Don’t bet against James Cameron. You’re going to hear these words a lot in the coming weeks as “Avatar: The Way of Water” soars to rare heights at the domestic and global box office. And maybe rightfully so as the acclaimed director responsible for smashing hit after smashing hit has poured over a decade into his second “Avatar” outing – one that comes 13 years after the original set the highest dollar total in cinema history. So while millions are set to pack theaters over the holiday season to watch the return to Pandora, how exactly does James Cameron expect to top an original that’s cemented into the record books?
How about by topping it in every visual and emotional manner. Not only does “The Way of Water” vastly improve on its original source material, it puts much of modern blockbuster filmmaking to shame. Every scene and visual spectacle in “The Way of Water” is drenched in care and precise love that feels rare in the era of CGI noise and choppy editing. And it’s all put together by a guy so entrenched in modern film history that he has all the clout to make it happen.
That’s not to say that “The Way of Water” is Cameron’s crowning achievement or magnum opus, mostly because he takes quite heavily from his own filmography to build set pieces (particularly in the third act), but it’s a success story that had the weight of future filmmaking in the balance. If James Cameron’s $250 million dollar, decade-long production fails to bring in swaths of moviegoers, we may have an issue on our hands with the future of the box office looking much weaker than it already is.
But luckily, rave reviews and word of mouth are sure to pull through in a manner that only “Top Gun: Maverick” has been able to achieve this decade. To compare the two, they are completely breathtaking. Unlike recent blockbuster history, it’s real tough to spoil “The Way of Water.” It’s not about what characters live or die, or what characters are being set up to be explored two phases into the future. It’s complete spectacle and emotion – something that is void of blockbuster filmmaking today.
Now frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of the original. It’s a joy to look at, and the glossiness is quite astounding and stands the test of time quite well, but it overshadows a story so hollow and unoriginal in the middle. From the onset, the original “Avatar” is predictable. The plot beats and character arcs offer little new to a medium over a century old. And maybe it’s because it is nearly impossible to build a completely original story and everything has been told. Or maybe James Cameron’s five film vision for “Avatar” was already set in stone and the first was essentially a set up for what’s to come. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because “The Way of Water” capitalizes on everything the original hands to it.
Without spoiling, the film is quick to take you in a new direction. Set a decade after the first (how ironic) and with a fully formed Sully family, the Na’vi tribe finds them threatened by the human species once again. Worried that they’re putting their own in danger, Jake (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their quartet of children travel Pandora looking for shelter and new allies. What starts as a family acclimating to new waters becomes a cat-and-mouse chase for survival.
Perhaps the biggest strength that “The Way of Water” has over its original is its lack of predictability. Its fresh set of characters and rules completely redefines what the franchise can offer in terms of action sequences, technology, and stunning visual imagery that never ceases to pull you out of the film. Seriously, the color palette in “The Way of Water” is truly on another level from its contemporaries. Despite its runtime of over three hours, “The Way of Water” stays fresh, rewarding, and engaging at every turn.
Emotionally, “The Way of Water” takes quite a step up from the original “Avatar” as well. Characters are put in perilous situations that do not feel cheap, and choices have major consequences that aren’t usually seen in films of this magnitude. The third act delivers one of the most satisfying set of sequences ever put to film, and there’s a real standing-ovation feeling you get as you head for the exits.
A few pieces hold it from being in the pantheon. Namely, characterization becomes foggy in a finale that tries to have it both ways – give you everything you want and set up future releases. Decisions become less comprehensible, and the script falls just shy of everything the film is putting together around it.
James Cameron also sets aside about 30 minutes in the third act to do his best “Titanic” imitation, and honestly, I don’t even think I’m mad about it. I’ll juggle in my head for the next few months whether or not he earned that ending, but I don’t want to complain about it too much until I see it again. Like the first “Avatar,” “The Way of Water” tries to smash together two endings, and it struggles to hold the weight throughout those two separate finales.
But even with those few issues in the back half, “The Way of Water” absolutely comes through and pulls off a better experience than the first “Avatar” film could ever dream of. It’s emotionally riveting and absolutely deserves to be seen on a big screen. The best films make you laugh, gasp, and cry. “The Way of Water” pulls off all three. Simply put, don’t bet against James Cameron.