Review: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is About the World as it Should Be

James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water opens to the promise that bookended its prequel (the 2009 science fiction epic Avatar): of a new world, a new family, a new life. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic US Marine officer, landed on Pandora to mine a valuable mineral, unobtanium, but ended up finding the most elusive element, love. He understood the humans’ colonising nature, resisted their onslaught, and fell in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), a woman from the indigenous race Na’vi. More than a decade later, Jake and Neytiri have raised four children. Life seems good. But their bliss is, once more, ruptured by the “sky people” – humans.

Released 13 years apart, Avatar and its sequel belong to different worlds. Over such a long period, both film cultures and audiences have changed. Back in the day, I was an undergrad student, counting down to Avatar’s release. Now I’m a weary critic battling my gnawing cynicism. Even otherwise, Avatar felt like an event because the film world was fundamentally different. 3-D movies still contained charm and novelty, and the countless superhero tent-pole glitz hadn’t dimmed our curiosity and innocence.

So Avatar: The Way of Water’s first challenge is time itself – in more ways than one. Because its 192-minute runtime rivals the expanse of some web series. Walking into this movie, I also recalled my dichotomous relationship with Avatar. I had loved it in 2009 but didn’t revisit – or even think about it – once. Had I really seen quality science fiction, or did the marketing blitzkrieg fool me?

The sequel’s opening segment, set in Pandora, doesn’t make it easy. The younger Na’vis – Jake and Neytiri’s children – talk in outmoded (and false-ringing) lingo that features a lot of “bro”. Why not just make them talk in Na’vi, I thought, and let us read the subtitles or write their dialogues in a way that captures an unearthly youthful verve?

It doesn’t end there. Jake and his family flee from the sky people to seek refuge among the Metkayina clan, which lives on an island with glass-like water and bioluminescent flora. There too, I thought, the film would follow a template: the Metkayina people will first oppose the ‘outsiders’, then befriend them, and then unite to fight the common enemy. Along the way, we’ll get standard Hollywood banter, before entering a long blazing climax. Didn’t I see the same movie 13 years ago?

I was right but also… wrong. Because Avatar: The Way of Water is both sincere about and committed to the story it wants to tell – the ones vanishing from our screens, especially those wrapped in summer or winter blockbusters. Unlike the Marvel spectacles, the Avatar franchise isn’t a veiled endorsement of the status quo. In fact, it challenges its basic tenet: the American military-industrial complex. Or, quite simply, it shows the traditional ‘heroes’ as who they are: villains. The US military here, like in the prequel, remains as greedy, callous and bloodthirsty. Their colonisation efforts seem bare and scary – and, unlike many Hollywood movies, don’t wear the cloaks of rescue and freedom.

Cameron also retains the franchise’s visual flair. Even if you can predict the broad contours of the story, the images steal your attention. The camera plunges inside the sea, inviting us to explore: lush underwater ‘forests’, plants with glowing silver strands coiling with quiet confidence of Venus flytraps, aquatic animals with mouths so huge they’ll shame Mumbai’s one room-kitchen flats, and more. The younger Na’vis, like us, discover this world with heightened thrill and curiosity. The Metkayinas invite them with palpable warmth, as if saying, “This is our world – embrace it as we have.” It feels like a powerful message without sounding sanctimonious, especially in 2022, where people across cultures are finding newer ways to not unite but split.

It’s this sincerity that’s so appealing about the film, resolving my earlier concerns about its quasi-predictable plot. Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t as much about the ‘world as it is’ but the world as it should be. If this is the foundation of a potential blockbuster, then I’m okay with that. The film’s warm ambience touches all kinds of relationships: between the Na’vis and Metkayinas, the Na’vis and animals, the Na’vis and plants (where the last two, at opportune moments, become dependable allies). The war here isn’t just between humans and aliens but humans and nature itself. The prequel’s unobtanium has been replaced by a whale-like creature’s brain enzymes that help produce anti-aging medicines.

But even under the huge man versus nature canvas, screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Cameron find space for smaller stories. Jake’s youngest son, Lo’ak, always feels inadequate, hoping hard to not disappoint his father (whom he calls “sir”). This subplot segues into another where he befriends an ‘outcast’ animal, Payakan, completing the loop of the rejects. The movie posits a stirring answer to the conventional colonising narratives that consider those with lesser power lesser people, giving animals human-like traits – creatures who are “smart, emotional, and spiritual”. It even reaches the other side, showing flashes of remorse in a disillusioned scientist.

The film still struggles to justify its runtime, though. Long middle portions sink Avatar: The Way of Water in its own indulgence, featuring either thematically repetitive sequences or taking way too long to convey simple points. But when the writing is tight, its simplicity sings. Cameron is smart enough to keep his eyes on the prize: that he’s making a straight-forward entertainer with a socially inclusive message. He doesn’t try to hammer the latter, trying to make the movie more ‘meaningful’. Following the cue of its most potent line – “water is all around you; it has no beginning or end” – the sequel, at its finest, flows unfettered, finding a world where people are themselves water-like, shape-shifting in and embracing unfamiliar vessels, making the foreign native.

Featured image: A still from ‘Avatar: The Way of the Water’.

This article was first published on The Wire.