James Cameron knows how to make a movie.
Fifteen years on from 2009’s Avatar, the film remains the highest-grossing release of all time. In Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron hits new visual heights,delivering a cosmic epic filled with tons of water and a lot of soul.
Although the film’s plot is stretched thin, it quietly builds a moving narrative of what we stand to gain when we approach the world with respect and wonder.
The setup here is simple enough: former human now turned Na’vi, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have settled down, had some children, and are living in the forests of Pandora.
The Sky People—the militarized colonial humans from Earth—have returned to Pandora to extract resources. Enter Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in the form of a Na’vi Avatar, who decides it’s time to take some revenge on treacherous Jake Sully as a planet-wide rat race ensues.
It isn’t the most inventive plot ever. It’s not really original at all. The film feels plotless at times, meandering as characters move from place to place, jolting the audience back and forth between character POVs.
The villain’s motivation—revenge—is tepid at best. He’s unsympathetic and maniacal. He just can’t let go of the past, and it’s a bit head-scratching as to why he’s going to such lengths to murder Sully.
You probably won’t be paying much attention to the plot, though. You’ll be too busy gawking at the visual reverie on display, blending colours and worlds together, with each shot seeming more impossible than the last. The fauna, the wildlife—it all bursts from the screen, threatening to tumble out in luscious waves.
The film is at its best when it soaks itself in its visual brilliance.
Individual frames will stay with you for days after viewing. The action scenes are thundering, but the visual storytelling is the most impactful part of the film. Watching characters swim around the ocean and look at sand has never been so entertaining.
However, there’s a powerful story being built beneath the glitzy surface, one which forces the audience to consider their implication in the degradation of not just Pandora, but Earth.
When we watch the ridiculous militarism of Quaritch and co., or the cruel killing of ancient, sentient whales to extract resources, we want to direct our antagonism toward these people. We want to hate the bad guys. But it’s not that simple.
When we watch the film, we realize that many of us are the bad guys. We’re complicit in colonialism. We’re complicit in environmental degradation. We have a stake in the military displacement of the people who were here before us—our past is as horrific as Pandora’s present.
Sure, this might be deadened a bit by the film’s multimillion-dollar Hollywood budget, but it’s an important story to tell, especially on this scale.
The film is ultimately about overcoming our differences and embracing them. When Sully and his family seek refuge with the Water People, they don’t try to kill them or take their stuff. They’re visitors with a duty to respect their hosts.
They learn their culture, their customs, to care for the land the Water People have tended for generations. When Quaritch and his cronies try to challenge this mutual tenderness, they don’t stand a chance.
When we approach new places and new people with curiosity and respect, we stand to inherit worlds of knowledge. Avatar: The Way of Water is visually beautiful, but its beauty doesn’t end there. It’s an important film with an important message which, amongst the pop and pizzaz, makes us question whether we were the bad guys all along.
Avatar, James Cameron, movie review, sci-fi
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