Warning: Spoilers Included | Visual spectacle, big production value, and titanic levels of worldbuilding — will James Cameron’s latest creation sink or swim?
For many late 2000s moviegoers, Avatar was a pioneering first step into an immersive, ultra-3D cinematic experience — one that set the tone for action films for years to come. Over a decade later, the technology seems to have quietly faded into our collective consciousness, along with our memories of said film’s plot.
Much of this is for good reason.
Films such as Avatar and even Star Wars: A New Hope largely served as vehicles for cutting-edge effects teams to push cinematic immersion to its very limits, often painting their characters in broad, imprecise strokes, offering little more than vaguely relatable clichés for us to latch on to. Star Wars obviously broke the mold, creating a laundry list of iconic characters, although its settings remain pretty cookie-cutter — George Lucas himself suggested that each planet in his films should be expressible in just about a word or two.
James Cameron’s Pandora, however, requires a lot more than two words, and as our latest outing proves, offers one of the most fleshed-out worldbuilding projects to ever be put on film — but does it make a good movie?
Let’s dive right in.
2009’s Avatar was a largely self-contained film — Earth is screwed, the American military-industrial complex decides to head off-world, and in the end, the big bad Elon Musk caricature bungles his evil colonisation project, heads back home with billions down the drain, and our white saviour protagonist Jake Sully becomes one with the community he helped protect. (Neat, for anyone who hasn’t watched Pocahontas, I guess.)
This time around, the story isn’t as much about Sully’s connection to nature and the Na’vi, as it is about his legacy as a leader and more specifically, a war hero. The events of Avatar greatly enhance Sully’s status in Na’vi society, making him the leader of the Omaticaya clan and father figure to many children — two in particular that we’ll get to shortly.
A decade passes by since the human invasion, and things seem to be going fine — until of course, Homo Sapiens decides to stir up trouble once again. Armed with more knowledge about Pandora than before, Earth’s second invasion succeeds in establishing a city base, while Sully decides to prioritise preparing for war over connecting with his family.
It’s subtle but clear — Sully hides his vulnerability behind his mate Neytiri and his oversized rifle, even expecting his sons to refer to him as ‘Sir’ rather than, well, whatever the Na’vi equivalent is for ‘Dad’ is.
Another person struggling between warfare and personal vulnerability is Miles Quaritch. The comically cliché Colonel from the first film has been transferred into a Na’vi body, although since the process occurred posthumously, his big, blue form simply has a recording of Quaritch’s memories rather than his consciousness. There’s an interesting ‘Ship of Theseus’ card that Cameron plays here — and throughout key scenes, we see Quaritch struggle with his implanted memories, his emotions as an individual, and his place as a tool of conquest.
Many of these emotions come tied to Quaritch’s son, Spider. Left behind as a baby after the first invasion fleet left Pandora, he’s now grown into a young man — something of a wannabe Tarzan struggling to keep up with his fellow boys and girls in blue. On an ill-advised recon trip with the young Na’vi, Spider is captured by Quaritch. Unsettled by the brutality displayed by his fellow interrogators, the Colonel decides to take him under his wing, and the pair get closer over time.
Meanwhile, after seeing his children held at knifepoint by Quaritch’s squad, Sully decides to leave the forest behind and seek sanctuary elsewhere. After a quick overseas flight, the Sullys land on the Metkayina reef — a pristine patch of sun-soaked islands teeming with one of the most incredible ecosystems we’ve ever seen on film.
Seriously — while many of the lifeforms here, Na’vi included, are largely pastiches of existing Maori culture, iconic forms of Earth-based ocean life, and other sci-fi concepts, Cameron’s passion and love for worldbuilding really come out in these scenes — even if the second act of the story is painfully sluggish. Every underwater frame, for instance, is dotted with countless creatures all defined by unique, science-informed evolutionary traits in tandem with Pandora’s own trademark bio-features, such as multiple rows of eyes or bioluminescence, the latter of which frames some of the prettiest shots we’ve seen in cinema all year long.
What follows after the Sullys hit the beach is pretty obvious, and is also the most forgettable part of the film — a stretched-out combination of training montages, conflict between Sully’s ‘half-breed’ children and their newfound hosts, and glimpses of Pandora’s aquatic life.
In between all of these, we get a closer look at Sully’s adoptive daughter Kiri — who at first glance, seems to be Pandora’s resident manic pixie dream girl, but has a bit of intrigue to her, especially in terms of her backstory. Kiri is the biological daughter of Sully’s old friend Grace Augustine, the scientist behind the body-swapping project after which the Avatar series is named. After facing a lethal blow from the original Quaritch, she ‘becomes one’ with the Pandoran deity Eywa — seemingly reborn through Kiri. This gives the young Na’vi a particularly strong connection with Pandora’s nature, allowing her to command its wildlife and even commune with her mother’s spirit via Eywa.
Put simply, Spider and Kiri stand as thematic twins at the epicentre of the film’s central ideas of legacy and what we choose to do with it. Kiri longs to understand the mysteries of her birth, and while she doesn’t get all the answers she needs, she ultimately uses her self-belief to save her family and set up some interesting plotlines for the three upcoming Avatar sequels that Cameron has confirmed.
While Spider isn’t the most interesting character all by himself, he actually facilitates the most interesting character arc in the series — that of Quaritch. When faced in a double-sided hostage situation, Quaritch realises that he’s willing to fail his mission and give up Kiri in order to save Spider. Knowing how lousy of a father his original self was, the new Quaritch displays a surprising amount of compassion, trust, and even gratitude in Spider — while he’s still Sully’s sworn enemy, he’s now got family on the opposing team, and that’s sure to ruffle some feathers when Avatar 3 comes rolling along.
Ultimately, Avatar: The Way of Water offers both shallow and deep glimpses of its world for fans of the franchise to explore. While this isn’t a perfect film and like its predecessor, isn’t likely to improve on rewatches, I’m happy to say that our second visit to Pandora was a good attempt at capitalising on the incredible worldbuilding from the original, and its improved scope lends to a genuinely fantastic, even touching climax — so please don’t doze off during the weaker middle act of this film.
While the characters still need far more seasoning, Cameron has established a strong thematic baseline for future stories — maybe next time, I’ll be more interested in his world’s inhabitants, rather than the world itself.
Images: 20th Century Studios