‘The Way of Water’ re-stages ‘Avatar’ with greater nuance, both narrative and graphic

The sci-fi sequel offers a more thoughtful, carefully shaded version of its predecessor

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click to enlarge Avatar: The Way of Water takes viewers back to the world of Pandora. - 20th Century Studios
20th Century Studios
Avatar: The Way of Water takes viewers back to the world of Pandora.

James Cameron’s career and impact have reached a point now where his works can seem almost cozily familiar, reflecting widespread industry norms he’s himself long helped to create. As much as Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Jerry Bruckheimer, or Quentin Tarantino (not all of whom I’d always rate), he’s shaped Hollywood after him in ways that are often imitated but rarely well.

With 2009’s Avatar, though — even as it dealt film projection a deadly blow, forcing a widespread conversion to digital (and countless projectionists out of jobs) — Cameron’s graphic innovations seemed to surpass the script’s narrative trappings, which for the first time felt less something that might reverberate through culture. Following that work now with its sequel, The Way of Water, Cameron’s retained a fidelity to archetypes, pushed 3-D and computer-generated images to radical new places, and provided a story with levels of nuance that make some narrative — and not just formal — case for his vast project. Make no mistake, though: the texture and experience of the thing remains the point.

While the new Avatar’s subheading nods to a kind of gauzy, vague, and accidentally comic new age prayer (basically: “water connects us all”), the rendering of character and story here has gained in nuance, advancing in unshowy but significant ways. In many senses, The Way of Water plays as a re-staging of the first film, enriched by a new yet familiar set of circumstances — and helmed with a firmer grip on its resonances, world, and themes.

The premise is, again, a blend of old and new. A decade and change from Avatar’s events, in which soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has had his consciousness transferred into the body of a Na’vi (the franchise’s signature blue-skinned aliens), he is now raising a family of four on Pandora, his adopted home. Working alongside Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) to lead and safeguard not only their family but the whole of their tree-dwelling clan, Jake’s life now seems starkly distant from his time as a human.

After some narrative catch-up, the past repeats itself: the “sky people” Jake once worked for have returned to once again invade Pandora, with their maneuvers evolving this round in several key ways. Once greedily extractive miners, their mission now has shifted to the overtly colonial, the goal being to conquer and occupy Pandora as a kind of second Earth to take and lay (inevitably, ecologically speaking) to waste. They’re led up here by General Ardmore (a welcome Edie Falco, bearing a riotous succession of corporately branded coffee mugs). She’s joined, too, by an ensemble of returning cast members now bearing the guise and abilities of the avatars (basically, lab-engineered Na’vi bodies former humans occupy) as an aid in their mission of conquest. More formidable now than ever before, these invaders force Jake and his family to a strategic move, a gesture of retreat in which they fall in with a neighboring, amphibious Na’vi clan.

Whether this tendency toward repetition — especially Cameron’s resurrection of a slew of late characters so they can fight each other once again — scans as hubristic (for the fact he’s changing relatively little) or big-hearted (in the sense of affection towards his returning cast), it can hardly be said to be anything but conscious. In this light, what all has changed carries greater weight, enhanced as much through narrative significance as by its plainly apparent sense of purpose. While the story’s old patterns still hold — of scene-setting, moral conflict, flight, and cultural integration before an eventual, inevitable battle — the details shared amid the spectacle lend some grounding texture and ambiguity.

Less straightforward a picture of good guys (Na’vi) and bad guys (humans) than the 2009 film, The Way of Water treats identity as less discrete, clear, and stable than did Avatar, with characters displaying a malleability in terms of culture, tendency, and ultimately drive. For instance, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, back here in fine motion-captured form as a gun-toting avatar and key antagonist) wears his bigotry and colonial impulses in a more uneasy manner, embracing selectively the Na’vi features that suit his tastes and aims. Less cookie-cutter than his (fairly luxuriant) depiction of the villain before, his revised presence in this installment lends some newfound edge to his violent actions; the fact he could now presumably choose to simply live on Pandora as Jake does makes him seem an even more troubled figure than before.

His whole cohort, appearing as they do, in some way account for (within the story) the queasiest part of the franchise’s premise, which moves beyond a wary process of cultural assimilation to a kind of — albeit abstracted, or refracted — racialized burlesque. Appearing with the style and weaponry they’d deployed as humans but utilizing the passing abilities granted by their Na’vi-adjacent forms, the squad’s embrace of these latter abilities suggests a still dualistic but less essentialized vision of the world than Cameron and his crew expressed before. Always hewing close to prevailing Western colonial depictions of indigeneity (many intersecting with “noble savage” tropes), the franchise here finds, perhaps accidentally, a way to examine its own tendencies and promoted fantasies in a more nuanced political context. Whether these are distant enough from our reality to allow the series’s premises to sit better will vary by the viewer, but the space for a more reflective look at things makes this film thematically richer than the first.

This attention to this “stickiness,” a sense of persistence of culture endures elsewhere, too — both within Jake’s family (in which his human and military background seem to inform his parenting instincts, at odds often with Neytiri’s) and through the exchange between Na’vi clans. The film’s beach-dwellers, the Metkayina, have practices and physicality all their own, distinct from the Na’vi we’d previously been introduced to. Amid this context, movement and exchange between clans seems less about adopting a physical carriage, skill, or affect than a willing and earned exchange of knowledge. While much of Way plays out as a kind of aquatic nature documentary or a war film, Cameron gives over just as much of its running time to these (at times tricky) forms of anthropological and sociological concern.

This doling of credit shouldn’t be mistaken for a claim that each detail is novel, engaging, or substantial — but, accumulating alongside the film’s visual and formal heft, they contribute amply to its sense of a full world. With a thick stew of familiar archetypes — prodigal sons, mourning women, spirit healers, and warring patriarchs — filling out the film, the paths The Way of Water charts always lead to places that feel spun off from what we know. The film’s obsessively wrought aquatic settings even give Cameron space to re-stage key moments and motifs familiar from Aliens and Titanic — a treat Hollywood lately doesn’t leave me anywhere near spoiled enough to refuse.

While it’s reasonable to complain about aspects of the film that feel familiar and received, it’s far harder to argue with the discipline and sturdiness of Cameron’s technique. Other people will and have tried a fair percentage of what’s onscreen here, but the case for film as an experience (Cameron’s first priority) depends almost always on its form. On that front, he delivers — and while it may not always feel revelatory, it’s fine to do an old thing one’s own way, and better still to do it well.

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