James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theatres 13 years after the original blockbuster, and after watching through all 3 hours of it yesterday in glorious IMAX 3D, I think the visionary director has proved naysayers wrong. The sequel is every bit as thrilling as the first one, breaking new ground in cinema with cutting-edge technology, all wrapped in a simple but effective story.
The Way of Water picks up in real time after the first film, following Jake Sully and Neytiri’s family as they escape from the clutches of the RDA, who have returned to Pandora. Joining Sam Worthington’s Jake and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri are a host of new characters — their eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), his brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), sister Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), adopted sister Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and adopted human “Spider” (Jack Champion). While many of the supporting cast from the previous film return, the new cast is joined by the likes of Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, and of course, Stephen Lang as the villainous Col. Quaritch, newly resurrected from the dead and back with a vengeance.
Needless to say, there are a lot of characters in Avatar 2, and most of them are utilized well, getting their own moments to shine. Kiri and Spider are highlights just by way of being so unique, but Lo’ak is certainly a hero to watch out for.
For a movie as big as this, it’s hard to even know where to start. Staying on characters then, it’s wonderful to see Cameron bring back Lang and Weaver the way he does. Mild spoilers — Making Kiri Grace Augustine’s biological daughter, magically conceived by the will of Eywa, and resurrecting Lang in the form of a Na’vi are cool ways to bring back those actors, who are just as good, if not better, here.
Kiri’s significance in the film is very much a tease of bigger things to come, and the same can be said of Spider’s character arc. Both characters are only beginning to untangle the web they’re spun on, and it’s clear that by the end of the trilogy, or even the 5-part saga, they will take centre stage in the story. But that’s not to say that their stories here aren’t satisfying on their own.
Spider is one of the more interesting characters on the page, even though his motivations and actions aren’t always in line with each other. The bond between him and Col. Quaritch is an interesting angle that’s explored well enough here, with some neat twists thrown in to keep the narrative ball rolling. With three more films in development, it’s not exactly a spoiler to suggest that this story isn’t over.
Avatar 2 in IMAX 3D at High Frame Rate is a Game Changer
My screening for the movie was at one of, if not the best, theatres in Mumbai. At Phoenix, Palladium, the screening was in IMAX 3D with laser projection, with support for 48fps high frame rate playback. In the years leading up to the film’s release, Cameron has been an advocate of a high frame rate use case for 3D, his argument being it helps mitigate the motion blur and strobing artefacts while enhancing immersion. Technically that’s correct, but with the amount of 48fps sequences in the film being as high as it is, your mileage may vary.
The high frame rate isn’t used just for panning or wide shots but for the majority of the film. It’s noticeable right away from the first frame of the 20th Century Studios logo, and I personally got used to it quite fast. the thing is, it’s also used extensively in many dialogue scenes, and the transitions to traditional 24fps shots aren’t quite seamless. So, expect a decent amount of jitter when those shots change. Honestly, I would’ve been perfectly fine with the entire film being projected at 48fps or just 24. Just pick a lane and stick with it! Had the usage of the format been more restrictive, it might’ve worked better.
The forests and oceans of Pandora are brought to life with vivid colours, and the expanded IMAX ratio really pulls you to the point where you may even reach out and touch the world on screen. It’s clear that VFX artists at Weta and ILM are masters of their domain, crafting each frame to look as realistic as possible. The Na’vi look better than ever, and the differences in character designs between the Omaticaya and Metkayina clans are clear as day, from
The use of 3D isn’t as wonderous as it was in 2009, of course, and it’s used in a subdued way to not poke things out of the screen in your face. Unlike most other blockbusters of today, the Avatar franchise was specifically shot in 3D and 48fps, with delivery in that format being the priority from day one of production. However, that doesn’t mean they’re overused to the point where it feels like a gimmick more than a useful tool in storytelling. There’s also a bit of psychological trickery going on here - watching alien species flying through a recreated environment is easier to digest at a high frame rate compared to watching real, human-like figures traverse Earth-bound environments in The Hobbit. It’s also why the most jarring HFR shots in the movie involve humans, and short bursts of reaction shots in 24fps aren’t held long enough to let your eyes settle.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t going to be watching the film in this format due to the limited IMAX screens around the country. I’m sure the mastering for the traditional 3D and 2D screenings is going to be just fine. However, if you’re in the vicinity of a large format theatre, you owe it to yourself not to rob yourself of that experience.
Simple Story + Groundbreaking Spectacle = Win
The first Avatar has often been criticized for having a simple, predictable story filled with classic narrative tropes. Now, personally, I really don’t care that a movie targeted at a universal audience lifts a few pages from classic narratives, and the story of Avatar was never the main attraction. The same can be said of the sequel, although I think it has much more to offer than last time. ‘Protecting your family’ is, like last time, the main narrative throughline, and fortunately, I quite like this family, so I don’t mind the narrative beats. I like that Cameron and his team extend the original’s themes further to affect Quaritch, who was, let’s be frank, a little one-dimensional in his villainy.
Like the first film, a good chunk of the first half of the sequel is focused on worldbuilding, now focusing on the Metkayina culture and their life around Pandora’s oceans. This involves meeting new flora and fauna and learning about their relationship with the natives. The Metkayina have a similar relationship with the ocean and Eywa as the Omaticaya has with the forests. It’s fascinating to see the cultural differences between two clans of this alien race.
But of course, peace doesn’t last and the final hour of the film is pure action. Like the best of Cameron’s films, the conflict is larger than life but, at its heart, is personal. Quaritch and Jake Sully’s fight is bigger, nastier and more personal than I expected, roping in the entire Sully family against the RDA for some adrenaline-pumping spectacle. The fight isn’t as grand as the last film’s war, but it’s matched by the emotional weight behind every punch thrown. Again, the expanded IMAX format at 48fps breathes new life into encounters we’ve experienced before. The extremely high fidelity of each frame paints a beautiful picture that delivers the same excitement as the first one did over 13 years ago.
I think by now, the secret sauce of the Avatar franchise is clear — keep the stories simple to reach the widest audience and make everything around that story visually engaging. Really, the story of the Na’vi at its core, speaks a lot about the dangers that humanity itself poses to Earth. Cameron is well known for his environmental activism, and it’s no surprise that the second film is as much about saving oceans and sea life as the first was about protecting the natural environment.
With Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron and his team prove that they are masters in the art form, creating thrilling adventures worthy of being watched on the biggest screen possible.