‘Way of Water’ imperfect, enormous step up

Images courtesy 20th Century Studios.

7/10 If you liked Avatar, you’ll love Avatar: The Way of Water, and if you didn’t like Avatar, The Way of Water puts what the original movie is missing onscreen.

More than a decade after the first film, the sky people have returned to Pandora, not for rare metals, but to fully colonize and terraform it into a new home. Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who has lived on as a recombinant human/Na’vi hybrid “avatar” and chief of the forest Omaticaya, leads a fierce guerilla resistance, but when it becomes clear the humans are targeting him personally along with his wife and four children, they flee and seek asylum with the Metkayana, a clan of frog Na’vi with webbed limbs and tails who live on the reef. As the Sully family treads lightly while learning the ways of their uneasy new hosts, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was killed in the first film but has returned as an avatar, hunts them through the archipelago, burning as he goes.

Avatar: The Way of Water gets stronger as it goes on, but it makes a terrible first impression. We open on about 10 minutes of narrating out what happened after the first movie and which of Sully’s children are adopted, which should have immediately been thrown out in favor of the 20-minute opening act that comes right afterward that covers all of the same information much more naturally, and all of that should have immediately been thrown out in favor of a cold open on the Sully family flying to the reef, since the first thing he does is explain the full situation to Chief Tonowari and his wife Ronal (Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet) as he asks for asylum. This movie is 192 minutes, and if it would just start at the beginning, maybe with a few flashbacks to grab some visual motifs, you could lop about an hour off of that. Trust your audience just a little bit.

“I don’t want anybody whining about length when they sit and binge-watch [television] for eight hours … I’ve watched my kids sit and do five one-hour episodes in a row. It’s okay to get up and go pee.” -James Cameron, conflating streaming with his $20-per-ticket movie. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It’s 192 minutes, and if you’re a sucker, every second of that is in 3D. I hate 3D. I hate it so damn much. I hate how it adds nothing to the movie except price. I hate the cheap glasses that hurt my face. I hate the headache it gives me because it’s making my brain do so much extra work. I hate how objects in the foreground look like they’re obstructing the frame instead of part of it – there are a few moments in The Way of Water where I instinctively reach up to try and brush part of the screen away so I can see what’s going on only to realize that it’s just the foreground. I hate that the whole thing goes blurry if you tilt your head to the side a bit because the movie is 192 damn minutes long and I’m counting every cent of my $20 ticket, so I’d like to be able to stretch my neck a little without missing anything, but I guess that’s too fucking much to ask.

When Avatar: The Way of Water finally gets to its real starting point one hour and 10 years behind schedule, it’s a remarkable, direct improvement on the first film.

The new setting on the reef gives the film just about everything. It allows the Sullys to explore a new part of Pandora, and most of the screentime is on his children, so we’ve got different characters in a different environment repeating the sense of wonder and beauty without any actual repetition – all the repetition in Way of Water’s multiple first acts really drives home how valuable that is. Returning viewers who remember the fist film and new viewers who weren’t born in 2009 alike can discover Pandora for the first time. The Metkayana sign to communicate underwater, so we even get a new language barrier.

The Way of Water is a kaleidoscope of complex, multi-layered conflict, internal and external, societal and individual. As an insurgent leader, Sully must demand military obedience and discipline from his own children while also working to keep them out of the line of fire, and once we get to the reef, there’s several points of tension between the Sullys and their hosts. In the B plot, there’s another ton of friction between Quartich’s team and the guides and whaling team they force to help them.

More than 500 underwater species were created for The Way of Water, but the space whales steal the show.

The film’s biggest strength is the complex conflict between Quartich and Sully, which is at once global and intensely personal – Quartich is trying to avenge his own death against a killer who also happens to be an insurgent leader by using his children as an Achilles’ heel. There’s a lot going on between these two. During the first hour or so of pipe-laying, I was thinking about what I’d rather be watching and kept circling back to The Northman, a tight two-hour action movie with real sets, a ton of action-violence and very little dialogue. It’s a stupid-simple revenge drama that reveals a tremendous amount of depth through choices, movement and fighting. That’s kind of what The Way of Water turns into that once it really gets going. The talking gets cut to a minimum, and the story plays out through the actions and the priorities they reveal.

The setting also elevates the inherent man vs nature conflict to incredible heights just because of how much more cruel a mistress the sea is than the forest. In the forest, they could just wander off the battlefield, but on the sea, the humans and Na’vi spend every moment literally standing on technology and their connection with nature, respectively, to avoid falling into the ocean and drowning. Watching a whale knock out a whaling boat by Free Willying-himself over the mast and smashing his giant whale face into the deck until it sinks is a little less subtle and a lot more effective than anything in Avatar. Watching The Way of Water, I constantly find myself thinking about “Moby Dick” and the specific reading that the white whale is God himself torturing Ahab for his hubris.

The two plots meet like a highway collision scattering detritus over the entire ocean, twisting, stretching, sputtering and bouncing into the entire second half of the film. There’s no other act to The Way of Water, no escape from this confrontation. Even with three sequels on the way, something has to give right now.

The battle disintegrates and shifts into the shrinking cast trying to escape from a sinking mobile base, and suddenly, writer/director/editor/producer James Cameron is remaking Titanic. The aesthetics of Avatar’s military owe a great deal to Aliens and The Terminator, Cameron’s two best films from the very beginning of his career, and The Way of Water lets him get back to his career-long obsession with all things deep sea. The incredible amount of research he did for Titanic does him some tremendous favors in this new film a quarter century later, and he did even more research in the interval between Avatars, including his world-first dive into the Mariana Trench.

The film leans heavily on bioluminescence to give its creatures a further sense of holiness and beauty.

One of the main things that took The Way of Water so long to screen was Cameron convincing financiers to let him produce the film genuinely underwater. Scuba gear produced too many bubbles to work with the motion capture suits, so most everyone wanted to do it with wirework and insert the characters into the water digitally, but Cameron insisted on every actor doing months of diving training so they could perform their roles in a purpose-built 900,000 gallon tank.

For all the water involved in production, every drop of water we see onscreen is computer-generated. The Weta visual effects team moved mountains to do this, running endless experiments in real oceans and coming away with several patents, and the final cut of The Way of Water contains more than 18 times more data than Avatar did because of everything that went into calculating how the water would behave. A supervisor bragged about the major boat crash that “everyone will assume we were out on the open ocean,” begging the question – why weren’t they, at least for some scenes?

So much of the work and technological workarounds and haggling and delays and everything that went into this movie was to create the “invisible” effects, the CGI recreations that should seem so normal the human eye won’t notice it. It’s the most difficult stuff that gets done in Hollywood, but also the least exciting. The reason animation has never taken over for photography is that a lot of the complex beauties of our world, and the rich randomness of water and forest life are perfect examples of this, are much simpler and more beautiful to capture photographically – and conversely, the best cartoons are usually the ones that lean into their cartoonishness and draw parts of the imagination that would be difficult to create in-camera.

These Avatar movies, I can understand the incredible amount of work that goes into them and I can appreciate how much more photorealistic they look than many of Disney’s other efforts, but The Way of Water could have switched out its motion capture suits and digitally generated ocean for a few gallons of waterproof blue paint without losing any of the things that make it a good movie. Cheap workarounds in support of a terrific story are traditionally the stuff of Hollywood folklore that give lower-budget classics their charm, including Cameron’s classics from the ‘80s. The point of this incredibly expensive decades-long effort to get Avatar: The Way of Water done digitally, only Cameron knows.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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