There’s no denying the fact that, back in back in 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was an absolute game-changer. It demonstrated the possibilities of digital filmmaking, relaunched the idea of 3D cinema and, in terms of the box office, was one of the most successful films in history. Of course there would be a sequel. It was a no-brainer. But we could have no idea, back then, how long it was going to take…
Thirteen years later, here I am in my local multiplex, staring at a giant screen through a pair of 3D glasses. It must be said that Pandora looks even more ravishing than it did last time. The world-building is second to none, the action set pieces as explosive as ever… but in terms of story, not an awful lot has changed. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has learned to love the Na’vi body he now inhabits and he and his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), have acquired a family, mostly by traditional methods – though in the case of Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), through some scientific tinkering in a laboratory, taking genes from Grace Augustine’s avatar. Together the extended family live an undemanding life in their exotic jungle home, even finding room for Spider (Jack Champion), the human son of Sully’s old nemesis, Colonel Myles Quaritch.
But of course, happiness cannot last forever and all too soon, The Sky People (who sound disconcertingly like a 1980s dance troupe) return in force, landing their fleet of space craft with enough power to burn down hundreds of acres of forest. Among them is Quaritch (Stephen Lang), reanimated as a Na’vi version of his former self and assigned the role of hunting down Jake. After an initial skirmish with Quaritch and his crew, Jake realises that he is putting everyone in his tribe in danger, so the Sully family leave their familiar home and seek refuge among the people of the Metakayina Reef.
It’s here of course that the major difference from the first film comes into play. This new tribe is an aquatic one and much of the ensuing action takes place in and under the ocean as the Sullys learn how to operate in an unfamiliar environment. And the film does look exquisite, every frame captured in photo realistic style, the various denizens of the ocean portrayed with all the veracity of a Blue Planet documentary. It is an extraordinary technical achievement and you see exactly where all those millions of dollars have been spent.
But… The Way of Water has a three-hour-twelve-minute running time and, consequently, no matter how stunning it looks, I’m all too aware that there really isn’t enough story here to keep me fully engaged. Every set-piece seems to take forever to play out and, try as I might, I can’t help thinking about the other three (or is is four?) movies that Cameron has waiting in the wings. The final scenes take place in a sinking ship and have more than a nod to Titanic about them. This feels somehow meta: Cameron harking back to another of his former triumphs, where he took on the nay-sayers and won?
I find myself simultaneously hoping and doubting that The Way of Water is the film that will encourage audiences back to the cinema en masse. There are about eight of us at the afternoon screening I attend, which isn’t encouraging – but we’ll have to wait to see how it all plays out. Increasingly, however, the Avatar franchise is in danger of becoming James Cameron’s folly.
It’s massive, it’s impressive, but it’s ultimately an empty vessel. Can he really hope to rekindle those former glories?
The jury is out.