The first Avatar was a miracle. Watching it felt like discovering “real” 3D. I remember going to theatres every few days to take it in yet again, to marvel in the impossibility of James Cameron’s world, to see those jellyfish-y things fly past my face. It felt like I could reach out and touch even the subtitles, yellow words that hung tangibly in the air between me and blue faces. In his imaginary planet of Pandora, Cameron fetishised each blade of grass, each plant, each creature with an exotic gorgeousness, making it all appear new and wondrous—thereby making its endangerment all the more grotesque.
With the significantly richer sequel, Avatar: The Way Of Water, Cameron does not deliver us to a brand new world but thrusts us deeper into the first one. Much like the converted-Earthman hero who was an outsider in the first film, we now see Pandora like a native would. The world is profusely detailed, details we glimpse in the fascinating plant life but also in the uncannily lifelike expressions of the blue Na’vi tribe. There is a remarkable tactility here, every texture giving a sense of its own temperature.
The colonising armies, on the other hand, are the opposite: A general uses a robot to lift a coffee mug to her mouth. I fully expected Cameron—himself an eco-warrior who wants to rebrand “vegans” as “futurevores”—to deliver an ecologically powerful epic, and, given its moist setting, a sort of Jaws-on-steroids (which this film does indeed briefly resemble). What I did not expect was a film about whaling. Incredible.
Nearly half of the new Avatar is set under and around water, water that moves so fluidly and photorealistically that some scenes make it feel like you, the viewer, have gone scuba-diving—but better. There are times I took in great big lungfuls when characters came up for air. This is not what cinema has ever felt like. Drown. Gasp. Breathe.
This magical world allows Cameron storytelling choices other film-makers can only envy. He can give us, for instance, three training sequences showing characters trying to master an unfamiliar beast—first, a boy fails miserably at his first wet ride, then his father takes on a bigger steed, does better but eventually flounders, and, finally, we see the bad guy take on something we saw the hero keep failing at in the first film, yet he manages it here in one go— which is nonsensical on a script level. Three training sequences back to back? Yet because the world is so spectacular, we eat up these astonishing scenes, and by showing us the sequences in full, he contrasts each character’s competence level perfectly, letting us know their instinctive learning ability. He speaks volumes by speaking volumes.
Similarly with the whaling. Cameron goes into excruciating detail about the elaborate harpooning and detonating process by which humans hunt down giant and peaceful—and, we are told, emotionally powerful and highly intelligent—sea beings known as Tulkun, trapping and killing these magnificent beings for a litre of golden liquid (called “Amrita”) that literally stops humans from ageing. Showing this entire process so meticulously highlights the abject cruelty involved in the process, while simultaneously letting us know enough in order to be appropriately awestruck during the climactic action sequences.
Do I remember lines from the first Avatar? Do I remember characters that resonated with me? I do not, which is odd for a film I watched in theatres half a dozen times. What I do remember, vividly, is how hard that film made my jaw drop. Avatar: The Way Of Water (which I had to gulp down a second time before writing about it) already feels different. Sure, Cameron has pushed the technological envelope farther and literally immersed us into an inconceivably smooth 48-frames-per-second sea, but the truest accomplishment of all those computers is how well they let the characters emote.
It’s staggering to watch Stephen Lang—who plays resurrected villain Miles Quaritch—say the word “outstanding”, his lips curling up in a demonic smile. To watch Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri, bound throughout by maternal helplessness and fear, finally launch into a Kali-esque rage, eyes and tongue afire. When a girl, Tsireya (Bailey Bass), meets a cute boy and he says hey, her shy laugh is priceless. And when her mother raises her eyebrows with scorn and fury, we know that is unmistakably Kate Winslet.
We have seen motion-capture for years but what Cameron has achieved here is far more: This is performance-capture, where emotions take centre stage, where every facial nuance is not only captured but, at times, underlined —to immense effect. This gives the film emotional depth, and, with it, Cameron finds a genuinely ingenious way to de-age actors. The great Sigourney Weaver plays a teenaged girl in this film and she is smashing.
Sam Worthington, the film’s lead Jake Sully, is solid and sincere — but unmemorable, as if by design. As a heroic warrior archetype, he doesn’t need to be weighed down by quirk. Which brings us to another hurdle: the Na’vi may have distinguishing characteristics (Quaritch has a delightfully incongruous military buzzcut) but how is the audience meant to tell these blue (and turquoise) characters apart when seeing them from afar, soaring and plunging and attacking? Cameron’s answer is, again, unsubtle. This film’s emotional core is Sully’s middle son, Lo’Ak (Britain Dalton) and he stands out right from the start because he calls mostly everyone ‘bro’ and his father ‘sir’ (elder brother Neteyam calls him ‘dad’). These are elegantly simple ways to keep the storytelling lucid.
Avatar: The Way Of Water is a monumental spectacle. Cameron swims past his own greatest hits—apocalyptic destruction from The Terminator, Neytiri raging like Ripley from Aliens, underwater descents reminiscent of The Abyss, ships filling with water much like some sinking boat movie—but also Spielberg-ian flourishes: When Lo’Ak is attacked underwater, the background score goes into two-chords pointedly like Jaws, the boy embraces a massive Tulkun, its eye larger than his stomach, the way Laura Dern embraced a similarly gigantic (and dyspeptic) triceratops in Jurassic Park, and there is much ado about bubbles of water.
Taking off the 3D glasses after the credits is like returning from Oz to Kansas— yet, as the film reminds us, it is a Kansas we must preserve. As for the wizard himself, the man behind the curtain, James Cameron has discovered a whole new way—a whole other dimension—of telling stories, like pioneers of sound or colour or animation. Stories that feel larger and more universal and more compelling. He’s still king of the world.