Whether you think James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water is the greatest cinematic spectacle ever produced or an average three-hour dragging saga played out between the Sky People and the Na'vi depends entirely on the theatre and the seat you watch it in. Sit in a corner seat in a small-screen theatre and you'll be waiting forever for that "sense of wonder" that all the critics raved about, to kick in. So don't even think about waiting for the OTT version or watching a shaky camera print on "fmovies". Because Mr. Cameron waited 13 years, spent north of 250 million dollars, and made several breakthroughs in underwater performance capture technology just so you'd watch this movie the way it's meant to: on 3D VFR at High Dynamic Range theatre, top-row section, centre seat.
Sadly there are no functioning IMAX theatres currently in Hyderabad. Short of flying to Chennai or Bengaluru, if you want to get the best experience, you might have to geek out on theatre technology to find the best option near you or at least sleuth your way to the choicest seats. It will be worth it. I, however, was stuck in a little corner flanked by people who wouldn't stop answering their phones. So I didn't experience the stunning immersion that made people "instinctively reach out and try to touch" the little fishies floating about in the Pandoran blues. Still, I could appreciate the new Metkayinan waterworld that Cameron brought to life, and observe his freakish attention to detail. CGI artists were flipping out over Cameron's ability to capture "the wetness of water" on Na'vi skin.
The Way Of Water begins years after the humans aka "the Sky People" have been chased off from Pandora by the tree-dwelling Na'vi led by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). He has served as the Omaticayan leader and fathered three hybrid children - Neteyam, Lo'ak, and Tuk - with his feisty mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They have also adopted Dr. Grace's child Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Rounding out this litter of teens and toddlers is Spider, the son of Quaritch (Stephen Lang) the Marine, who first led the strike against the Na'vi all those years ago and lost.
Life is Pandora-perfect until the day humans return. Quaritch comes back as a recombinant Na'vi - with a blue body but his human consciousness intact- and he is frothing at the mouth to seek revenge against the traitorous Sully. Fearing for the safety of his tribe, Sully and his family seek refuge with the Metkayina clan led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). A sea-based Na'vi, the Metkayinans are lithe and long, but their proximity to the water has adapted their bodies to withstand its drag. The arms are finlike, their tails are meaty, and the skin has a gorgeous turquoise tint.
Metkayina's glistening underwater world gives Cameron a means to flex his cinematographic muscle. With the same vividity as we saw the lush Omaticayan forests, we get a scuba-diver's view of the wonderous creatures living in the reefs. Direhorses are swapped in for Ilus, a sea-creature that the Metkayinas link with to fly, surf and dive. And there are great big humpback whale-like creatures called Tulkuns that can communicate with the Metkayinas in whalesong, and form deep familial bonds with them - handy for when bad guys with flame throwers and sound cannons show up and wreak havoc.
Unlike the first Avatar
's grand message railing against mankind's colonial tendencies and capitalistic greed, the conflict in The Way Of Water is entirely personal. Quaritch and Jake Sully go on a cat-and-mouse chase that leaves a trail of dead bodies. The plot flounders trying to execute a delicate balance between filling out the space and time in the now, and setting up for future installments (the latest number I've seen is five!). There is a subtle changing of the guard as Sully and Neyteri's screen presence fades and their kids take centrestage in the showdown with Quaritch.
The problem is that even on Pandora, teenagers are slightly annoying know-it-alls. Rather than speak in the stately clicks and trills of the Na'vi language, the Sully kids use American slang like they are a bunch of skater-heads from Cali, constantly "bro"ing each other. It may well be the point that Cameron wants to make: the gradual degradation of all that humans touch. You can see it in the jarring manner in which the Sully brothers fight with RPGs and machine guns.
The Sully sisters still retain a gentle Na'vi touch, though. Kiri is a sweet, sensitive girl trying to make sense of her burgeoning magical abilities. Through her, we still get to experience the cosmic narrative of the Pandoran culture - the Tree of Souls, Ewya - that made the first Avatar such a moving experience.
Led by Sigourney Weaver's breakout performance as Kiri, it is the women of the movie that stand out amongst the cast as powerful, untamed and uninhibited. Kate Winslet gives an outstanding voice to Ronal, the pregnant Metkayina leader. Zoe Saldana is savage and sharper than ever as Neytiri.
Stephen Lang swaps his beefed-up Marine body for a recom Na'vi one. It makes him even more formidable and a lot more memorable. Sam Worthington's Jake Sully feels like an afterthought. For much of the movie, he is playing a disciplinarian dad trying to keep control of his kids who are off more interesting things. When he does show up on the battlefield, it's obvious that his character has been shown the Exit door. His waning star marks the end of a chapter and makes us feel a little sad.
Avatar: The Way Of Water doesn't have the same satisfying bite, plot-wise, as its predecessor, nor do its battle cries have the same clarity. But what's still abundantly clear is Cameron's fixation on instilling in us a "childlike wonder for the natural world". When the music slows down and the camera takes us inside the watery womb of Pandora, quibbling about plots and arcs feels moot. In fact, at times the movie is indistinguishable from what could have been a Discovery channel "Planet Pandora" series as narrated by Jake Sully. ("On this episode, we take you on a free dive into Pandora's crystalline waters and watch the breeding patterns of its grandest residents, the Tulkuns").
The only question is whether your viewing experience matches up to Cameron's lofty intentions. I, for one, have already started my seat research, and I won't stop till I find a theatre experience that makes me cry out of joy and wonder! And I really, really, REALLY want to "stroke" some Pandoran fishies.