Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
So, at long last, 13 years after Avatar hit movie screens and became in unadjusted terms the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron returns with a big, teetering second helping of adventure on Pandora. The interval was mostly forced by Cameron’s ceaseless push for technical advancement to outpace the ever-quickening assimilation of such achievement by the modern viewer. Meanwhile the intervening years have been made to feel even longer by all the cultural commentators repeatedly stating that Avatar supposedly left no cultural footprint, in contrast to other pop cultural colossi like Gone With The Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), which did indeed often generate quotes and directorial visions that sank deep into the popular consciousness. Certainly no-one’s been getting around saying “I see you” since 2009, but on the other hand the images of Avatar remain instantly recognisable. I made no bones about enjoying the film enormously back then and today still feel one of its best qualities is also its most salient feature of general criticism – Cameron applied his showmanship to a familiar space opera storyline and quasi-mythic template, engaging with fanciful scientific and mystical concepts but weaving it all around a story that paid many nods to pulp adventure and scientifiction writing like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom tales, whilst blending in overtones of revisionist Westerns like A Man Called Horse (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1990). There was, then, something wilfully classical about Avatar, coexisting with the cutting-edge showmanship and loopy blend of hi-tech dreaming and new-age mysticism, and that choice allowed Cameron to easily sell to the audience a lot of images and ideas that were actually extremely bizarre.
In that long interval much has changed: Cameron’s regular collaborator, the composer James Horner, died in a plane crash in 2015, and Twentieth Century Fox, the once-mighty film studio that backed Avatar, has now been redesignated by its new Disney overlords as merely Twentieth Century Film, as if to coldly declare anything it releases to be yesterday’s news. Some enthusiasm for an Avatar sequel probably has bled off in that time. But that’s arguably counterbalanced by a building mystique, fuelled by the prospect that whatever Cameron was cooking up, it wouldn’t just be any old buck-chasing rehash. It’s also left Cameron in an awkward position, appealing to a movie audience the greater bulk of which would have been kids when they first watched Avatar, or perhaps never saw it or barely remember it, and a pulse of anxiety has been amplified by the peculiar and worrying moment of cinema-going we’re currently in. It’s hard not to root for Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water, in part because whilst it is a sequel, it is at least Cameron’s sequel, based in his own material and tackled with all the outsized enthusiasm the man brings to his blockbusters, in an age where audiences have been depressingly eager to surrender any hint of artistic interest in cinema product so long as franchising is served up with consistent baseline competence. A sequel to Avatar must partly serve the purpose of reiterating the basic proposition and recapturing some of its more peculiar facets, particularly the way the original film offered a type of extended fantasy travelogue in its midsection. Cameron knows his way around sequels, with his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and his own Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). With each of those films, Cameron essentially reused the skeleton of the original film’s plot and essential elements, whilst riffing on them in other ways, greatly amplifying their scope and swapping in clever new variations on basic ideas, like the alien queen and the liquid metal T-1000.
So it didn’t surprise me that much when The Way of Water essentially does the same thing. Cameron kicks off the film with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed on what’s transpired since he was fully assimilated into the Na’vi and kicked the wicked human capitalist exploiters off Pandora. This opening narration immediately inspires a little narrative whiplash, particularly as Jake mentions that not only have he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had three children of their own – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – but they’ve also become adoptive parents to two more. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born out of Dr Grace Augustine’s mindless Na’vi avatar in a perplexing event, and a young human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind with Augustine’s scientific team by the fleeing humans because he was too young for cryogenic stasis. Spider splits his time between the Na’vi fort and the laboratory still run by Na’vi-allied human scientists including Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Max Patel (Dileep Rao). The question of who fathered Kiri and Spider is raised, although only that of Spider is answered in the course of the film: turns out he’s the son of the late Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a fact that sits uneasily in the back of the young man’s mind but doesn’t seem too important.
But then a fleet of human spaceships arrive again on Pandora, this time with the object of transforming the planet into a human colony to escape a dying Earth. With them comes a gang of “recombinants,” Na’vi bodies created from the genetic material of Quaritch and the other soldiers in his old squad and reunited with their saved memories and personalities, specifically to exploit their ingrained knowledge of fighting on Pandora. The reborn Quaritch, whilst readily perceiving himself as something different to what he used to be, nonetheless is exactly the same total jerkwad as ever, and delights in being set loose on Pandora to track down and kill Jake and Neytiri. Jake, Neytiri, their kids and clan recommence their guerrilla war on the invaders, but the children are captured by Quaritch and his unit. Jake and Neytiri attack and manage to free them all except for Spider. Quaritch intervenes to stop the new military commander of the invaders, General Ardmore (Edie Falco), from using torturous brain scans to force information about the family’s whereabouts from his “son,” instead using more psychological pressure to force Spider to become his guide and translator.
Meanwhile, realising the danger, Jake insists that the family flee their home and travel out to oceanic islands inhabited by the Metkayina, water-dwelling Na’vi who have evolved thick tails and arms specifically for swimming. They also have close relations with the tulkun, a species of whale-like creatures with advanced and communicative intelligence, but also an ethos of total pacifism that leaves them vulnerable to human predation. The Metkayina chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanka-like wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) uneasily let the Sully clan into their midst, and Jake in turn demands his kids toe the line with the Metkayina, but after being bullied by Tonowari and Ronal’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his pals, Neteyam and Lo’ak brawl with them. Under the guise of making peace, Aonung and his gang talk Lo’ak into accompanying them out to fish in the open ocean, but then abandon Lo’ak. He’s nearly eaten by a giant predator, but is rescued by a tulkun named Payakan, who’s an outcast from his kind because he once tried to fight back against human hunters.
The shift in locale from the lush forests of the previous film’s locations allows Cameron a new stage to purvey the pure immersive appeal of exploring his created environments, as the Sully clan are introduced to the oceanic environs the Metkayina live in. This entails challenges of adaptation for the formerly arboreal family, like swapping their pterodactyl-like, symbiotically-linked Mountain Banshee mounts for a new species that seem like cross-breeds of barracuda and flying fish, allowing them to not just wing over water but dive under it as well. As with the previous film, these environs and the creatures living in them are fantastically magnified versions of more prosaically familiar earthly things that gloss them over with a new coat of strangeness and luminous spectacle, even if the invention never quite gets as pleasantly nutty as the previous film’s floating mountains. Where the Na’vi were a melange of different indigenous American nations, the Metkayina are based pretty baldly on Polynesian and Maori culture (it’s also amusing to see the digitally transformed Winslet, who first gained attention in Heavenly Creatures, 1994, and Curtis, who became an international character actor on the back of Once Were Warriors, 1994, united in an accidental nod to the glories of mid-1990s New Zealand cinema — even if neither actor really gets much to do). Cameron treads oddly similar territory here to where his fellow digi-visionary blockbuster auteur George Lucas went with Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with his visions of wicked machines descending from the sky and torching the natural environment, and Cameron blatantly makes the similarity plainer when he repeats the “always a bigger fish” joke from the Lucas film.
The choice of shifting much of the focus of the story of The Way of Water onto the next generation is one that most clearly echoes what Cameron did on Terminator 2. Where young John Connor was a wayward product of a quasi-countercultural youth terminally on the outs with the square world he’s forced to subsist in whilst being constantly conscious of another, impending reality, the Sully youngsters are conscious of their status of mutts born between species and cultures, anointing with both burdens and special status, although Spider has some of John’s PG-swearing attitude. Cameron puts much emphasis on the youngsters of the family trying to find their way and negotiate familiar problems of growing up, particularly in the elder brothers’ clashes with the snooty local youths who like teasing and hazing the new kids on the block. Kiri, meanwhile, emerges as the most interesting of the new characters, with her bizarre birth and hazy heritage, adrift with a moony fascination for the world and stirring mysterious interactions with it, that even strikes the Na’vi as pretty odd. The sight (and sound) of Weaver rendered as an alien adolescent is amusing enough in itself, but also gives the part some curious note of pathos: where much of the recent craze for wielding de-aging digital technology has been applied for pretty cynical ends, or was used by Martin Scorsese on The Irishman (2019) for discomforting musing on aging on screen, Cameron seems genuinely delighted by the possibility of setting such things in flux.
Like many very successful late-career filmmakers, Cameron’s become relatively indifferent to expected standards of realism, going instead for instantly legible visual mystique and dialogue that, whilst inflected with contemporary argot, is pitched on a level designed to be accessible to the young and to resonate on an essential level. The Way of Water strongly reminded me of a brand of family entertainments that used to be reasonably common on screen and in books, those ones where a gang of kids would be living on a permanent safari or the like because their parents had a weird job, and their ranks would be both open and loyal in all sorts of all-together-now fun – actually, Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) is a good, if particularly unnerving example of that – as well as more reminiscent of classic Disney live-action adventure movies than anything Disney makes now. I sincerely mean this as a compliment. Cameron’s insistent (bordering on bullhorned) approach to his environmental themes, as the youngsters are appalled to register violations of the natural world they intermingle with, echoes those kinds of stories too. Not that Cameron’s gone entirely soft: The Way of Water is still a big, booming action-adventure movie where the audience is however ironically encouraged to cheer when the nasty, exploitative humans get their violent comeuppance. Indeed, he expressly set out to create an interesting tension between the idea that advanced intelligence leads to more pacifistic behaviour, as expressed through the tulkun, and its impossibility when faced with naked aggression.
A while ago I pondered the notion that Cameron might indeed by modern cinema’s preeminent, old-school, capital-R Romantic artist. The fascinating result of watching Cameron’s output back-to-back was coming to recognise this, not just in the vast concepts but in the sense of passion as a world-reshaping force, as expressed in his crucial relationships. Cameron certainly invites overt connection with some greats of the Romantic school, most obviously his variations on the Frankenstein mythos of Mary Shelley. Of course, that could be just the pervasive influence on the genre Cameron works in, but he’s also gone further, annexing the specifically North American mythos of the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville and their own engagement with ideas out of Rousseau. Cameron’s fascination for technology, the foe of the Romantic Movement when it emerged in the late 1700s, might seem to preclude that, but for Cameron technology is both the tool of realising his fantasies and, within the frame of those fantasies, a source of monumental contradiction. Indeed, it emerges that Cameron loves tech because it allows Romantic concepts to regain precedence from realism; whether positively or negatively or with aspects of both, the success or failure of the tech shatters the stolid world and unleashes his heroes and their passions. That aforementioned similarity to The Phantom Menace also recalls how that film dipped a toe into a Wagnerian sense of the natural and spiritual world being violated by the spirit of industrialised greed.
Most of Cameron’s films, ranging from the dread apocalyptic fantasies of the Terminator films to the disintegrating modern dream of Titanic that specifically kills off both the Romantic artist and the aristocratic world that couched the style, and the dreams of perfect fusion found in The Abyss (1989) and the first Avatar, contended with that ambivalence. For Cameron technology had the ironic promise of stirring atavistic potential, repopulating the world with demons like the Terminators and neo-knights like the steel-suited Ripley. Again, also pervasive in the genre, but Cameron seems highly conscious of the traditions he works in. Here he wades into the south sea dreaming of Melville’s Omoo and Typee before wholeheartedly offering a variation on Moby Dick as retold from the whale’s point of view. Cameron’s well-known passion for the ocean, which evidently combines a healthy sense of unease with awe, is worked through here at length, as it presents an obvious example of a world that is at once familiar but also eternally alien to humanity. Cameron nudged quasi-transcendental territory with The Abyss and the blatantly angelic look of the aliens in that movie who have developed their technology to the state where there is no tension between it and their natural environment, leading to his messianic climax, in a grandiose cinematic articulation of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that technology rendered on an unrecognisably advanced level might as well be magic.
Cameron was of course pinching heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) there, but Spielberg is less a Romantic than a curious blend of modernist sceptic and Old Testament thaumaturg. Cameron in Avatar finally went over his own theoretical horizon by presenting the fantasy of a natural system so complete and connected it essentially makes technology unnecessary, even primitive-seeming, so long as one developed sufficiently to meet it half-way: it was not so much an abandonment of technology as an attempt to imaginatively synthesis something that serves the same function. That system works not just as a great communication network but contains the memories of its world in a kind of spiritual database. Cameron tries to give this some specific new expressions in The Way of Water, particularly through Kiri, who has a peculiar relationship with Eywa, as the Na’vi call the planetary deity-consciousness that permeates all the life-forms of Pandora to some degree. Kiri’s first attempt to plug into the Metkayina’s local version of the spirit tree like the others can results in her suffering a seizure that gets diagnosed as something like epilepsy after having a vision of her “mother,” only for her to later try it under extreme pressure and reveal uncanny control that allows her to kill a couple of pursuers. Cameron keeps mum to a potentially frustrating degree about what’s going on here, which he plainly means to get into more in the next instalment. I could nonetheless venture a thesis – that Kiri likely had no father and instead is the spontaneously generated attempt by Eywa to reincarnate Grace, and came out connected to Eywa to a unique degree: she can’t link to the spirit tree because she is one.
Cameron seems to be pinching ideas from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels throughout here, with the recombinants reminiscent of Herbert’s gholas, Kiri resembling a less freaky variation on the super-consciousness-inheriting Alia, and the tulkuns as much friendlier sandworms. Fair play – Cameron seems more interested in those ideas and their potential that Denis Villeneuve’s recent hemi-adaptation of Dune was. The first Avatar came out at a time when the pervasiveness of the internet and the truth of a new kind of reality it was fostering had become undeniable, and Cameron’s portrayal of the human operators and their projected selves finding new truth in an extra-reality wonderland felt timely, even if he never let it get in the way of a good story. Today, the internet’s more unsettling traits have become plainer, but Cameron isn’t interested in reflecting on that, in large part because he’s now dealing with experience more explicitly related to the body, of changes to the body and its expressed meaning, which is also touching on fashionable concerns, if less encompassing ones. Repeatedly throughout Cameron explores the idea of a kind of afterlife made possible through both digital transmission and rehousing in the recombinants, and through the great neural function of Eywa, where consciousnesses live on and can be communed with in some form.
The release of the original Avatar inspired a fascinating variety of responses for what it entailed for the culture at large, ranging from right-wing readings dismayed by its environmentalist stance and borderline-misanthropic anger, to accusations from some leftists of dated racism and much musing over contradictions regarding Cameron’s imperial might as a film technician and what he chose to celebrate with it. Meanwhile its general success signalled that, over and above his great skill and showman’s instinct apparent purely on a filmmaking level, Cameron had the pulse of the mass audience still, speaking directly to common fantasies and worries. I don’t really know if The Way of Water will set any of that stuff in motion again. One of the values of sci-fi is of course that it offers a stage to explore such things on a quasi-abstract, displaced level: Avatar reflected on such things on the level of a parable, proposing what it would look if, say, one encountered an ecosystem as one, giant, literal living thing. The disparity with life as we know it is obvious: nature doesn’t work like that, at least no on this planet, and so we’ve been obliged to utilise the world to meet our needs, if indeed to the degree of forming contempt for it. The Na’vi are gifted a kind of exceptionalism because they know Eywa on a direct level, without which they might seem obnoxiously arrogant. Here Cameron does tacitly admit that they are a little, when he has the Sully children browbeaten by the Metkayina brats both as outsiders and as half-breeds. Their enclosed and sufficient world would likely to be even more, and not less, allergic to and intolerant of alienness and outsiders.
Which is perhaps the chief way The Way of Water is a trifle disappointing: Cameron backs away from offering any kind of dialogue or argument of values, of taking his concepts deeper. Even the Wachowskis with their forsaken The Matrix sequels dared to deconstruct their basic power fantasy, as did Lucas. Again, Cameron might be saving that for a later instalment, but I still felt a nibble of frustration as he shifted from an extrapolated “save the rainforest” message to “save the whales.” Quaritch and his team, meaning to track down the Sullys after catching wind of their general location, pressgangs some tulkun hunters into transporting them there and, once he grasps the power of the relationship between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, encourages the hunters to start killing close to the islands, to draw out resistance, and the Sullys very likely with them. Cameron stages a suitably spectacular and nakedly heart-rending sequence of the hunters, led by their ratbag captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), chasing down and killing a tulkun mother, a laborious process as the tulkuns have tough, bony bodies and have to be finished off with an explosive harpoon. Cameron gives a further kick in the ribs when he reveals the object of the hunt boils down to a couple of litres of brain fluid that has unique aging-halting properties, now the leading commercial prize on Pandora. This is nominally better as a plot propeller than the previous film’s notorious (perhaps unfairly so given its basis in theoretical physics) “Unobtainium,” and does actually reflect on some unpleasant facts about a long history of animal exploitation. Nonetheless it provokes many questions, as to when and how the humans discovered these properties, and how it became such a priority in the course of the very recent return of the colonial mission. It’s also very plainly there to make the audience whoop when the time to kick ass finally arrives.
Which takes some time, as The Way of Water resists simply leaping into all-action shenanigans, which could be a plus or minus depending on how it strikes you. Cameron deliberately stymies Jake, the accomplished swashbuckler, as he’s now a protective family man playing nice on someone else’s turf. After Lo’ak is nearly killed early in the film, when Jake and the Na’vi blow up a maglev train built through the jungle, Jake becomes increasingly concerned by his second son’s seeming recklessness in the face of danger, and his brood’s general difficulty with the concept of obeying orders. Lo’ak meanwhile feels like he’s considered less worthy compared to his more circumspect older brother, but his disaffection and determination to prove himself ultimately help him connect with Payakan, another being stray from his flock. Lo’ak tries to make others see the worth of Payakan, even as he’s told the reason why the other tulkun shun him. The chain of relations, elemental as they are, nonetheless accrue substance through insistence: connection, whether it be friendship, between Lo’ak and Payakan, synergetic, as between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, romantic, as between Neteyam and Reya (Baiey Bass), the chieftain’s willowy daughter, or familial, between the Sullys and even the Quaritchs, is a constant in this world, echoing in the mirroring father-son conflicts and played out on a more ethereal level by Kiri, who is at once an orphan and an expression of the very planet’s need for connection.
Quaritch in the first film was a heightened caricature of American militarist machismo, imbued with the traits of an explicitly Ahab-like character, scarred by his encounter with the fierce and ungovernable wildlife and determined to decimate it all in the course of asserting power. Here Cameron makes the connection more overt as Quaritch oversees the tulkun hunt, even if it’s only a means to end. Meanwhile his methods for interrogating and browbeating Metkayina villagers, where Spider’s presence influences him to avoid executing prisoners but still burns down their homes, confirm the Vietnam War is still on Cameron’s mind. Bringing Quaritch back smacks of waned inspiration akin to the way Agent Smith became a boring fixture in The Matrix sequels, but also understandable, as Lang’s marvellously sullen and contemptuous aggression in the role was one of the first film’s most potent if unsubtle elements. Cameron signals intention to take Quaritch to peculiar places. Even as for the most part he’s just playing the matinee villain again this time around, Cameron broaches some of this intent, now that Quaritch is inhabiting a life form built for a new planet and must soon or later respond to its wavelengths, whilst his son is still thoroughly human but identifies with the Na’vi. Cameron pauses to note the profoundly dislocating spectacle of Quaritch, after recovering the filmed record of his human body’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri, witnessing that death as a viewer locked in a new and alien body. The possibility that Spider’s presence coaxes something like humanity out of the now-inhuman Quaritch is dangled throughout the film, and whilst he remains a monster, he finally does prove to have this one, particular weak spot. Spider’s increasingly horrified response to both Quaritch’s methods and the hunting of the tulkuns eventually drives him to intervene on his adopted family’s behalf in the climax, but then also repays a debt by saving Quaritch from the fruits of his own malevolence.
One element The Way of Water definitely lacks that buoyed the first film had was the surreal, fetish-fuel romance of Jake and Neytiri. The love affairs here, such as between Neteyam and Reya and Spider and Kiri, are by comparison only glanced over, and don’t have the same playfully transgressive quality. The emphasis on Lo’ak’s journey also means that Kiri, who has the more intriguing story if less immediately important for how the plot resolves, isn’t given as much time as she deserves. Jake and Neytiri finally reclaim their eminence in the climax when they go on the warpath to save their brood from Quaritch, with Neytiri pushed to the edge of the genuinely unbalanced when the family take a brutal loss, reduced to taking Spider hostage to counter Quaritch and threatening to cut his throat. Which Spider seems oddly forgiving of later, but then again he’s not doing too well when it comes to parental figures. When push does come to shoot, the wrath of the Metkayina as they charge out to assault the humans is nothing compared to the show-stopping spectacle of Payakan launching himself out of the water and crashing down upon the deck of the hunting craft in trying to save his tiny friend, dealing out righteous destruction and turning Quaritch’s contrived trap into a chaotic free-for-all that also rewrites Moby Dick sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab from grim expression of cosmic indifference and chaos to act of direct and vengeful justice, even down to Payakan taking out his most hated foe by wrapping him up in his own harpoon line.
Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s extension of his mythos, it’s impossible to deny the man still knows how to make a movie on the biggest scale possible, and that’s become a rare gift even in an age where every two-bit director seems to fancy themselves a pontential special effects epic maestro. The years spent refining the special effects have paid off: even if they still sometimes look like what they essentially are, a very sophisticated CGI cartoon, they have a lustre, a richness of colour and grain of detail, that’s quite astounding, particularly with what must have been the excruciatingly finicky work of making digital effects interact with water. Cameron has one of the most clean and fluidic eyes for graphics of any director working, refusing at any point to let the movie degenerate into a jumble of shots for their own sake even as elements pile up to a crazy degree, so when the action finally, properly busts out in the climax it comes with exhilarating force: on a first viewing it leaves a delirious impression of charging flying fish rides and wild underwater battles with mechanical crabs and aerial assaults from a berserker Neytiri. Cameron has some fun tossing in touches ripped off from his own films, in his own aesthetic form of recombinant and daring the audience to call him on it – scenes recalling Titanic as the heroes and villains are trapped within the capsized and flooding hunting ship, Neytiri losing Tuk down a chute a la Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and nods to the angelic aliens of The Abyss as Kiri straps to her back a jellyfish-like creature that works like a scuba tank and spreads gleaming wing-like fronds.
The oddest and most stirring quality of The Way of Water is that it is, even more than its precursor, at once deeply misanthropic and perfectly idealistic, even corny (dig the Tinkerbell-esque way Kiri helps track down the trapped family in the ship), in the way it manipulates a puppet theatre of human facets, the clash between cruelty and empathy, destruction and protection, playing upon the desire for grand new landscapes whilst also insistently reminding us of how we’ve fouled up the ones we know too well. Cameron’s always been a fascinating bundle of contradictions, a male action movie director famed for female protagonists, who populates his tech-heavy films with some of the few memorable romances in recent popular cinema, a control freak who often delivers antiestablishment messages through the ungainly vehicles of colossal blockbusters. And he goes on being one even as the imaginative constructs of the Avatar universe labour so urgently to find some point of fusion for them all. Avatar: The Way of Water is also many warring things, a failure of imagination on some levels and a spectacular and hugely entertaining expression of it on others, a long and clunky example of franchise cinema but also a full-blooded, gleeful relief from it, a film that does its best to satisfy on its own merits whilst keeping on an eye on things still in the future.