It’s not surprising that, in 2012, after taking a personal sub down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot on the ocean floor, director James Cameron would try to get something filmable out of it. He didn’t, really: his documentary footage was murky and lifeless. Turns out there wasn’t much activity down on the bottom of the ocean floor.
But imagination is what Avatar 2: The Way of Water is all about, and it’s set in an undersea corollary to Pandora’s tree-dwelling Na’vi world. Here, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), freed from his military avatar body and now gone full Na’vi, raises a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), including his sons Neteyam and Lo’ak and his daughter Tuk, plus adopted kids Kiri (born from Sigourney Weaver’s avatar in the first film) and Spider, the son of Miles Quaritch (born on Pandora before the final battle, so raised in human form).
Pandora’s box keeps getting reopened by military types on Earth, who now are not only after the faraway planet’s unobtanium, but out to take down Jake, since he’s now the chief of the Omaticaya people. Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed in the first film, is cloned and resurrected as an avatar killing machine, leading a bunch of soldiers and a fleet of private marine hunting vessels to track down Jake and seek his revenge.
While eagerly awaited, this is a long film—over three hours—and it’s constructed that way on purpose. There’s a setup section that shows how Jake’s transplantation into the Na’vi world has some blowback; we see the military, which has set up its own human operating base on Pandora, start getting more aggressive toward the native peoples in scenes reminiscent of American Vietnam War movies like Apocalypse Now.
Cameron’s world still flickers with bold imagination, and there’s room to grow on the planet Pandora: the film comes to life in the second section, focused on the Metkayina reef people of the eastern seaboard, where Jake and his family hide to avoid bringing down fire on the Omaticaya. The Metkayina people are somewhat reminiscent of New Zealand’s Māori, what with the whale riding and inking.
As with all indigenous peoples in James Cameron’s universe, they’re noble and nature-loving; and like all humans, they also tend to get into scraps with other tribes; it doesn’t take long before Sully’s headstrong kids and the Metkayina teens start rumbling.
Not just underwater effects get a serious upgrade in Avatar 2: The Way of Water. The military scenes are amped up, and this time nature takes a hand in fighting back in some of the franchise’s most effective battle sequences.
Since special effects is a through line of all Cameron’s work, from The Terminator going forward, the middle section is probably the most majestic of the film: underwater performance-capture technology lets us inside the undersea world of the Metkayina, and it’s breathtaking (and a lot clearer, we imagine, than the Marianas Trench).
The underwater choreography take us as close to a depthless scuba experience as we’ll ever see onscreen. Arguably, scenes like this are what the movie was built around.
But the story is still a bit thin, based around a family trying to hold together in the face of a relentless (and familiar) foe: Quaritch is evil personified, and his marine vessel buddies—all except a somewhat sympathetic Jemaine Clement—are clearly marked out as “the bad guys.”
But the twist here is that Quaritch and his fellow soldiers are now all blue avatar meanies, fighting blue people. And the blue Sullys encounter the somewhat teal-tinged Metkayina people. So: you shall know them by their Pantone shading and military gear.
Not just underwater effects get a serious upgrade in Avatar 2: The Way of Water. The military scenes are amped up, and this time nature takes a hand in fighting back (in the form of intelligent whale-like creatures known as tulkun) in some of the franchise’s most effective battle sequences.
But Cameron also seems to cannibalize his own movies to seek thrills here: there are shades of Aliens in the mechanized fighting outfits the military use; bits of Titanic in the capsizing vessel scenes; touches of The Abyss in the perilous air-pocket sequences. Clearly, there are certain themes that make up the core of his films.
And, of course, in the way of sequels, the director must also top his own original Avatar, with more vivid flying effects as the Na’vi mount dragon-like toruks in even more perilous aerobatics. Seen in 3D or IMAX, these sequences are most effective.
There’s also a pronounced environmental message, as humans once again prove to be mercenary plunderers, who would drill deep into a tulkun underbelly just to remove some valuable essential oil, then leave the corpse to rot on the ocean surface. Surely, Cameron’s heart is in the right place.
Still, patriarchy reigns supreme in Avatar 2 (though Saldana’s Neytiri makes a fierce warrior indeed), and it’s hard not to see American Sully, even in blue form, as playing the white “savior” to the Na’vi people. Dig, also, how his very presence brings untold misery to not just the Na’vi people but the Metkayina population and the undersea creatures as the military machine pounces. It kind of makes you think he should consider removing himself from the equation, just to bring a little peace to the place.
This is the second in Cameron’s ambitious five-movie arc planned for Avatar, and it took a while to get here (the third has already been shot and will be released in 2024). While 2009’s Avatar has since grossed nearly $3 billion and spawned Disney attractions and Cirque du Soleil shows, the world has changed, and so has its viewing habits.
Will Avatar 2 make as big a splash as the original? We don’t know yet, but—judging by the crowds at the SM Megamall IMAX premiere—the release marks another phase in the Avatar phenomenon.