“A glorified South America” was one of the odder dismissive takes on Pandora, the alien world of the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar, that I heard when the movie was in theaters. After all, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to see a glorified South America? Yes, the characters were generic and unmemorable, the plot ultra-tropey, the themes hackneyed, the dialogue humdrum. But the world…ah, the world was an unprecedented revelation. Now, over a decade later, Cameron has labored obsessively over the return to Pandora, in the process posing a new rhetorical question: Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to see a glorified Caribbean coral sea?
There are two things Avatar: The Way of Water does supremely well—more about that in a bit—but let’s also acknowledge up front that in all the ways Avatar was mediocre, The Way of Water represents no great step forward. The Na’vi cast is larger and more diverse, and there are conflicts and relationships of new kinds, but the characters are still generic and their names still blur together. At least I now know the names of the major characters from the first film, notably Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the ex-Marine ex-human whose crippled body died and whose consciousness has been permanently transferred to his big blue avatar body, and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the Na’vi warrior princess who was Pocahontas to Sully’s John Smith. But time has passed on Pandora too, and much of the new movie focuses less on Jake and Neytiri than on the children they’re raising together. It will take me a while to get most of their names down, along with those of the turquoise-skinned reef clan of Na’vi among whom Jake and Neytiri’s family take refuge when the villain of the first movie—Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who died fighting Jake and Neytiri—makes an ambiguous quasi-return in an avatar body, bent on revenge.
The plot is less conventional than the 2009 film, but no less tropey, with a similar thematic blend of eco-spirituality, anti-imperialism, xeno-naturalistic wonder, and thundering action set pieces. In the original, Jake led the Na’vi in a successful war against the pillaging human invaders who wanted a Pandoran MacGuffin absurdly called “unobtainium.” It was something of a white-savior narrative, with a Dances With Wolves twist: The Na’vi were Noble Savages who saved Jake from his own whiteness, but ultimately he became the best Noble Savage of them all. These days, Jake is focused on being a husband and father, even if (not unlike many ex-military movie fathers) he needs to be reminded by Neytiri that a family is not a military squad.
Family life has changed him; Jake is more cautious, more focused on safety: “A father protects—it’s what gives him meaning,” he says more than once. Among the family’s four children, the story focuses particularly on younger brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who resents being overshadowed by his golden-boy older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), and on adopted Kiri, whose origins are mysterious. We’re told she was born of the inert Na’vi avatar of the late human scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who played the mother, now plays the daughter); how or when Grace’s Na’vi form was impregnated is unknown. Then there’s a young human tagalong called Spider (Jack Champion) who was left behind in the human evacuation.
Over a decade later, the humans have returned with an even more alarming mission of terraforming to create a new home for humanity, and the Na’vi are waging a guerrilla war of resistance. For most of the first hour, the story plays out in the same sorts of locations as the first movie, and little if any of this struck me as super essential. Performance capture and computer rendering are noticeably improved: The Na’vi feel more tactile and organic, their movements and expressions look more natural, and light and shadow fall more convincingly on their blue skin. But the improvements are incremental, not revolutionary. For a while I began to wonder if this return to Pandora might not finally be the extravagant folly that so many suspected that Titanic and Avatar would be.
Then came the second hour, and then the third: each with very big, very different “Never bet against James Cameron” energy. Most distinctive and most essential is the stunning middle act, set in the island world of a reef clan led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis). The joy of the first Avatar was the joy of discovery—the characters’ discoveries as well as the audience’s—and the scenes of Jake and Neytiri’s forest-dwelling family learning to adapt to marine life are full of a kind of joy that it seems Hollywood blockbusters have all but forgotten: that of seeing something unprecedented and wondrous.
At times this middle act is strikingly evocative of a lavish BBC Blue Planet–style oceanographic nature documentary—or, perhaps, a quasi-documentary like the Jon Favreau–produced Prehistoric Planet, with David Attenborough bringing his customary narratorial gravitas to vignettes in the lives of CGI dinosaurs. Those dinosaurs, of course, owed as much as possible to the most current paleontology, while the fantastic species and undersea formations in The Way of Water are entirely imaginary. Yet, between the film’s boundary-pushing visual virtuosity and Cameron’s enthusiasm for evolutionary biology and marine life in particular, these creatures feel biologically and anatomically persuasive in a way I’m not sure I’ve encountered in any other cinematic fantasy world.
One factor in this persuasiveness has to do with morphological commonalities running through Pandoran life forms. For example, although Pandora’s seas are a brand-new environment to us, it’s no surprise to find six-flippered, plesiosaur-like aquatic creatures ridden by seafaring Na’vi clans, since six limbs is a trait common to many of the land creatures introduced in Avatar, including the horse-like creatures ridden by the forest-dwelling Na’vi. Not only that, the new creature’s four powerful rear flippers are reminiscent of the familiar pterosaur-like creatures’ double wings. This is a biosphere that feels as carefully thought out as the languages of Middle Earth. (The Na’vi language, by contrast, gets short shrift: There’s a bit of subtitled dialogue, but most of the dialogue is in English that we’re meant to understand is “really” Na’vi.)
At the same time, most of the creatures are also obviously reminiscent of real terrestrial species, as suggested by the very terms “horse-like,” “pterosaur-like,” etc. Thus, for example, the Pandoran seas include both fishlike creatures with vertical tails, bespeaking an entirely aquatic evolutionary history, and also marine mammal–like creatures with horizontal limbs indicative of a history like our cetaceans and pinnipeds: obviously, descendants of land animals who returned to the sea. Such convergent evolution reminds me of the question that the protagonist of C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet eventually asks himself on Mars after discovering the similarity of the boats made by the otter-like hrossa to terrestrial boats: “What else could a boat be like?”
For some viewers, I understand, all of this boils down to “There are pretty pictures.” Forgive me another Lewis reference, but I immediately think of Lewis’s account in The Abolition of Man of the story of Coleridge at the waterfall, and of the inadequacy of the word pretty for what is more accurately termed sublime. I’m reminded, too, of something that Tolkien wrote in his essay “On Fairy Stories” on the relationship of fantasy to reality. For Tolkien, fantasy offered a defamiliarizing way of re-enchanting reality, of “cleaning our windows” and helping us to see the world anew:
Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.
A “glorified South America” indeed! Tolkien’s idea of fantasy helping us to see with new eyes resonates with Cameron’s “seeing” motif. “Sky People cannot learn. You do not see,” Neytiri berated Jake in the 2009 movie, adding, in response to Jake’s request that she teach him, “No one can teach you to see.” Cameron sees the natural world, particularly the ocean, and his love of whales and fish and coral and water itself animates the transmuted natural beauty of the Pandoran seas. This is even clearer in the sequel than in the land-based original, which already drew on marine life forms that felt more otherworldly on land than the aquatic species in the new film.
The quasi-documentary quality is part of an overall pattern throughout The Way of Water of recapitulating Cameron’s entire cinematic history, from The Abyss and Titanic to his IMAX submarine documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. The first Avatar was the whole Hollywood zeitgeist in one mythology, with distinct echoes of Aliens in particular, from the tough Latina soldier to the mecha suits allowing humans to fight above their weight class. The Way of Water goes deeper into Cameron’s filmography, from a skull-crushing shot evoking the first Terminator to characters scrambling about on the hull of a slowly sinking vessel à la Titanic.
That filmography includes, of course, a lot of large-scale action—and that’s the other thing The Way of Water does superlatively, particularly in the gonzo third hour. It’s melancholy to say it in the era of superhero overload, but lucid, thrilling action is vanishingly rare in Hollywood “action movies” today. A single underwater sequence, with the children trying to evade pursuers in micro-submarines, is masterfully orchestrated and gripping in a way dwarfing anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has put on-screen in at least the last five years. In fact, other than Tom Cruise’s last two extravaganzas (Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible – Fallout), I can’t think of a single Hollywood action movie in the last five years with set pieces that hold a candle to The Way of Water.
There’s more to unpack, from developing religious themes (e.g., intercessory prayer to the planetary goddess Eywa, discouraged by Neytiri in the original movie, but recurring in this one) to complexities of Na’vi culture that emerge in the interaction of different tribes (turns out even Noble Savages are capable of bullying and racism) to the centrality of family and competing models of masculinity represented by the swaggering, domineering Quaritch and the responsible, protective father Jake.
If Cameron goes on to make the additional sequels he wants, these themes may eventually develop into a pop mythology worth talking about—for good, for ill, or both—along with the likes of Star Wars and the MCU. In the meantime, Cameron’s matchless track record of creating must-see big-screen spectacle continues. If it takes another 13 years to return to Pandora again, I’ll be here for it.
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