When I reviewed Avatar some 13 years ago in these pages, I proclaimed that in Pandora, James Cameron was the “king of the world.”

It is surprising how well that statement holds up today.

The statement, mind you, not Avatar, which, when it came out, was as ground-breaking as it was boring, irrespective of its spectacularism.

Cameron’s visual spectacle was riding fast and flying high when it came to graphical splendour, but the story it told through the eyes of a paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was quite basic.

Jake is inducted into a specialised programme where he would be able to send his consciousness into a living, breathing bio-form of the alien species Na’vi, whose far-off world, Pandora, would eventually be taken over by us Earthlings, since we’ve all but plundered our planet.

Director James Cameron is still the “king of the world”, especially when he makes sequels or movies that dive deep underwater

Pandora is a brave new world, on the brink of a hostile takeover by imperial-minded, conquest-driven nature of the human species. One sees parallels of young America’s early history in Cameron’s very vocal storytelling, which is as much about passive statement-making scenes as it is about minimalism of plot.

Historically, the plot in Cameron’s films can often be summed up in less than a paragraph.

However, to elaborate: in this sequel, Jake, now forever installed in his Na’vi bio-form, leads a rebellion against Earth’s militia, as the tribe’s military commander. A little more than a decade later, Jake has become the father of three children from Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the adoptive father of a girl called Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) — the offspring from Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar-form — and the caretaker/surrogate father of the human child who goes by the nickname of Spider (Jack Champion), the son of Jake’s enemy, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Jake and his family are forced to flee from their tribe and settle in the distant islands of another Na’vi ethnicity (their leaders are played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet), when Quaritch and his special unit, whose consciousnesses are brought back to Pandora in Na’vi forms, are tasked to stop him and his raids at any cost.

Subplots of the story include Kiri’s mystical natural connection to the undersea life — which Cameron will likely explore in the third part — and Jakes’ second son’s friendship with an outcast tulkun (a Pandoran whale, whose intelligence surpasses human IQ).

Even in its elaborated form, it roughly takes three paragraphs to convey the gist of The Way of Water’s minimal story. As I’ve been reminded time and again this year (The Legend of Maula Jatt and The Fabelmans), one doesn’t need uber-complicated stories to make an entertaining motion picture. All one needs are engaging characters, good conflict, detailed worldbuilding, an agenda-free plot (the woke culture has all but ruined Hollywood), and most importantly, an experience that gives priority to what audiences might like to see.

The Way of Water checks almost all of those boxes on paper. The screenplay by Cameron, and husband-wife duo Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa (Rise, Dawn and War of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World and Mulan), present the opportunity for an immersive experience in a brave new, yet unseen, world, and Cameron, putting on his director’s hat, makes sure that there are no compromises in the execution.

From the very natural 3D (the film doesn’t give into gimmicks), to the performance capture improvement on the actors, to the world design, the seamless animation and rendering, everything on the technical side is flawless. Cameron and his team have trail-blazed the science behind the visual imagery when it comes to delivering an immersive experience; the only thing left for the filmmaker is to tell the story.

Cameron’s treatment of Pandora and its indigenous life has a deliberate, unhurried feel in The Way of Water; some would even say that it is unjustly protracted, though I disagree.

Cameron spends a great deal of his screentime explaining the nature of Pandoran species and their backstories. The set-up pays off in spades during the hour-long climax of the film that begins with a tulkun hunt and climaxes on a rescue action sequence on board a sinking ship (the sequence gives off a Titanic-esque vibe).

In comparison to the first Avatar, The Way of Water has less action — not that I mind it though — and better character development.

Jake, who functioned little more than Cameron’s impassive lens in the last part, steps into the role of his family’s patriarch. Though the reason for running away with his family feels unnecessary and illogical (his unit was better trained for combat than the water tribe where he seeks refuge), Jake’s new role brings a measure of humanity to his character.

The Way of Water exhibits a familiar old-world charm to its narrative when the story endorses the patriarchal family system (the women in the film are no pushovers, and have strong personalities by the way), a staunch belief in preserving culture and heritage, and a strong message of protecting undersea life.

Cameron is not a subtle filmmaker, and the points he aims to put through are hard to dismiss. Take for example his stance on whale-poaching. In the harrowing tulkun hunt mentioned above, we learn that humans hunt these giant Pandoran whales for a bottle of their miraculous brain fluid — which is sold at approximately 80 million dollars — and the rest of the carcass is left to rot in the ocean.

The sequence nearly makes you cry for a creature that does not exist.

Throughout The Way of Water, one can see that Cameron and co. have little love for us humans. The screenplay paints us black, with a long, wide brush, as capitalist, insatiable, greedy scum.

In Cameron’s eyes, the Na’vi’s are more human than us. The moment one transforms into a Na’vi, the story magically changes its perspective, and the characters become better people.

Like Jake, Quaritch has a better story arc as a Na’vi. Routinely portrayed as a decidedly evil, single-minded, gung-ho action man, he shows more discernment and concern in his blue-skinned avatar when he learns that Spider is his past self’s son.

The father-son relationship dynamic is quite strong in The Way of Water, but it leads to evident shortfalls and cliches in the story.

For a 196-minute movie (that’s three hours and 16 minutes for those wondering), the film disservices Neteyam (James Flatters), Jake’s eldest offspring, who has had some military training under his father.

Neteyam has the least screen time of the children, and should have had a better character arc, since he brings the story to an interesting direction in the last hour. In contrast, Cameron spends an ample amount of screen time on Lo’ak (Brain Dalton), and his friendship with Payakan, the rebel tulkun.

Although one doesn’t get any inkling in the first hour of the film, as the narrative moves forward, one realises that The Way of Water is mostly a set-up for parts three and four — and therein lies the problem. Telling what may be perceived as a middling story, with the intention of raising the stakes in subsequent parts, may give people the wrong impression about the movie. However, unless and until those stories manifest — and soon, since he already pushed the technology to its bleeding edge — one cannot fully defend or blame The Way of Water.

According to this writer though, Cameron is still the “king of the world”, especially when he makes sequels (Terminator 2, Aliens), or making movies and documentaries that dive deep underwater (Abyss, though groundbreaking, was okay; Titanic remains epic).

Few can do it better, and the experience one gets when seeing the film on the big screen, is nothing less than magnificent.

Avatar: The Way of Water is playing in cinemas now

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 25th, 2022

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