Avatar: The Way of Water – REVIEW & COCKTAIL

It feels like an absolute eternity since the original Avatar took the world by storm. And what an interesting storm it was, because it somehow became the highest grossing movie of all time, and yet seemed to barely make a sizable impact on the pop culture zeitgeist. Sure it was talk of the town the year it came out, but I’ve struggled to remember almost anything substantial about it as the years have gone by. From what I remember, it was an undeniable theatrical spectacle that showcased some of the best special effects the world had ever seen. The story and characters were…not very memorable. It certainly seemed like something that was absolutely designed to be enjoyed on a big IMax screen with surround sound that would envelop you in a new world, with the story and characters more just being set dressing. I will say this has made it rather difficult to revisit so many years later, as watching it on a comparatively smaller screen just doesn’t give you that same effect.

Now we are over a decade removed from then, finally getting the next installment in this, apparently, 5 film franchise. To say I was excited would be…a bit of a lie. I wasn’t into the hype back then and wasn’t exactly over the moon about returning to the world of Pandora. Yet the only thing I could hope for if I was going to sit through a 3 hour film is that it would manage to build upon the first film and show actual growth, as well as making me give a damn about this franchise in general. 

Well, if there’s two things you can bet on, it’s James Cameron and water.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sulley

Avatar: The Way of Water is a genuine improvement over the original, nearly across the board. The story, characters, and even the special effects have all been elevated this time around. The dreaded 3 hour runtime is not nearly as grating as it could have been, thanks to expert pacing that keeps everything steadily moving forward while remaining engaging. Some of the original film’s are still persistent this time around, mostly in its writing, but even those become a lot more tolerable thanks to Cameron’s impressive attention to detail and his undeniable talent in crafting stories of grandeur. 

Many years have passed since the humans invaded Pandora and were fought off by the Na’vi. Jake Sulley, our hero of the first film, has now embraced his life as a full blown Na’vi, becoming a chief and starting a family of biological and adopted children with his love, Neytiri, including a human boy named Spider and the offspring of Sigourney Weaver’s avatar from the first film named Kiri. All is well until the humans return, led by a newly blue cat-arized Colonel Quaritch, forcing Jake and his family to go on the run. This leads them to the Metkayina, a tribe located in the isles of Pandora, who agrees to to teach them their seafaring ways as another impending war begins to emerge.

Sigourney Weaver as Kiri

While the original Avatar is no doubt a technological achievement, its lackluster story really held the film back for me. Luckily the story this time around is a lot more engaging and filled with multiple different perspectives, which is nice because Jake Sulley…is not a very interesting protagonist. This time around he’s not always at the focal point of the narrative, though when he is he’s a bit more tolerable. Even though his whole plan to hide in another civilization while being hunted seems fairly reckless and dangerous. Neytiri also seems to take more of a backseat this time around, which is a bit of a shame considering someone of Zoe Saldaña‘s caliber really brings the heat in some of the film’s more emotional moments. The film does tend to focus on their children a lot more, which I did enjoy. Having these younger characters as the film’s focal point really humanizes the story by including themes of assimilating to new environments, parental expectations and finding purpose. The kids deliver some of the film’s best performances, even if some of them…aren’t actually kids. Sigourney Weaver does the mocap and voice for Kiri, and it does make everything feel a bit weirder once I knew that. Her performance isn’t bad, it’s just hard to shake the fact a 70 year old woman is portraying a teenager, and no de-aging or voice modulation can make it any weirder. 

Like the first, there’s still a pretty big environmental message present in the film. For whatever reason I found it to be a lot more impactful this time around, possibly because of its dealings with protecting sea life. I guess just seeing whale-like creatures in peril makes me care more, even if the people hunting them are pretty stereotypical in their motives and attitudes. But sometimes I’m ok with the straightforward and surface level, evident by how much I enjoyed Stephen Lang’s role as the lead antagonist once again. This guy is just a straight hater, who can’t even be stopped by death when he still has a grudge to settle. He actually goes through some interesting character development which helps elevate him beyond the stereotypical military man he played in the first film. 

Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri

For better or for worse, the characters and story mostly take a backseat to the film’s visual flair, which, if I’m being honest, is kind of okay. Narratively there’s a lot of repetition of in-fighting between Jake’s family and the Metkayina that gets tiresome, but come on, we’re really here to have our socks blown off via out of this world VFX. These are some of the best looking science fiction special effects you’re gonna find, with everything from the creature designs, to the facial mapping to the environments being crafted absolutely masterfully. James Cameron is a man who knows what he wants and certainly puts the time and effort into achieving it no matter how long it takes. You hear that Disney? The subtlest details are finely tuned to make the world feel all the more real, from the way the water molds around the characters to the lighting adding appropriate depth that keeps the film’s sound stage origins from bleeding through. When the action gets rolling, the film blows you away with impressively constructed set pieces full of some of the best VFX mayhem you’ll see this year, culminating in a genuinely thrilling and impactful climax.

With the film being 3 hours long, I absolutely have to give credit to the way the film is paced. So many big blockbuster films fail to keep the film engaging throughout their gigantic run times, with a lot of evident padding and fluff. Yet I found myself completely invested in the film as it barely ever lets you take a break when it comes to character development and action. Every scene and choice is deliberate and meaningful, making the story all the more engaging from beginning to end and elevating an otherwise surface level script to one of the best blockbusters 2022 has to offer. 

Maybe it’s not exactly high art, but in a sea of loud, computer generated VFX-fests, you can actually make out the passion, heart and care put into this film. It’s an achievement not in how it changes the game, but how the game can still be made enjoyable with just a little bit of creative effort. You aren’t going to be enlightened to a new understanding of humanity or emotion, but you are going to be shown what happens when the right people, time and money come together to create one of the most thrilling roller coaster rides you’ll find in a theater. I’m glad this seemingly mythical sequel has been realized, because if these films are really all James Cameron does before he dies…well, I guess it’s not as bad of a thing as I thought.

Rating

(out of a possible 5 feathered arrows)

Waters of Pandora

The change in scenery from tropical forests to bright, sunny beaches is very much welcome for this sequel, and also something I wanted to capture in this cocktail. For this drink I’ll be utilizing familiar tropical flavors such as coconut and lemon while also integrating more floral components as a callback to the first film’s vegetal scenery. And of course, it’s gotta be blue.

Ingredients

  • 1oz gin
  • 1oz coconut rum
  • 3/4oz lemon juice
  • 1/2oz elderflower liqueur
  • Splash blue curacao
  • 2 dashes lavender bitters
  • Top: sparkling water
  • Top: Sea salt
  • Garnish: Cherry

Instructions

  1. Add ingredients to a shaker and shake with ice.
  2. Strain into rocks glass filled with ice.
  3. Top with sparkling water.
  4. Sprinkling a bit of sea salt over the drink (for extra saltiness, you can add a bit of salt to the drink before you shake).
  5. Garnish with cherry.

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