Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas in Pandora

The more fitting title to this Christmas Day review of Avatar: The Way of Water might have been "Blue Christmas" but even for the sake of a pun, I wouldn't want to imply that anything about this movie left me feeling the least bit sad. Having just watched Way of Water for a second time over the holiday weekend, my spirits only feel more buoyed by the staggering spectacle of this movie. As much thought as James Cameron has put into his sequel's characters and themes, to talk about The Way of Water is to have to first acknowledge it as the singular visual FX achievement that it is. 

There is nothing else like it. 

I didn't revisit the original Avatar during its recent re-release so I can't directly compare the theatrical presentations of Avatar and this sequel but as much as I was blown away by the original back in 2009, and as much as it crushed anything else that had been done at that point, I know for sure it didn't look like The Way of Water does. Both my Way of Water viewings have been in 3D so I don't know how impressive this looks in 2D but all I can say is that in 3D it's like nothing else I've seen on a movie screen. I don't want every movie to be in 3D and I'm pretty sure the high frame rate that Cameron uses here might actually be unpleasant or distracting if it was used across the board in every movie but, dear God, it sure as fuck works here. I suspect that's simply due to Cameron having a command of the technology that other filmmakers would not but whatever the case, the sense of reality that the methods Cameron utilizes here allow him to pull off is astonishing. 

Living in the movie making era that we do where we have long taken for granted that anything can be put on screen and that there are no limits to special effects technology, you think that you're never going to experience any true game changing moments again. If you're a long time movie goer you just don't think you're going to experience something like the original Star Wars again or the original Jurassic Park or T2: Judgement Day or The Matrix - movies where you instantly knew when you saw them that everything afterwards was going to be different. I remember sitting in the theater watching all of those movies and feeling like each one vaulted the art of movie making forward. The Way of Water is in that category. 

You might think that the imagery of Way of Water can be shrugged off by saying, well, it's all done with computers. You know, this is all CGI and the illusions created here are on par with what we've become accustomed to. But no, that's not the case. Way of Water is legitimately stunning in a way that even the most CGI heavy FX spectaculars are not. Why that is, I can't quite explain except to say it just is. The best I can do is to say I believe it has something to do with its unparalleled attention to detail. Everything looks so real here that your brain is frequently fighting what your eyes are seeing. Whether it be the alien fauna of Pandora, the skin of the flying dragons, the individual hairs in Jake Sully's dreads, the sand on a beach or the tech in a lab, it all looks so fucking there in a way that is at times hard to wrap your head around.


 However jaded you might think you've become about CGI and how much you think you know about the filmmaking process and about how all this is done, Way of Water will bypass all of that and make you feel stupid (but in a good way!). Even if you showed me a painstakingly detailed behind the scenes documentary about the making of Way of Water, it would not spoil the magic of the final product. If anything, I think I'd be all the more impressed because even if you walked me through it all step by step, I believe I still wouldn't quite be able to process how it all came together. And I'm not even talking about big action shots either. I mean just scenes of people walking and talking. There's a scene with Edie Falco as General Ardmore and Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch as they're walking together as she fills Quaritch in on what the status is in RDA's new base of operations on Pandora. Falco's character is suited up in an exo-skeleton and Quaritch is in his Recombinant Na'vi body and as they walk through Bridgehead City, construction is going on all around them with little crab like machines that I think are called Scrambler Assemblers scurrying around, doing wielding on girders and so on. With all that's going on, not a single bit of it looks artificial and it's all filmed like it would be in a natural environment with the camera tracking along with Falco and Lang. Cameron could have saved himself and his team a lot of work and set this scene in an office or a boardroom or even over a Zoom call. There's nothing conveyed here that required it to happen in such a complex shot. The fact that Cameron chooses to do so is just a massive flex. Not in a showboat kind of way - everything in this shot is in the service of the story and of establishing the world - but just in demonstrating how he's always going to be pushing harder than anybody else, even in situations where he could have chosen not to and absolutely no one would have known it. 

With even its mundane moments of exposition being able to dazzle, when it gets to the action set pieces that comprise Way of Water's last hour, forget about it. There's so much happening, it's incredible. There's stuff here that would be difficult to choreograph in a real environment that becomes doubly impressive when you have to wonder if all of this was created in a digital realm. Just to compare, the climatic battle in T2 took place in a steel mill and that was filmed on location at an actual mill. Now that was a real place that Cameron could work out the physical beats of the finale's action in coordination with stunt people, actors, the FX team and so on. With Way of Water, its climax takes place on a damaged whaling vessel that is in the process of sinking and it seems impossible to conceive of the complex logistics of this scene that involves multiple characters on cat walks and hallways and loading docks and so on without there being a physical location to work it all out with and yet I don't believe there was. At the same time, while watching it, your brain is telling you it's all real because every surface has a tactile quality to it. 

Some will, of course, look to chirp about the story being weak or whatever but it is not. I guarantee the same people who want to ding Way of Water for its supposedly thin story never say shit about the equally "weak" stories in 99% of the other movies they watch. If you hear any self appointed guardian of the sanctity of storytelling trying to take a swipe at Way of Water, please disregard. And this isn't even a case of an action movie like a Fast & Furious film where it's a thing of "Oh, it's a popcorn movie. The story isn't important, you have to turn your brain off and enjoy it." No, the story here is thoughtful and layered and it very much testifies to Cameron's skill as a storyteller. 

In terms of Way of Water's characters, I love that this time around Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are more side characters now and that the story is driven by the new additions of their children. There's their adopted daughter of Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, giving a remarkably convincing vocal performance as a teen), born by the late Dr. Grace Augustine's avatar, father unknown. Then there's the Sully's oldest son Neteyam (Jake Flatters), their youngest son Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and daughter Tuktirey or "Tuk" (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Additionally, there's the child that Quaritch left behind, Spider (Jack Champion), too young as a baby to be sent back to Earth in cryostasis, who has since grown up with the Na'vi and who is, in Jake's words, like a stray cat they've taken in. The struggles of these kids as they navigate the dramatic life changing events around them as well as their own adolescent troubles gives Way of Water a relatable human core. 

One of the strongest aspects of Way of Water is the relationship that develops between Lo'ak and a member of a whale like species called the Tulkun. At one point, Lo'ak finds himself alone in dangerous waters after being abandoned by the asshole kids of the reef people that the Sullys have taken refuge with and after being pursued by a predatory sea creature, a Tulkun intervenes and saves Lo'ak. When Lo'ak is saved by the surprise appearance of this Tulkun, I assumed that this would be just a "there's always a bigger fish" moment and that Lo'ak simply benefited from one predator taking out another. But turns out this Tulkun has a name, Payakan, and he and Lo'ak strike up a friendship. The people in this region of Pandora have a relationship with the Tulkun, who are actually highly intelligent and capable of emotion, and are able to communicate with them. Payakan is an outcast among the Tulkun, which is something that Lo'ak can relate to, feeling that he is the inferior son compared to his seemingly perfect older brother Neteyam and I just love that what is first assumed to be a throwaway bit with a space whale intervening (inadvertently, we think) to save Lo'ak's life turns out to be the introduction of a new character, a new storyline, and this whale has a whole personal backstory of their own. 

Another aspect of Way of Water I appreciated is how Cameron shows that prejudice is something that exists between tribes on Pandora with the tree dwelling teens of Sully's clan (half-breeds at that) labeled as freaks by the teens of the Metkayina reef people. As much as it seems ridiculous that one race of blue or green skinned aliens would think of other blue or green skinned aliens as being so vastly different than themselves, it only points out in classic science fiction fashion the absurdity of prejudice. It was also a smart choice on Cameron's part to have everyone, especially the kids, speak in a recognizably contemporary idiom. With all the strangeness of the environments, it's grounding to have a character being able to sock someone in the mouth and say "That's called a punch, bitch!" Cameron knows how to get his ideas across in the most accessible way not just to the audience that is already open to spending time on an alien planet with blue cat people who ride dragons but to a wider audience that might ordinarily write this stuff off. He's a nerd with an infallible read on what non-nerds will respond to.

Based on the box office performance of Way of Water so far, it seems clear that Cameron will be able to see his saga through as planned. There's no doubt now as to whether Avatar sequels are commercially viable and so Cameron's going to get to make Avatar 4 and 5 and given what he's done with Way of Water, the mind reels at what the rest of this series is going to be like. Cameron has proven himself to be the guy who always crushes it on Part 2's. He's got Aliens, T2 and now Way of the Water to attest to that. So it's going to be truly amazing to see what he can do with multiple sequels and see what an entire James Cameron saga taken from start to finish will look like.

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