James Cameron has directed two films that have became the highest grossing film of all time. Then, he spent a decade making a sequel to Avatar. With just that background, you would expect Avatar: The Way of Water to be at least a fairly decent movie. So was it worth watching in 3D?
I literally just got out of the theater, and here’s my honest answer.
Yes, but it depends on what you’re after. So, the 3D effects are fairly notable. That makes sense because I believe that’s one of the main attractions (other than a decent story) that made the first film the highest grossing film. In a day and age where many people are happy to wait for something to come out on streaming, James probably found the best path to get people back in theaters: exceptional 3D effects beyond what you’re used to for a limited time window.
If you’re interested in actual 3D effects in a film, the Way of Water will not disappoint. At 3+ hours long, you shouldn’t expect every scene to be jam-packed with 3D. Most of it was slight, but good 3D. Then, you have the moments when you pair very realistic water acrobatics or action with 3D effects for some really good moments to watch. It’s not to the level where I would tell everyone I meet about how mind-blowing the 3D effects were, but if you’re looking for something outside of the ordinary 3D film, this one’s worth considering.
Now, what about the story? First, James is a solid storyteller. That’s why his films do well. Story is the crux of any good film; the effects are icing on the cake. I would grade this story as a B+ or A-. Now, if you’re expecting anything too different from the first film’s themes about an indigenous tribe and natural resources getting attacked, tortured, and exploited by a greedy, resource-loving modern invading culture, you’d be wrong. In fact, it’s more of this same theme on steroids. The film paints a long, poignant tale of the beauty of the aquatic animals and tribes of the planet when familiar characters from the first film migrate to those lands. There’s splashes of new stuff, like new characters you learn to love, and a new aquatic home, but looking past the frills, it’s the same core.
James clearly seems to have a strong love for environmentalism, which he uses this film to bring across clearly; it was actually rather too heavy a movie for me to enjoy fully because you see a lot of suffering and destruction, including a full hunt and harvesting of an alien whale said to be smarter than humans. That said, some people I went with totally overlooked the implied meanings and said they just enjoyed the action, fights, and CGI – so it’s possible for some to enjoy it without getting affected by the implicit meanings. While I was at first a bit upset that these themes were missed, I realized I am fine with that, and that reaction is what’s going to happen for a good portion of the masses.
When you create massive films like these that have the potential to gross more than any film ever made in history, you’re going to be appealing to large numbers. And to attract that many people, the film uses sci-fi, 3D CGI, and action. Hence, a lot of people will be there to simply for the entertainment, and not all of them are going to be cerebral to the point of caring or noticing the environmental or “superior invading army” themes. They’re just going to have a good time with the film, but that’s the point. James is using the “dessert” to feed the “vegetables.” Some won’t eat the vegetables, but if he didn’t use the dessert, he wouldn’t reach as many people with the vegetables.
I don’t know for sure if his point was to bring up some political message. Perhaps, not. Maybe he just wanted to make a good movie related to his values. That said, I came out with the film with a heavy heart, knowing there’s people out there who have done or are doing terrible things to the planet, people, and its animals for greed or other reasons. I don’t know if I can do much, but I’ll do my part moving forward.
Despite what I thought were one-dimensional villains (American archetypes who were more than willing to bring in an invading army to do cruel things to indigenous people and animals for a lot of money – why make it almost 99% Americans?), I could feel how some of that can happen or did happen in human history. There was a lot of the parallels to real life. In fact, the film was riddled with a lot of parallels that were probably way too human than alien. There’s a lot of relationships or mini-conflicts in the story with the alien children involving bullying, being made fun of for small differences, being a disappointment to a father, lying to cover for a friend, and so forth that almost could’ve been pulled straight from a script about humans rather than aliens on another planet.
It really is a story about human relationships, disguised as something from space; in fact, in Will Smith’s book, he says Avatar is almost a beat-for-beat replica of the film Dances with the Wolves about the annihilation of the Native Americans. I heard Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai is the same. I haven’t seen either film, but I wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, that was another reason this film was so heavy for me. You see the suffering of the indigenous tribes in this film from some PG-13 torture and village assault scenes. I couldn’t help thinking that in real life, it would’ve been much worse, with more people being slaughtered, tortured, even raped in those times. Plus, none of those history lessons have a happy ending; they never end with them succeeding with a final victory against their invaders. Instead, they usually get wiped out in a horrible fashion. One of my first thoughts at the end of the first Avatar film was, “Yep, they drove back the humans to their ships … for now. But they’re just going to come back with a stronger army and keep invading until they get what they want.” And sure enough, that’s how the sequel starts off, no surprise.
I felt bad and sympathetic of a lot of people who had to go through that suffering. The one bit of solace I have is that there’s less war and invasions like that in the modern world. And now, doing things like that is more likely to be flagged as a war crime. It also spurred me to learn more about history and current events related to that because frankly, I don’t feel I know enough about what went down other than random facts like diseases that invaders carried over killed more Native Americans than guns. One of the people I went to watch the film with is Indonesian, and he said the film reminded him a lot of his culture because they dress a lot like the water tribe in the film, also live an aquatic culture, and they were also exploited and invaded by Western countries (he said the USA was the biggest profit maker) who wanted Indonesia’s gold supplies since they have the largest gold mine.
A few years ago, one person told me she preferred immersing herself in simple, young adult, happy stories because at least in that fantasy world, everything has a good ending with the good guys always winning. I have a different perspective. I think acknowledging reality and seeing stories like this help us critically think about what’s right or wrong, which can help us make the world a better place with less suffering. Now, most people are probably going to take no action from this film, but I’m hoping the far reach and the implications of this film will make more of the remainder think about how they treat others who are different from them or they don’t understand. I came out of the film wanting to do something. Writing this article is a start, and perhaps, how I continue to treat others will be something a tiny bit more. I’d also encourage people to look into real history because fictional films can tend to bend or shape their story in any way that seems fit, which can sometimes evoke the emotions you want but give a lesson that isn’t in correlation with how real life would tell you to do things.
If you don’t care or notice the heavy story, you’re in for a 3-hour joy ride of 3D, CGI, action, and amazing animations. If you’re more critical, you may enjoy — or perhaps, the more accurate phrase is “suffer in an entertained way through the story and character’s pain” — the message and story of the film or the debate about what James did right or wrong with the plot.
Was the plot perfect? No. Neither was the first one. And that’s okay because it’s going to make a boatload of money regardless. At the end of the day, there are some plot holes in both Avatar films that I caught, some needless trivialities with the plot that could’ve made it a shorter length, and some moments that were kind of rushed to “build a character relationship” but overall, it was solid enough. You just got to suspend your disbelief a bit, and you’ll still enjoy it.
For those who don’t mind some minor spoilers, I do want to take a quick moment to point out some of the plot holes that disgruntled me.
- The entire thing just felt like a “bridge episode” to build to the main character getting back to the mindset where he wants to fight or believes he can. That’s because they literally make no real progress towards what seems like a much larger, more advanced invading force than what came in the first movie. Sure, there’s a lot of explosions and they take that one big carrier ship. But that’s nothing. The main villain is a clone that can likely be cloned again an infinite amount of times if he dies. And he’s just a lacky to the big woman villain who plans to take over and make the whole planet hospitable for humans. It’s really paving the way for another big battle, yet I don’t really see any believable future where they can permanently drive off the invading humans.
- A lot of characters could’ve been made more multi-dimensional. I guess they wanted to just keep the villains evil and simple. But surely, there are plenty of good humans too. Yet it seems like the whole race’s governing body seems to have decided it’s okay to send a fleet to massacre or wreck the planet and existing intelligent species. I mean it would’ve made more sense if there was some indication of a more complex, nuanced ethics debate raging in the background or more of an attempt to do something peacefully (arguably, there was a bit of this with the Marine Biologist guy saying it’s not good to kill those alien whales so close to the tribes, but it could’ve been better).
- There’s this one scene where the bullied alien kid gets fooled into venturing out to a hunt alone and left to die by the bullies, almost dies, and … then, decides to cover for the bully so his dad doesn’t get in trouble. He does it because he knows what it’s like to be a disappointment. Then, a scene later, they’re all good friends. That’s a bit of a stretch and rushed character development. I think they tried to pack in too many other things when they could’ve developed this a bit more.
And I should balance this out with some compliments that I did like:
- The whole alien vs. evil humans concept does paint an original perspective to this same old story. That’s because instead of ethnic differences, we zoom out to our entire species and see how ruthless humans could be if we aren’t more careful.
- A lot of the interactions amongst “aliens” in the film were likely relatable to the audience: a son who is adventurous and keeps getting himself into trouble, dealing with loss of family members, kids picking or teasing on your siblings because they’re a little different or weird, kids pranking other kids, the bully being a bit privileged because his father has power
- There’s some symbolism or messaging with the brief solar eclipse scenes and with the little alien girl with special powers that isn’t fully explained. I didn’t fully get it, and they didn’t reveal all of it. I kind of liked that. With the latter, they’re likely teasing something more for the next film.
- They made the resources the humans were after more believable this time. Rather than this rare energy rock lazily named Unobtanium, they switch the goals of the humans to be harvesting something from alien whales that can make you live forever and finding a hospitable new planet since Earth is dying. You may think I’m being sarcastic, but compared to the cheesy Unobtanium, I can (unfortunately) start to believe why some could be so cruel to get what they want.
- They made me care about these fictional alien characters when I didn’t know about them before the film. They’re not even real, but they embody actual, good human children that exist, so you don’t want anything bad to happen to them!
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