James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water is not a masterpiece.
It's too long, too cheesy, too self-indulgent and simplistic in its portrayal of a clash between environmental-spiritual natives and soulless corporate profit hunters. But it might be something better than a masterpiece, something more essential: an earnest, populist, can-you-believe-it cinematic spectacle built on hope in progress and the future.
To understand my near-ecstatic reaction to Cameron's long-in-the-works, tech-driven sci-fi sequel, consider the context.
From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, Hollywood deployed a rapidly evolving toolkit of new digital technologies designed to advance big screen spectacle. These films all made an implicit—and sometimes in marketing materials, explicit—promise: to deploy gee-whiz futuristic technology to show you something you'd never seen before.
And thus for a quarter century or so, moviegoers were treated to an ever-expanding array of cinematic spectacles that embodied a spirit of technological optimism in form if not always in content: Breathless dogfights between starfighters created using computer-controlled cameras in the original Star Wars, a computer-generated liquid robot in Terminator 2, digitally rendered dinosaurs that sprinted in flocks in Jurassic Park, the first entirely-computer-generated feature in Toy Story, bullet-time slo-mo in The Matrix, and a motion-capture Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.
These films were, if not explicitly built around advances in cinematic tech, heavily reliant on them. And in the main, these marriages of technological novelty and popular artistry produced movies that were, at the very least, pretty good—well-crafted, populist, unabashedly crowd-pleasing, liked or at least not despised by most critics, and box office hits in return. While they might not have been high art, they represented the triumph of the middlebrow. In turn, many became cultural touchstones.
From time to time, these novel effects–driven films took a turn for the strange or the awkward, as in George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, but even there, the movies were hits, and they look somewhat better in retrospect, with critics and fans reassessing their virtues in light of what Hollywood has delivered in the interim.
Looking back, it's clear that these movies promised something more than just a novel visual experience. They were predicated on an assumption that was all too easy to take for granted at the time: With their wows and their can-you-believe-its, they promised a future in which, thanks to the wonders of technology, the world would become a more expansive, more interesting, more spectacular place.
And in the ensuing decades, that's an idea that Hollywood, along with the rest of the culture, has largely lost.
Since roughly the early '00s, the most notable advances in Hollywood have come not from new technology built for the big screen, but from Marvel-style shared-world storytelling, which brought social media–style friend-of-a-friend connectedness to superhero films, with Iron Man and Spider-Man and Captain America essentially showing up in each other's timelines to quip and comment. These films make heavy use of computer-generated imagery, but it's often quite shoddy looking, comparing poorly even to movies made two decades prior. In these films, digital technology is a crutch, enabling stagnation.
Digital technology has evolved, becoming faster and cheaper, but that evolution has been most apparent on the small screen, where, from Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings to the TV-ification of Star Wars itself, the sort of elaborate digital spectacle formerly reserved for big-budget theatrical experiences has migrated to flat-panel televisions and phones. Hollywood's evolution, in other words, mirrored the evolution of the larger culture, souring on technology as its uses became smaller, more familiar, and less capable of inducing awe.
So it is hardly a shock that the biggest advances in theatrical spectacle have come not from futuristic technology but from redeployments of the old, pre-digital ways: Christopher Nolan flipping a semitruck in downtown Chicago for The Dark Knight, Tom Cruise flying in a fighter plane cockpit as it zooms just above tree height over the desert, the gritty post-apocalyptic truck chases of Mad Max: Fury Road. Hollywood's analog revanchists have produced truly astounding images and great movies, but they've been throwbacks, premised at least to some degree on the idea that the old ways are the best.
Which brings us back to Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water.
The predecessor, 2009's Avatar, was one of the few films of the past two decades to attempt to build a popular blockbuster out of innovative technology. Notably, Cameron first began working on the script in the mid-1990s, when the technology was too nascent to make the movie. Avatar was not a great movie, but like Lucas' Star Wars prequels, it looks better in retrospect: Not only does it rely on novel technology, but it's grounded in deep and extensive original world-building, a universe—or at least a planet and an ecosystem—that Cameron brought from his imagination to the screen.
The Way of Water improves on both the cinematic technology and the vast world-building in every way, to great success. Like the first film, it's meant to be seen in 3D, which became fashionable for a few years after Cameron used it so well. But few if any of his imitators did, and 3D was phased out as it became seen as a pointless, often irritating gimmick. The same goes for Cameron's use of high frame rate (HFR) photography, which makes for images that are so smooth and sharp they seem hyperreal. Other filmmakers have experimented with HFR, but succeeded only in images that reveal a distracting and distancing soap opera–like cheapness.
Cameron, in contrast, combines the two, along with some of the most detailed computer-generated artistry I've ever seen, to create an enveloping alien world. It too presents as hyperreal, but in a way that adds startling depth and weight, in marked contrast to the pixelated weightlessness of so much contemporary CGI. It's startling and frankly breathtaking, a deeply immersive, technology-mediated experience I've never had before. Watching Avatar: The Way of Water often resembles watching a particularly lush and vivid nature documentary, but set on an alien planet with intelligent battle whales.
Did I forget to mention the battle whales? There are intelligent battle whales. They rule.
Cameron's three-hour-plus extravaganza is almost giddy with grand science fictional ideas about alien ecology and advanced maritime technology, some of which are silly but are always awesome. Cameron consistently over-delivers on wow factor.
The underlying story, meanwhile, is a surprisingly intimate family drama about the difficulty of being a teenager and a parent. This is populist, universalist, high-tech, big-screen filmmaking of the sort Hollywood has largely abandoned, which makes The Way of Water a sly throwback itself, one that looks fondly to the triumphs of the past while clearing the way for what's next.
It's not great art, perhaps, but it's a triumph of middlebrow entertainment, delivered with showmanship, panache—and the promise of a bigger, better, bolder future.