For 13 (!) years the water has been running steadily under the bridge, since the completely uncompromising, slightly legendary, director James Cameron presented to the world his dream world on a distant planet populated by giant, nature-friendly blue giants. Known as the Na’vi.
The eccentric Canadian director single-handedly introduced the 3D format as a pop culture phenomenon to the world’s cinemas – and dazzled audiences with his intense visual style and unique, technically groundbreaking film festival: Avatar.
True, neither the plot, characters character nor dialogue were of a dimension to earn it a deserved place in the film history books, but Avatar became (and remains) one of the most (financially) successful films of all time. This obviously paved the way for sequels. But the road has been long, and paved with thorns.
Already in August 2017, the filming of the inevitable sequel started, more than five years later we can buy a cinema ticket to see the final product of this mastodon marathon project; which ended with a production sum of an insane 250 million USD!
Man’s struggle against nature
The main plot diverges slightly from the original film. We still find ourselves on the fantasy planet, with all the world’s natural resources, Pandora; where mankind has sent its vanguards to exploit the potential colony, and see if there is a possible exodus for man to repopulate himself.
After the Na’vi struck back hard, and threw out their occupiers towards the end of Avatar, we find ourselves, timeline-wise, about ten years later. The commando, from Earth, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) “went native” and allied himself with the enemy, and, together with his future wife, finally killed the hated Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and forced the Earthlings to retreat.
But now, apparently, the basis for life on Earth has dwindled, and it is imperative for humanity’s survival that they find a new place for reproduction, life – and exploitation. Of course, without any regard to nature’s delicate balance.
There is an obvious critique of man’s predation on nature, colonialism and over-exploitation hidden in Cameron’s story, but it all drowns a bit in the focus on technical perfection, superficial characters and action-bonanza.
Defend the family!
Sully has now built a Na’vi family with native Neytiri (Zoe Saldan). Together they have two sons, a daughter and an adopted daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) – along for the ride is family friend, earthling Spider (who is the son of General Colonel Quaritch).
His patriarchal upbringing creates realistic, and recognizable, conflicts, and the antagonism between him and his wife is palpable. When all is said and done, the antagonisms come to a head.
As massive military forces from Earth return to Pandora, with one goal in mind (kill Sully!), Sylluene is forced into exile, seeking refuge with the vanquished tribe of Metkayina; led by the stalwart, proud Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and the pregnant Ronal (Kate Winslet).
Basically, the Metkayina just want to be left alone, living in harmony with nature and trying to avoid the escalating war coming their way; but Sully’s legendary war spirit persuades them to take the family under their wet wings.
Narratively, Avatar 2 brings little new to the table, here we are basically served a bit of the same story from the original film, taken up a few notches.
In the centre of the conflict, we still have cynical, ruthless humans against natural, understanding natives. The lines of conflict are shabby, caricatured and tabloid. Man is evil by nature and will crush nature if it is in his (short-term) interests, while the natives of Pandora see (the obvious) whole.
Add to that at times harshly pompous, and self-deprecating dialogue (penned by none other than James Cameron), messy conflicts and fiercely stereotypical characters (personified by the Colonel and the slightly naive, but acutely good-natured, water people), and you get something that could end up as something of a flop; but Cameron & Co are far too competent to serve up even a half-fried turkey.
What we get, however, is an optimised, slightly perfected action feast of the rare kind, topped with technical brilliance and visual impressions that actually blow a “worldly” reviewer away!
But 3D wasn’t dead
As I mentioned, it was actually Avatar that breathed new life into the 3D medium, almost 13 years ago. After its premiere, nearly all films would be available in 3D in cinemas. Each one technically inferior to the next – something the public soon realised, and which subsequently (again) killed the format.
In 2022, no one will be asking the staff at the shop if the new TV they are buying has 3D, or ask for the 3D version of the last Marvel movie in the cinema. They are simply no longer on the shelves. That said, the 3D technology that Cameron has so mightily perfected in Avatar 2 is actually so damn good that we think it can breathe new life into the format (again). Visually, it’s so good that we actually become mentally dizzy from a few scenes.
It’s not without reason that the final budget for the film ended up well over 250 million USD, but during the lengthy filming in New Zealand, Cameron has used the money well, delivering a visual feast that sucks us into the film and into the slightly chliche-ridden plot.
As the cameras, with a full 360 view, sweep through the lush jungle, soar across the sky or dive into the exotic world of the water, we as the audience are suddenly at one with the characters and the action. In this case we somehow manage to swallow that Sam Worthington rattles off monologues that are hopelessly self-indulgent and detached from reality.
In the beginning of a take, the director traditionally exclaims “Action!”, and if there’s anything Cameron masters to perfection, it’s lavish, intense action scenes that make the pulse rise to new, unheard-of levels. In that sense, Avatar 2 is definitely no exception.
The twist this time around is that Cameron has shifted the main focus from Pandora’s lush jungle, to the incredibly fascinating life above, and below the sea on the blue planet. A setting that would invite 3D indulgence, but which manages to amaze and delight in the imaginary characters playing with the wet element. Scenes that far surpass what Cameron presented in the classic The Abyss (1989).
In the past, Cameron has amazed us with action-feasts in films like Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens and True Lies. And if the characters are consistently clichéd and the dialogue (at times) incredibly unsubtle, Cameron dazzles us with sustained action scenes that take our breath away.
Whether it’s a huge train derailment, man-to-man jungle warfare, chasing down huge sea lions (we vaguely sense that Cameron isn’t exactly a big fan of whaling…), acrobatic aerial combat or huge disaster scenes aboard sinking ships (an homage to Titanic?), we’re sitting close shackled to the edge of our seats, sucked into the violent impressions. My goodness how uncompromisingly he delivers on this front!
The never ending story?
Simultaneously with Avatar 2, Cameron filmed Avatar 3 (premiering December 2023). In connection with the completion of filming, Cameron stated:
COVID hit us like it hit everybody. We lost about four and a half months of production. As a result of that, we’ve rolled around one more full year for a release in December of 2022. That’s been announced already. (…) …that doesn’t mean I have an extra year to finish the film because the day we deliver ‘Avatar 2,’ we’ll just start working on finishing ‘Avatar 3,’. So where we are right now, I’m down in New Zealand shooting, we’re shooting the remainder of the live-action.
But, as if that weren’t enough, the man has a total of five Avatar films planned; with Avatar 5 scheduled to premiere in 2028.
Whether Avatar 4 and 5 will actually become a reality probably depends largely on whether Avatar 2 delivers as expected at the box office – something I think it has the potential to do. Several of the characters are underdeveloped (not least Spider) and overly stereotypical, the dialogue often ridiculously pompous and the plot dotted with clangers, and the film could have been advantageously cut by half an hour; but if you’re after a spectacular (!) film, capable of entertaining, and dazzling you with its outstanding scenes, then you probably won’t get better entertainment than Avatar: The Way of Water.
In short, you get, in Cameron’s package, something quite unique: a visual masterpiece that is also a very capable action movie. 5 stars.
The reviewer saw the film in 3D, at an IMAX theater, something that is definitely recommended. Whatever you do, don’t wait for the film to become available on Disney+, so you can watch Avatar 2 on a mobile screen – this film requires a large format, because that’s just how spectacular it is!
Avatar: The Way of Water opens on 14 December.