I’m pretty sure the last time I saw a 3D movie in theaters was The Great Gatsby in 2013. They’ve just never really been my thing but when a film like Avatar: The Way of Water comes around you can’t NOT indulge. When I got to the theater I got to my seat only to realize that the row behind me was filled with a birthday party of what must have been eight year olds, one of whom had a breakdown because he lost his glasses as soon as the movie started. My only thought at this point was this movie better be fucking worth it.
And it was.
I’ve talked before about how Avatar is one of the most confusing films to talk about. Despite the fact that it became the highest grossing film of all time it left almost no tangible impact on pop culture outside of the year it was released. It’s not that its a bad movie by any means, it’s just fine. So going into this one I had high hopes but wasn’t expecting to be floored. Overall, I’d say this film exceeded those expectations but still has some glaring issues.
Taking place more than a decade after the events of the original Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are forced to fend off invading humans while protecting their four children Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and their adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who was born from Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney’s character in the first film) avatar though her conception remains a mystery. To escape the humans coming after them, led by Quartitch’s (Stephen Lang) revived avatar, the Sully’s flee to the Metkayina reef people to seek refuge though their fight certainly doesn’t end there.
There’s a lot of digest with this film. It’s three hours and 12 minutes long and it sure feels like it (in a good way.) So let’s start with the obvious: the visuals. This film is so grand in scope and the world of Pandora is truly remarkable. Everything from the forests, the underwater sequences, the battle scenes, the Na’vi themselves, everything. This is one of the most beautiful looking films ever created and it fully deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible and in 3D, just as James Cameron intended. Time will tell if the visuals lose their luster when the ability to watch in 3D becomes less and less accessible, similar to the original, but for the time being this should be celebrated for the spectacle that it is. Aside from the visuals, it’s an epic story in every sense of the world. It’s much more of a family centric saga this time around as opposed to the original that was more focused on Jake Sully’s story. Cameron makes the decision to spend a large chunk of the film on Jake and Neytiri’s children, particularly Lo’ak and Kiri, and this added several great characters that the original was lacking. Finally, the last third of this film is as gripping as any action sequence in recent memory. One film that came to mind is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a bit of a stretch but the action is just so non-stop and bonkers for so long you hardly get a moment to breath. Obviously this film is heavily effects driven and Mad Max was almost entirely practical but what Cameron accomplishes in the final act is on par or better than anything I’ve seen in the last decade. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give it is that it feels like a movie movie.
The performances in the film are solid almost across the board, with a few misses but we’ll get to those later. This is a very different Jake Sully from the original, with him being both a father and a military leader, but Worthington is solid here as the lead. Saldana is also at the top of her game, with one sequence in particular among one of the most memorable in the film, though one of my biggest issues was the film is that we don’t get nearly enough Neytiri, who I thought was the most interesting character in the original film. Lang brings his A-game again, being asked to do much more this time around as the film’s main antagonist. Weaver, who is 73 years old, plays a surprisingly good teenager who just wants to be like everyone else. The rest of the cast includes Cliff Curtis (Doctor Sleep), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Brendan Cowell (Game of Thrones), Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), and of course James Cameron’s reunion with Kate Winslet who gets her fair share of moments to shine. It also includes newcomers Bailey Bass, Jack Champion, and Philip Geljo.
To me there are three glaring flaws in this film. Number one: Where is Neytiri? Again, I thought she was the best character in the original film. She was a legitimate badass and Saldana acted circles around everybody. We still see that in this film but there are large chunks of this film where she’s not present at all, particularly in the middle. I understand that her and Jake are different people now and the decision to focus on the children was likely made to set up future films but to not ask more of your go-to character was surprising. Second, the middle third of the film, particularly the Metkayina storyline, feels much more spectacle than story. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of character development going on here, particularly with Kiri and Lo’ak, but it just feels like Cameron wanted to show off more of Pandora rather than move the story along. It looks beautiful but after a while it’s hard not to say “okay, we get it, let’s move on.” My final issue with the film was that as amazing as the film looks and feels there’s very little fun being had. At the end of the day this is a family drama and action movie so I understand not needing to include one liners or whacky comic relief characters but this film is almost completely absent of all humor. Not saying that a lack of knee slappers is the biggest issue with the film, but there’s just no fun being had by anybody here.
I will say it’s been amusing to see how surprised everyone is that the sequel to a film that was nominated for nine Oscars, is the highest grossing film of all time, and is a passion project from one of the great blockbuster directors in film history is actually pretty good. I would imagine this film is going to compete in the same nine fields (or just eight in this case now that Sound Mixing and Sound Editing have been condensed to just Best Sound) at the Academy Awards but I can’t see it overtaking the Best Picture or Best Director field as some people are saying.
Again, go see this in theaters. I have this film in my top 10 for the year and I don’t consider myself a die-hard fan of the original. If you’re a fan of film then do yourself a favor and go see one of the most anticipated films of all times as its supposed to be seen: on as big a screen possible.
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