This is honestly one of the hardest preambles I’ve ever had to write. It’s not due to a crippling sense of writer’s block or fretting about how to frame the discussion. Waiting for The Way of Water has been a bittersweet experience. While there’s a sheer sense of anticipation and curiosity at what drew James Cameron back to Pandora, there’s also a sobering truth to acknowledge. In 2015, the esteemed film composer, James Horner died in a plane crash. His film scores that ranged from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to The Karate Kid remake have been indelible and so stunning in their beauty. It truly is music that reaches deep down into your soul. And the prospect of a Horner-less Avatar score has been hard to bear at times.
With this in mind, it feels only right to dedicate this blog post to him. I miss you Mr Horner. The film music world is truly lesser without you. What’s your favourite James Horner score? Have you seen Avatar: The Way of Water? Let me know in the comments below.
Avatar has been on a fascinating journey since it came out in 2009. Initially heralded as a cinematic experience that was likened to Star Wars (1977), the film has gone on to be mocked for its cliched melding of Dances of Wolves and Pocahontas. It now enjoys life as an odd curiosity that’s better than people remember. Not bad for an endeavour that’s enjoyed the title of the highest-grossing movie of all time for a great long while, and the chief reason why the 3D format became popular during the early 2010s. I still happen to think that it engages as a sweeping exercise in spectacle, with some of James Cameron’s best filmmaking (particularly evident in the physical media exclusive, Collector’s Extended Cut).
By comparison, The Way of Water is a beautiful and moving piece of blockbuster cinema, that plays like a greatest hit completion of themes and motifs that have permeated James Cameron’s movies.
Taking place ten years after the events of the first film, The Way of Water is about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) balancing duties as the chief of the Omaticaya tribe, husband of Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and father of four kids. However, trouble emerges when Colonel Miles Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) memories are put into an Avatar. The former human is obsessed with getting revenge on Sully and his family. The course of action causes the Sully clan to go into exile in one of Pandora’s seabound regions where they must adapt to the aquatic lifestyle.
On the surface, Cameron coasting on themes and motifs that have littered his other films seems lazy and hackneyed. However, in execution, the move makes The Way of Water a much richer and textured experience. Quaritch’s mission to get revenge for his death is Terminator-esque in its unrelenting nature. However, the screenwriters (Cameron along with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) imbue the Colonial with a lot more humanity via a character called Spider (a feral child who was born on the human base on Pandora) who may be his son.
Their scenes mirror the spirit of the young John Conner and Terminator scenes in Judgement Day insofar as the Colonial is trying to find his footing as a Na’vi just as the T-800 was attempting to appear more human. Likewise, Sully’s transformation from a casual, sometimes aloof but capable marine in the first film to a stern and militant father figure who is always preparing his kids for war mirrors Sarah Conner’s transformation between the first two Terminator films. At the same time, it’s also an interesting inversion of a theme that graced the Terminator films; namely the blurred line between man and machine and how each can change their state.
At the same time, the screenwriters embrace a surprising motif that has played throughout Cameron’s movies, which is the reluctance of the protagonists to fight. Despite his military ways, Sully is reluctant to fight the Colonial because it will lead to a never-ending cycle of violence. He instead chooses to hide and raise his family. The contention between embracing the fight or shying away from it greatly mirrors Ellen Ripley’s conundrum in the first act of Aliens.
Visually speaking, The Way of Water proves to be a double-edged sword. This is mostly due to the film having a mixture of scenes being shot at a regular 24 frames per second and 48 frames per second. The higher frame rate makes a lot of the earlier scenes seem muddy and less wonderous than similar images in the first movie. However, the format choice truly comes alive in the latter stretches, which combine boundless ocean photography and fascinating lighting (via a slow-forming eclipse).
Cameron’s best filmmaking moments are quite simple in conception but left a lasting impression. There’s a whale like creature that Jake’s youngest son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) bonds with throughout the movie. In some of the encounters, Cameron switches to a point of view shot from the creature’s perspective. The sepia-toned shots are a wonderfully silent and intimate acknowledgement of the “I See You” line of dialogue that’s quite important in the Na’vi culture.
Finally, in terms of acting, Stephen Lang casts a large impression as a transformed Quaritch, who in some of the film’s most silent moments imbues the character with a humanity that speaks volumes. However, Sigourney Weaver steals the show as Kiri (Jake’s and Neytiri’s adopted daughter), whose innocence and dreamlike manner are key to illustrating the sheer awe-inducing majesty of the water regions of Pandora.