Avatar: The Way of Water – Snapshot
Avatar: The Way of Water is the sequel to James Cameron’s original Avatar movie of 2009. This sequel, the first of four, continues the story of Jake, a human, who has chosen to become a Na’vi, a culture of very tall and very blue human-like creatures on Pandora – a long ways away and very far in the future. The story focuses on the family that Jake and Neytiri, his Na’vi wife, have nurtured in a tranquil and beautiful world. Until the Sky People – humans – return to the planet to seek vengeance and removal of the natives so they can exploit the world’s rich resources. It is not only an update to the story, but also takes motion/performance capture technology to its new limits – in the underwater world.
Where to Watch:
Rent: Prime/Apple/Google/Vudu/YouTube (all $6) or wherever you get your disks
(Of course, if you can still find it in an IMAX theater, then by all means go!)
Avatar: The Way of Water – The Oscar Buzz
Visual Effects (Letteri/Baneham/Saindon/Barrett) WINNER
Production Design (Cole/Procter/Cole)
Avatar: The Way of Water is one of those rare science fiction/action/adventure movies to receive a Best Picture nomination. Popular visual spectacles, such as this one, are more likely to receive a nomination since the Academy expanded the Best Picture slate to ten movies several years ago. It also probably helps that this picture has also become one of the top ten grossing movies of all time with more than $2.3 Billion in ticket sales worldwide, almost triple the gross for this year’s Black Panther entry. Still, these kinds of pictures rarely win.
The movie is a technical marvel and received nominations in three of the “minor”/ technical categories. The Production Designers worked on the earlier Avatar film as well as on TRON: Legacy. I have to confess that I’m not sure how a production designer works in a CGI environment, but I’m imagining that they are responsible for fleshing out a lot of the computerized details in each scene.
The Sound team has a slew of previous Oscar nominations, and wins, including Oscars for King Kong (05), Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (03), Saving Private Ryan (98), Titanic (97), Jurassic Park (93), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91), and Pearl Harbor (01) and nominations in at least a dozen other films, including Avatar (09) and TRON: Legacy (10).
The Visual Effects team was the big winner, taking this year’s Oscar as well as the award for the earlier Avatar, thirteen years earlier. The team includes Oscar winners for King Kong (05), the last two Lord of the Rings movies as well as nominations for nearly all of the Planet of the Apes films, and the two Hobbit films. This is the team that perfected Motion/Performance Capture and their efforts have been recognized since the technology had its feature debut with Gollum in Lord of the Rings. (See Special Mention for more on this VFX technology.)
With a Best Picture nomination, three minor nominations, and a win in the Visual Effects category, Avatar: The Way of Water earns a solid 7 on my Oscar Quality Index, placing it 9th out of this year’s general interest movies. It was tied in that ranking with Women Talking, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Triangle of Sadness.
Avatar: The Way of Water – The Movie’s Family Tree
The Following Movies Share Talent with This One
(and if you like these films, you might like this one):
Avatar (09): Director (Cameron; Writer (Cameron); Composer (Franglen); Editor (Cameron/Refoua/Rivkin); Production Design (Cole/Procter); Costume Design (Scott); Sound (Whittle/Boyes/Summers); Visual Effects (Letteri/Baneham/Barrett); Acting (Worthington, Saldana, Weaver/Lang)
Titanic (97): Director (Cameron); Writer (Cameron); Editor (Cameron); Composer (Franglen); Cinematography (Carpenter); Costume Design (Scott); Sound (Boyes/Summers); Acting (Winslet)
The Terminator (84)/Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91): Director (Cameron); Writer (Cameron); Sound (Summers)
Aliens (86): Director (Cameron); Writing (Cameron); Acting (Weaver)
TRON: Legacy(10): Production Design (Cole/Procter); Sound (Howarth/Whittle)
Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit (multiple movies): Costume Design (Buck); Sound (Boyes/Hedges); Visual Effects (Letteri/Baneham/Saindon)
Planet of the Apes (multiple movies): Writing (Jaffa/Silver); Visual Effects (Letteri/Barrett)
Avatar: The Way of Water is a sequel to James Cameron’s original effort, Avatar (2009). As a sequel it continues the story line, setting, and much of the same cast of characters. It also continues and deeply broadens the technology that was so startling in the original film. Obviously, this is a direct descendant of the earlier film.
And, since it was conceived and developed by Cameron’s vision, it isn’t surprising that it also reflects many of the same themes and technical interests of his other films, such as Titanic, Aliens, and two of the Terminator movies, all directed, written, and edited by Cameron himself. Cameron is the only director to have three movies gross more than $2 Billion worldwide (Titanic, Avatar, and Avatar: The Way of Water) so what he produces obviously appeals to the moviegoing public. If you need any more reason to see his films, realize that he is the first person to descend to the deepest point on earth, in the Mariana Trench, in 2012. He had started to develop the interest and the technology as he researched the sinking of the Titanic for his 1997 blockbuster.
But like most directors, Cameron works with a team. The last three references in the above list refer to movies where his production design, sound, and visual effects teams worked developing their craft utilized in this film. If you enjoyed the technical achievements in those films, you will love what they have done here.
Avatar: The Way of Water – What Others Think
Grossing over $2.3 Billion at the worldwide box office, it is obvious that audiences loved this movie. Out of this year’s 25 general interest films, audiences ranked it fifth, tied with Everything, Everywhere All At Once, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Elvis.
As expected, critics weren’t so kind. The overall critical rating, puts the movie at number 18, which places it in the bottom third of this year’s movies. Critics generally aren’t too kind to science-fiction/fantasy type movies and, generally, find movies that the general public loves to be somewhat distasteful. (I call that the snob-effect.) In fact, I found it difficult to find reviews in my normal go-to sources. Possibly that is because it only became available in broad rental release recently and was also pigeon-holed as a niche IMAX movie. (Although Top Gun: Maverick was also released first in IMAX and that one received multiple reviews.)
I did find a review from A.O. Scott, former chief film critic for the New York Times. He lauded the first Avatar film as “…visual novelty..built on a sturdy foundation of familiar themes and genre tropes.” But criticizes the length of this movie (190 minutes) and finds strong fault with an unimaginative final battle sequence. He has a good point – the film’s beginning and middle sequences provided much more character development and beautiful imagery of the Pandoran underwater world, while the over-long final battle scene seemed sort of pedestrian and standard. I agree that we were set up for a better, more imaginative ending and the film’s failure to deliver that is disappointing.
Overall, Avatar: The Way of Water ends up placing 16th in my combined audience/critic rating scale, along with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in the middle third of this year’s movies.
Avatar: The Way of Water – Special Mention
The Avatar Series – You know that Avatar: The Way of Water is a sequel. What you may not know is that it is not the end of the series. There are three more already in the works. It isn’t clear exactly how far along they are, but by most reports the scripts have all been written. By another accounting, they have also already been filmed. Apparently Cameron took a page out of Peter Jackson’s book and filmed all four sequels pretty much at the same time in a secret location in New Zealand. By some reports the production costs of all four sequels will exceed $1 Billion. Of course, in a motion/performance capture movie, the filming is only the first step. Once the action has been captured, then it is the work of the computers to turn it into digital frames. So even though he may be largely done with the actors, the VFX crews will be working around the clock to realize the next three films. As I understand it there will be one new sequel released each year, starting in 2024.
Regardless of the technical requirements for making these movies (see below), I am also very intrigued about how the story develops. In the original movie, there was just the tall blue-skin Pandorans. They reappear here of course, but during the movie, we are introduced to a second “clan” of Na’vi, the Metkayina, who are turquoise in color. The clan is strongly modeled on the Māori, a Polynesian people currently populating portions of New Zealand. What is even more intriguing is that we learn there are 15 more clans on Pandora – will the sequels introduce more of them and what will their cultures look like?
This film, much more so than the original, focuses on the family unit as a critical component of social structure and individual support. I don’t think it is much of a spoiler to report that, after several years, Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have created a family of their own, including one, or maybe two, adoptees. One of them, Kiri, is a very fascinating 14-year-old with special powers which are beautifully displayed during the course of the movie. Kiri is played by – you won’t believe this – 76 year-old Sigourney Weaver. If you can imagine the wisdom of a mature woman expressing the emotions of an adolescent, you start to get the idea behind her affective power. It is my understanding that Kiri is an important player in the remaining sequels.
I suppose, then, that Mr. Scott (NYT) has a good point – this movie does introduce a lot of characters and a lot of events. It needs to be viewed as the setup for a sequence of films that will pull all these threads together. So if you watch this film you are sort of making a commitment to watch the remaining three, just so you can complete the story. But, still, this film stands on its own and is a gorgeous extension of the original and a teaser for those to come.
Motion/Performance Capture – You’ve probably seen more of this technology than you might think. It has been a feature in many movies replacing some aspects of animation since around the turn of the century. The character Jar Jar Binks (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (99)) was created using the technology. Then it really broke loose in 2002 with the application of real-time motion capture for the character Gollum (Andy Serkis) in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Other movies employing the technology include The Polar Express (07), The Mummy, King Kong, TRON: Legacy and Pirates of the Caribbean. The orcs , goblins, and Smaug in The Hobbit movies were mostly done as motion capture as was The Hulk in The Avengers. Many of the characters we know and love from great movies were done with the technology.
But it is extremely costly. The actual motion capture is relatively easy and is performed by regular actors. But when the original performance has been “captured” the computers take over to create each and every frame in the movie. It takes an immense amount of data and computer processing hours to create the final result. The original Avatar film reportedly used approximately one petabyte of data (one petabyte equals 10 to the 50th power bytes!). With The Way of Water, Cameron took the technology to new levels requiring more than 18 petabytes. The computer power required harnessing nearly all of Amazon Cloud Service computers in one of their New Zealand locations with each frame (24 frames per second) taking thousands of computer hours to generate the images.
Part of what makes this film so much bigger than the first one is that this is the first time motion capture has been used underwater. Cameron built two huge water tanks and outfitted them with wave- and current-making machinery. The actors literally had to hold their breath to film many of the scenes (Kate Winslet apparently held the record at a little over 7 minutes!). The scenes were filmed underwater because Cameron wanted real water resistance to be reflected in the actors movements.
But on top of regenerating the actors, Cameron and his crew have also created an amazing underwater world. Reportedly there is little real water in most of the scenes – the water visuals are also computer generated. Furthermore, some of the most fascinating and beautiful scenes are in the wildlife created to populate this world – some 57 brand new species were imagined and created to make this movie with an unbelievable realism. (You are going to love the tulkun!) Indeed, one of the major pleasures of this film is simply absorbing the underwater world of Pandora.
Avatar: The Way of Water – Michael’s Moments
The original Avatar was both a well-told story and a visual spectacle. With The Way of Water Cameron tried to maintain both of those bold attributes, but he also had another mission – to set up the parameters for the next several sequels (three more after this one). As we’ve seen in several other films, especially this year’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, when a moviemaker has too many gods to serve, it can get a little dicey to satisfy all of them. There are some terrific moments in this film, though, and for many of you it will be worth the 190 minute sit.
I’ve mentioned my fascination with the Kiri character, played by Sigourney Weaver. In all of her scenes, pay attention to her facial expressions and the way she effectively communicates with her eyes. At the 28 minute mark, we are introduced to how she seems to have a special bond with the natural world. That special skill is noted again at the 65 minute mark. And again twenty minutes later. At 93 minutes, there is an important scene where Kiri is conversing with her Mother and she asks who her Father was. We don’t get an answer to that question, but I suspect it is crucial to understanding Kiri and to future plot points. Finally, in the final battle scene around two hours and 52 minutes it is Kiri who plays an important role in its resolution.
Kiri’s relationship to her planet is, I believe an important part of Cameron’s message. And you can see multiple places where he has given us clues to a picture much bigger than what is conveyed in this film. Starting right around 58 minutes and continuing for the next half an hour are simply beautiful scenes of underwater Pandora and the interrelationship of life. The last 12 minutes of the movie offer a terrific vision of how the Sully’s (Jake, Neytiri, and their family) have become an integrated part of a bigger life system. (I couldn’t help but think of the Gaia hypothesis – that the entire earth, or at least the parts of it we are aware of, are part of a complex self-regulating system (Lovelock/Margulis) and it is obvious that Cameron is familiar with that intellectual framework.
But not all humans (Sky People) are. If you need even more of a reminder of how our culture seems intent on destroying everything around it, note the way we are introduced back into Pandora at the ten minute mark, as Jake and Neytiri are having a delightful “date night” – (OK, no sex though!). If that isn’t enough, then look at how we treat the natural world of Pandora (or Earth, it doesn’t matter) starting around the one hour, fifty-four minute mark. The hunt for the tulkun is more than disgusting, it is a metaphor for how insensitive we are to bigger environmental concerns – this may happen on Pandora, but it obviously is happening here on Earth too!
Finally, there is the theme of family which is critical to this movie. The entire movie is about the Sully family and how they try to protect and love each other. I don’t need to refer to specific moments, because it is a theme throughout the entire movie.
Should you sit through a 190 minute movie? Well, I suspect that depends on several things, but one of them is just how much did you like the original Avatar film? And it has to be a whole lot because you won’t be completely satisfied by this sequel. Like many sequels, which are designed to front a series and not be stand alone, this one sets up a lot of characters and environments without much resolution – we have more questions than answers. Sure, it has a climactic battle scene of at least 30 minutes where the Sullys battle the Sky People, but all of that is pretty standard action-movie stuff – there is little new in that. But the strength of this film is in what it sets up and what it promises future Avatars will beautifully deliver.