar was far too committed and sincere for me to ever call it phoned in. It clearly came from a place of great conviction on Cameron’s part. But maybe its ham-handed message and those well-worn tropes so many made fun of it for (the comparisons to Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas) pointed toward something just a little less personal about it. Even True Lies feels more suffused with Big Jim Cameron’s heart and personality, what with its goofy divorced guy energy. I like Avatar fine in a way where I was content to never talk about it or even watch it again. Unlike so much of the movie-watching world, I did not have a pressing need to “return to Pandora”. So. all of that to say, Avatar: The Way of Water being even pretty good would have been a splendid surprise for this one-time Navi agnostic. But what I ended up getting from the second Avatar was well above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. And I could break it all down into a numerical grade and put caveats and qualifiers on my praise but, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel like it. A film as elating as this leaves a critic too satisfied for hedging or hair-splitting. After a three-hour bath in Cameron’s aquamarine wonderland, quibbling is the furthest thing from my mind. I am surprised and delighted to tell you that I unabashedly loved Avatar: The Way of Water.
Avatar: The Way of Water picks up some 16 years after the first one. After fending off his own military from decimating the forests of Pandora for precious metals, former paraplegic Earth Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, shaking off the stiffness of his first outing with Cameron and giving what I can happily call a tremendously good performance) is now living in domestic bliss with his Navi warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, as reliably strong here as she always is) and their four children. This includes their two teenaged songs, responsible eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and their second eldest, the more impetuous and eager Loak (Britain Dalton). They also have an adopted teenage daughter named Kiri. Kiri (marvelously played with a Winona Ryder-like blend of quirky innocence and rebelliousness by 71-year James Cameron muse Sigourney Weaver) was birthed by Earth scientist Grace (played briefly by Weaver without the use of mo-cap technology), who fell into a coma after one of the first movie’s battles. Kiri’s father remains unknown, though giddy speculation runs high among her siblings. The youngest Sully child is their 7-year old daughter Tuk (Trinity Bliss, adorable). The loving Sully clan has been enjoying a relatively uneventful decade-plus. Their season in the Sun ends when Earth ships suddenly arrive in a fiery blast, carrying a new wave of Sky People, as the Navi term the Earth interlopers. Cameron cuts to a year later with Jake, Neytiri and the rest of the Navi (including the Sully sons) fighting to stop the Earth forces from encroaching into their sacred forest. They are doing quite a good job of it too, which is why the military presence on Pandora has called for an upgrade to their forces. In an effort to help neutralize chosen warrior Jake Sully, the corporate and military interests of Earth have essentially brought back the first film’s villain, Colonel Quaritch (a very strong Steven Lang), nothwithstanding the fact that he expired with two arrows through the chest at the conclusion of the first Avatar. The film repeatedly reminds us, however, that this is not actually the same Colonel Quaritch but a kind of copy containing all of his data. In other words, Quaritch’s superiors shrewdly preserved his memories on a zip drive and have uploaded them into a nine-foot tall Navi body. The new Quaritch wants a chance for revenge against the turncoat Jake and against the Navi woman who violently dispatched the human Quaritch. The Earth forces on Pandora hope this personal vendetta (and the aid of Quaritch’s elite team of Marines, also brought back to life in avatar form) will turn the tides in their favor and give them the added push they need to neutralize the Forest Navi resistance. And, in the jam-packed first thirty minutes of Cameron’s three-hour epic, Quaritch and his grunts come close to succeeding, after they catch the Sully children snooping around the site of the first film’s final battle. Jake and Neytiri arrive just in time to rescue their kids and the whole Sully family escapes by the blue skin of their teeth. But Quaritch does take one prisoner: his own 16-year old son, Spider. Spider was only two at the time the Earthlings retreated all those years ago, and was too much of an infant to travel with them. As a result, he has become close with the Navi and fashioned himself as one of them, much like Jake once did but without being placed into a Navi avatar. The Sullys have all but adopted Spider. He is particularly close with thier actual adopted child Kiri. After their close call, the Sullys know the enemy is building its strength up again and that Jake’s hunted status could put their forest loved ones in mortal danger. Over the tearful protestations of his family, the regimented and disciplined Jake pressures them to leave their home. They must mount their dragon-like Ikran (let’s be honest, they’re dragons in all but name) and fly somewhere where they can hide from their would-be captors. And so ends 2022’s most gloriously stuffed and thrilling Act One. But the real business of Avatar: The Way of Water truly begins when the Sullys reach the film’s central destination: the turquoise waters of the far-off coastal islands. The lands that are home to an entirely distinct tribe called the Metkayina.
As Jake and his family are reluctantly taken in by the Metkayina leaders, Tonowari (a strong Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant warrior queen Ronal (Kate Winslet, giving just enough to make me excited to see her do more in the franchise’s next entry), something miraculous happens to the film. James Cameron, the dominant elder statesman of blockbusting action, creates something that feels different and new. If you’re coming to this review from my review on The Woman King, you may recognize a trend taking shape for 2022. The streak of unique action hybrids stays alive. Cameron has created what feels like history’s first true action hangout movie, certainly for an action movie of this enormous scope and budget. While the film is packed with some of the most exciting and blisteringly inventive action setpieces this side of Mad Max: Fury Road (or 2022’s own RRR, of course) Cameron also finds room for moments of beatific calm. I love almost every minute of The Way of Water, but my eyes lit up when I realized what its transcendent second act was doing. James Cameron has created an astoundingly beautiful underwater world for us to gaze at in childlike awe, and he’ll be damned if any action movie rules are going to get in the way of us taking it in. “You’ll get to spend the whole last hour with your heart in your trachea,” he says, “But I didn’t transport us all this way to an intergalactic tropical paradise to not have any downtime.” And by taking it all in, I mean really stopping to look at it and see how the characters themselves (especially starry-eyed budding naturalist Kiri) are moved by it. The first Avatar had lovely scenery but Cameron’s superior-on-every-level sequel goes further to give the natural beauty an emotional connection. It’s a small, perfectly judged decision. There’s an old cineaste’s proverb that says a great film teaches you how to watch it in its first moments. Cameron’s Metkayina villagers teach us how to watch the film roughly an hour in when they teach the Sully children how to hold their breath for longer underwater. “You must slow down your heartbeat,” the tribe leaders’ daughter Tsireya tells Loak. And the same applies to us. Exhilarating and brilliantly blocked scenes of combat and survival are coming soon in Avatar‘s glorious third act, but Cameron also wants his devoted, action-loving viewers to tune into the joys of his slow scenes. Not only because they are fantastic, but because those moments of serenity are going to make those deliriously smart action scenes leap off the screen more vividly when they arrive. The enraptured smiles on Kriki and Tuk’s faces should match our own and we should feel just as blown away by the film’s meditative wonder as by how kinetic it is. “Your heart is fast,” Tsireya softly admonishes her new pupils. When you allow yourself to experience both the film’s transcendent, gently euphoric lulls and its breathlessly paced, emotionally charged action highs in the way Cameron wants you to, the full experience of Avatar: The Way of Water becomes almost impossibly rich: fun, silly, sincere, empathetic, tense and heart-swelling. James Cameron put my heart and all my brain’s pleasure receptors in a delightful centrifuge and whirled them around until they surrendered to the sheer majestic glee.
Avatar: The Way of Water is also maybe the most thematically potent film James Cameron has made since Terminator 2: Judgement Day some thirty years ago. Like its predecessor, this Avatar is very much about respect for nature and environmental stewardship. Cameron is once again unembarrassed to bare his whole conservationist heart (and, unlike Adam McKay, he has nothing to be embarrassed about). In this film, Earth’s goal is no longer mining for precious metals but turning Pandora into a full-scale replacement Earth. Environmentalism is the core message but the film’s strongest theme is actually the power and complexity of the family unit. “Family is a fortress,” Jake Sully tells his loved ones. It may not outwardly seem like the most complex organizing idea for a film (then again, it is the major theme of Cameron’s two game-changing masterpieces, T2 and Aliens). The weaker Fast & Furious films are a reminder that having a character say the word “family” a lot does not automatically turn your action movie into interesting cinema. But Cameron threads the idea of family through his lushly heartfelt movie with disarming conviction. And with so much to love about the visuals, lovable characters (even agro-heel Quaritch gets a fresh new coat of humanism this time around), patient sense of tone and smart action directing, Cameron’s unfussy use of the family theme becomes one more beautiful, enriching element. It does something I did not expect after the first Avatar. It makes thee big goofy blue alien film feel genuinely sumptuous and even, dare I say, sophisticated. Maybe sophistication isn’t something you need from a blockbuster actioner like this, but it sent my appreciation through the roof and out past the Earth’s atmosphere. As in Titanic (with its themes of classism), Cameron is using theme in a very practical way. The pattern of families and duty to one’s own and how fathers and their children build trust is not deployed for any lofty cerebral purpose but simply to add depth to its characters and its plot stakes. It’s the way Cameron connects that theme very plainly and directly to every one of these characters, from the Sullys to Quaritch and Spider. It’s even tied to the space whales (I do apologize for taking so long to mention that there are kick-ass, hyper-intelligent whales in this beautiful gem). This is theme done in the unpretentious, no-bullshit James Cameron house style and I was unprepared for just how masterfully it would work on me.
Avatar: The Way of Water can also sit proudly with recent masterpieces like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Fabelmans and The Irishman as films that are in conversation with their director’s soul and body of work. Just as surely as Martin Scorsese is drawn to crime and faith or Quentin Tarantino loves old B-movie theaters, James Cameron loves water. The old joke in the early Aughts was that he loved the sea so damned much we might just lose him to underwater documentaries forever. Water features heavily in Titanic and The Abyss, but even T2 introduces a villain who can essentially liquefy himself. It is that undulating watery power that makes the T1000 so terrifying (okay, he’s also indecently fast) and it is also only through melting that he can eventually be defeated. There’s a sort of impassive quality to water that can be both sword and shield and I think Cameron finds something beautiful and humbling about that. It is both karmic and frighteningly impartial. In Titanic, human greed may take sides but the icy waters of the North Atlantic do not. “Oh sure,” James Cameron might say to all my high-minded theorizing. “That’s partly it. But it also just looks incredible.” And he would be absolutely right on the money (he lives on the money). The third act of Avatar: The Way of Water, involving hostages and a giant whaling vessel, is astonishing and innovative and it is where James Cameron lets the titular H2O of his film fully out of its cage. It is where Cameron’s irresistibly rousing watery id rushes through every nook and cranny of his meticulously designed film. And, for as much as I adore the decision to have a meditative and peaceful second act, this technically more traditional action finale is what makes me fall completely in love with the film. A massive, action-heavy third act may seem more been-there-done-that, but James Cameron action finales are never standard and are never ever phoned in. What makes the film soar from start to finish is its unabashed emotionalism and I cannot name an action finale this side of RRR that feels more tied into emotion and character. I want to go watch that last hour again, this very instant. I hollered, laughed, and felt water welling up behind my eyes. Whatever remaining tolerance I had for the flat, dingy sky battles of so many modern action movies has been entirely rinsed out of my system. James Cameron has flushed them all down the drain in a whitewater torrent of tears and serotonin.
If I haven’t emphasized it properly, James Cameron has also made a very well-acted film here. The first Avatar didn’t attract too many performance hosannas outside of Zoe Saldana’s potent ferocity as Neytiri, but The Way of Water is filled with strong, fully dimensional acting. Sam Worthington’s work as Jake Sully is an extremely pleasant surprise. He has improved dramatically since his agreeably wooden work in the first Avatar (I think the more ensemble-y nature of Way of Water is good for his intermittently frustrating but generally sympathetic character). Saldana continues to be the franchise’s reliable heavyweight, a powder keg of feeling who can lend subtlety to big moments. The Sully sons are completely solid at worst, even if the eldest does verge on being an afterthought. Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet lend gravitas to their Metkayina leaders. I think character actors’ character actor Steven Lang is doing superlative work as the film’s heavy, finding notes of humor, introspection and even self-doubt in the cocksure force of nature that is Quaritch. It’s also just nice to see that character get more to do than bark, seethe and glower. On second viewing, I have firmly decided that I actually like dread-headed white teenager Spider, the film’s most polarizing character for reasons that require no further explanation. But if I have to give out best in show, it absolutely belongs to septuagenarian and longtime Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver, whose wonderfully soulful work as the moony teenager Kiri is like some great Winona Ryder character discovered decades later. Cameron and Weaver broke boundaries back in 1988 when her commandingly brilliant work in Aliens became the first action performance ever nominated for an acting Oscar. And here they both are three decades later, still standing at the cutting edge of what action cinema can be. That two titans of the genre are here in this banner year with one of the very best films of the year is fitting and refreshing, if not the least bit surprising. If they do not have the literal best action film of 2022, that’s of no great concern. They are 2022’s action keynote speakers all the same.