The first Avatar movie enthralled us with its magical, alien world, ushering in a new chapter of the film industry that focused heavily on CGI.
Avatar set itself apart through its groundbreaking special effects (and certainly not through its notoriously forgettable characters). In fact, it’s the highest-grossing film of all time. So the second movie needed to compete with up-to-date expectations, where movies sometimes have special effects budgets reaching hundreds of millions of dollars.
Avatar’s sequel needed to be perfect. So, James Cameron took five painstaking years to complete Avatar: The Way of Water, thirteen years after the release of Avatar’s first installment.
What happened in the first Avatar?
Avatar is set in the alien world of Pandora and features humanoid aliens called the Na’vi. They’re about ten feet tall, possess incredible strength, and are as blue as the Blue Man Group. They connect with plants and animals on Pandora in an almost hive-mind-like way. All life on Pandora is connected.
Human scientists discover a way to artificially create Na’vi and implant human consciousness into them. These are called Avatars. This allows humans in Avatar bodies to move around freely in Pandora’s atmosphere and make friends with the tribal but sophisticated indigenous people. Many of these scientists have good intentions, like Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic Marine who links with an Avatar and falls in love with a local Na’vi woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villains, want to exploit the world for its valuable resources at any cost.
Sully must decide between his love and obeying orders. He chooses the former, of course, and in an epic battle, they beat back the invading humans, leading the Na’vi into battle.
The Way of Water begins by showing Sully (now happily “stuck” in his Na’vi Avatar) starting a family with his Na’vi wife.
Avatar: The Way of Water is rated PG-13 for “partial nudity [revealing clothing for the aliens], intense action, sequences of strong violence, and some strong language.”
Avatar: The Way of Water is a visually awe-inspiring film
Like its predecessor, The Way of Water is a masterpiece of digital artisanship, displaying the dizzying heights of our technological capabilities. Pandora features floating islands with waterfalls and dense jungles, along with a teaming ocean and reefs, and it all seems real.
To me, The Way of Water inspired awe as well as any nature documentary about our own earth. (I could almost hear David Attenborough’s voice when they showed new species of aliens.)
Let me say it simply: the movie is stunning.
The Way of Water made significant, noticeable leaps in digital realism. The underwater world of Pandora became the film’s focus, and animating water is infamously fickle. The artists behind the scenes mixed real shots of water with digitized renderings, and the result will drop your jaw.
The Way of Water deepened its emotional draw beyond the first film despite the main characters being digitally layered over the real actors. The motion capture did not stop the acting from shining through, particularly in the case of Zoe Saldaña’s expressive performance.
Not only were the visuals nearly flawless, but the depth of Pandora’s natural world and complex environment inspired curiosity and wonder as well.
How did they film Avatar? When will Avatar 3 come out?
The movie was filmed with motion capture (or performance capture, as James Cameron calls it). Real performers acted all the scenes out with devices that track the actor’s facial expressions and movements. These captures were then overlaid with their blue alien features. Much of the movie was shot underwater, so the actors learned to free dive. Kate Winslet even held her breath for up to seven minutes underwater (because scuba tanks’ bubbles got in the way of filming).
Avatar: The Way of Water had clear good guys and bad guys
Avatar: The Way of Water is a refreshingly simple story. We see a family, beauty, and goodness pitted against greed, violence, and oppression. There were clear good guys and bad guys. Characters almost showed enough complexity to be pulled from two dimensions, but not quite.
This contrasts with the culture’s obsession with exploring moral ambiguity, basically showing how the bad guys aren’t so bad and the good guys aren’t so good (like in The Batman). Often, modern films fall squarely into the bucket of postmodern art. We may see more movies like this as a backlash to that backlash—a return to simple representations of truth and goodness, like Nathan Allen wrote about in his review of Glass Onion.
The Way of Water’s plot is so simple and the dialogue so plain, it often feels like the screenplay and plot were written by a teenager. That’s not to say there isn’t depth; it’s that the themes are easily digestible: a younger brother acts recklessly, a father is too hard on his boys, teens are bullied and feel like outcasts, etc.
The Way of Water also simply presents the Native American story: an indigenous people fight back against an arrogant, exploitative invader. I believe we should tell that story over and over, especially in America, but the point remains that the movie’s premise is simple.
And simplicity allows the viewers to focus on the main feature: the imaginative, alien world of Pandora.
Avatar: The Way of Water reveals God’s likeness in us
Reflecting on The Way of Water made me reflect on our own beautiful, imaginative world. The underwater behemoths in the movie made me want to see earth’s whales. The movie reminded me of my own scuba-diving adventures (also a passion of Cameron’s). The saltwater world I encountered included lionfish, sea horses, eagle rays with fifteen-foot wingspans, green eels, nursery sharks, startlingly big lobsters, and other beautiful creatures that might as well be alien.
During production, James Cameron took all the actors to Hawaii to immerse themselves in the oceanic wildlife and to camp in the jungle. While Cameron’s vision is profoundly imaginative, his number one inspiration is clearly planet Earth, of which our Creator is the artist.
By rendering his imagination into a movie, Cameron shows his own mind working much like the mind of God, indeed, in a way I believe God intended. Cameron is an atheist, but whether he acknowledges it or not, his imagination works in a beautiful way that reflects our Creator.
Whether it’s J. R. R. Tolkien’s expansive world in Lord of the Rings, George Lucas’s fantastical universe in Star Wars, Isaac Asimov’s galactic civilization in Foundation, Jules Verne’s mysterious Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or James Cameron’s Pandora, building imaginative worlds reflects our image-bearing nature of God’s artistic ability to create our world from nothing and a universe with trillions of planets we haven’t yet discovered.