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QuickView: Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Avatar: The Way of Water poster

“The way of water connects all things. Before your birth, and after your death.”


I eventually came to describe Avatar as the best fictional nature documentary I have ever seen. The Way of Water contains an exquisite hour in the middle which builds on this, introducing us to new areas of Pandora — with new tribes, bioluminescent flora and intelligent fauna — and showing off the underwater filming techniques Cameron has been developing with long, flowing takes and smooth transitions between water and surface. This exhilerating playful exploration is unfortunately sandwiched between two hours of ponderous exposition, po-faced spiritualism and largely uninspired miliatary action. Cameron still produces the best (and arguably only) cinematic experience worth seeing in 3D yet, without a compelling story, visual fidelity alone now faces stiffer competition from near photorealistic videogames and increasingly accessible 3D virtual reality. The family dynamic to the story is an improvement on the original, though it all still feels derivative and the most emotionally resonant moment — between father and son near the end — was ripped straight from How to Train Your Dragon. Cameron remains a master at spectacle, showing off lightweight exo-skeletons and crablike submersibles fighting giant whales, whilst firing a large bow and arrow through cockpit glass remains as rousing as it is unrealistic. The Way of Water is likely to be as divisive as its predecessor but, fifteen years on, the technology does not feel like a seismic shift in cinema and it is far harder to be as forgiving of the same flaws.


A technical note on frame rates: Depending on your screening, Cameron deploys a failed experiment with variable frame rates or VFR, seeking to have the benefits of 48fps HFR during fully digital sequences without the backlash received by The Hobbit through using the cinematic standard 24fps for sequences with human characters. Although there is considerable improvement in motion and the ability to follow action at 48fps, the transition is immediately noticeable and jarring every time. The step up feels like you are suddenly watching videogame footage and the step down (which is artificially achieved by doubling each frame) introduces perceptible jitter. It would have been far better to stick to 48fps throughout and let the audience adapt once.

QuickView: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

“With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

Desmond Doss

The story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist who enlisted in the US army as a medic during World War II, ironically brings with it some of the goriest depictions of battle injuries to date. The film wisely lingers on Desmond’s life before the war for long enough that we understand both his sense of morality and his acceptance that others see him as unusual. Andrew Garfield deserves praise not for the awkward charm he displays, but the troubled conviction beneath it. We see the harshness of training through his eyes, although it is clear the senior officers’ hostility is borne of confusion and protectiveness over the other men in their charge. Once his unit ships out, the initial assault on Hacksaw Ridge is powerfully filmed but less personal and less compelling. That changes dramatically in the aftermath as we see Doss’ heroic bravery, scouring the battlefield under artillery fire and evading enemy patrols, for which he became the first man to earn a US Medal of Honor without firing a shot.


Avatar (2009)

Avatar poster

director: James Cameron
writer: James Cameron
starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang
running time: 162 mins
rating: 12A

Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.

James Cameron’s return a decade after Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time, is a return to more familiar science fiction material for the director. There has been much discussion of the general irrelevance of the plot, and I will not regurgitate the comparisons with Dances With Wolves and FernGully. In short, humans are mining the natural resources of distant moon Pandora, but hit a a stumbling block with the indiginous tribal species, the Na’vi. Human scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine [Sigourney Weaver] interact with the Na’vi through the use of hybrid avatars which they control through a neural link. A paraplegic former marine, Jake Sully [Sam Worthington], is accepted and taught by the Na’vi, while a mercenary human army prepares to drive them out. Character development is limited but the central roles are well-acted and believable. The story itself may be throwaway but Cameron’s storytelling is as assured as ever. He steers with a firm hand and suspension of disbelief is instantaneous, broken only as the final shot gives way to an unforgivably cheesy song.

Avatar still

I presumed Cameron’s suggestions that his film would be about exploring another world were typical pre-release hyperbole, but the staggering level of detail in Pandora’s world is the real core of the experience, and its exploration in the film’s first half is an utter joy. Avatar has set the new benchmark for 3D filmmaking and its use throughout is subtle and effective in increasing immersion without unnecessary “pop-out” moments. Like Coraline, the majority of the depth sinks into the screen, but the key difference is that Cameron still employs typical strong depth-of-field effects, meaning the viewer needs to let their eyes naturally be drawn around the screen rather than expecting to be able to look wherever they wish. The human technology is rendered effectively, but the planet’s breathtaking flora and fauna are what will stay with the audience. Facial (as well as motion) capture makes the Na’vi totally lifelike, with expressive faces by merging their appearance with that of their actors but avoiding the common uncanny valley issues. Cameron’s new motion-capture system allowed him to see a real-time representation of both the actors and the world as he filmed, rather than waiting for the effects to be applied later, allowing for much more involved camerawork and direction than the commonly static shots where CGI is employed.

Avatar still

Many argue it is odd that a film employing so much technology would carry an anti-technology message, but I am not certain this is the case. There are clear warnings about our relationship with technology, and particularly questions about our attachments to online avatars over our own bodies. However while the Na’vi may be a tribal, spiritual people, they still employ several staples of sci-fi technology in biological form, such as their physical neural link with other creatures on Pandora. Avatar‘s message is far more anti-war and it is ultimately the military technology that seems to be attacked, with the conflict highlighting respect for tradition and nature.

As a work of science fiction, there are many links to Cameron’s earlier Aliens. Watching Sigourney Weaver leaving cryo-stasis will for many feel like returning home. The army grunts will be strongly reminiscent of Aliens‘ marines, and much of their technology is a gradual evolution. This provides some familiarity as we join the humans arriving on this very alien world.

Cameron’s latest work had the weight of insurmountable expectation upon it. Though not flawless, the fact he has managed to deliver a film that is both a technological marvel and utterly absorbing entertainment — while also looking set to outperform Titanic financially — is nothing short of astounding. As the finest example of 3D cinema to date, it is well worth seeing this in that form, since a 2D viewing would be a significantly different experience (to such a degree I suspect its rating would drop by at least half a star) and the small screen will greatly reduce the impact of this world’s incredible detail. That, above all, will keep your head stuck on Pandora for days afterwards.


"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

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