Prepare Yourself For An ‘Avatar’ Cultural Impact Because ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is Great

Accusing Avatar of not being culturally relevant is kind of like saying those cicadas that appear once every 13 years are gone for good and no one cares about them anymore – that is until you spend all summer being drowned out and driven mad by their mating sound. At least that’s the best theory I can come up with why Avatar is often accused of not having a cultural impact. Then again, a good case can be made hardly any movie in this era has a cultural impact unless those movies keep churning themselves out. Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a cultural impact as a whole because, in part, they just keep coming.

But does, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 still have a cultural impact? The team certainly does because we keep seeing them – they just appeared in a Thor movie and a new holiday special – but does that particular movie? Avatar director James Cameron is a lot of things, but he’s certainly not a director who “churns stuff out.” In the last 25 years before this week, there have been a grand total of two James Cameron movies.

The Avatar movies are basically made to self-destruct once their theatrical runs are over. Yes, Avatar producer Jon Landau was quick to point out how well the original Avatar did on home media, but the movie isn’t the same. When I first saw the first Avatar at a press screening in 2009, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. It felt fully immersive. When I tried to watch it at home, it felt like I was watching a cartoon. In fact, I hadn’t seen Avatar from start to finish since that 2009 screening until just recently for a much-needed refresher before watching Avatar: The Way of Water. (If you, like me, had not seen Avatar in a while, I was very happy I watched the original again before returning to Pandora.) The way Avatar, and now Avatar: The Way of Water, are presented in theaters with such technical marvel, it’s basically a singular event. It cannot be recreated at home. So these movies basically only exist for their theatrical run. So when they are gone, they are just kind of gone, waiting 13 years for their return. Anyway, at least that’s my theory. Because there’s something going on with these movies that is unusual. Avatar obviously has a cultural impact, it just goes dormant.

James Cameron tried to warn us. In 2009 he would tell anyone who listened that bad 3-D was coming. Oh and it did, riding the wave of Avatar‘s up-charged ticket price success, all of a sudden everything was in 3-D. The problem was, movies like Clash of the Titans weren’t filmed in 3-D, it was upconverted later, with less than great results. Most 3-D movies today are upconverted. The process has gotten better, but it’s still underwhelming. To the point media screenings are never done in 3-D anymore. In fact, before Avatar: The Way of Water, I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in 3-D. Seeing Cameron’s version of 3-D again, with every last Pandora fish meticulously rendered, is overwhelming. Maybe too overwhelming. I saw this with 3-D and the higher frame rate, which I disliked very much on The Hobbit and Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But in Avatar: The Way of Water, Pandora pops into life. And it’s very easy to get distracted because it is truly immersive. There were times I caught myself just staring at those aforementioned Pandora fish.

It’s been a few years since the events of the first movie. Life on Pandora has been peaceful and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have a family that consists of two sons and a daughter. They also have an adoptive daughter (Sigourney Weaver, going full-on awkward teen through the use of movie magic) that was mysteriously born from the lifeless Avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver). The sky people return, and so has Stephen Lang’s Colonel Miles Quaritch, only this time his memories have been uploaded to his own Avatar, so he now has the body of a Na’vi. And he and his team specifically want revenge against Jake Sully for betraying them in the first movie.

Jake realizes he’s a danger to the Na’vi so he and his family flee, seeking refuge with the Metkayina – led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), a group native to Pandora who live on the water and have close bonds with creatures who live in the water. Jake tells his family they must adapt to the way of the Metkayina and a lot of (very pretty) ocean-based hijinks ensue. But eventually, Colonel Miles Quaritch and his team are catching up to Jake, destroying everything in their wake to find him. And now Jake has to reckon with the fact that in an effort to save his family has caused even more death and destruction. There are emotional beats in this squeal that weren’t really there for me in the first film. Most notably, Jake and Neytiri’s younger son, Lo’ak, forms an emotional bond with a giant Pandora whale and I found myself getting truly invested in this whale’s story.

Yes, the whole Colonel Miles Quaritch being back thing is a little weird. The explanation feels like a retcon (we get a scene set during the events of the first movie to explain all this), but the end result does offer more gravitas to the proceedings than if it was just another random military person from Earth who is mad at Jake. But there’s also an emotional (and, to be honest, also somewhat weird) subplot involving Miles having a human infant son, also named Miles but goes by Spider, from the first movie who couldn’t return to Earth because he was too young, so he was raised by Jake and the Na’vi. And even though this new Avatar of his father isn’t technically the real Miles Quaritch, there’s some sort of bond there for both of them that I assume will play an even larger role in the next many chapters of this Avatar saga.

Going into Avatar: The Way of Water, I’d say I was Avatar-neutral. I was looking somewhat forward to this new movie because I love James Cameron movies and they are so far and few between, but on the other hand I don’t have strong feelings about Avatar one way or another and probably would have been even more excited if this were True Lies 2 instead. But, like the first movie, the technical wizardry won me over and (again, having just rewatched the first movie) the story is deeper and richer. If Cameron is really going to make, what, six or seven of these (the number seems to change every time), well yeah these movies have to be deeper. It can’t just rely on its technical breakthroughs for that many movies. Or, you know what? We are talking about James Cameron here. Maybe it could. Thankfully, at least with Avatar: The Way of Water, it doesn’t have to just rely on that.

(For anyone wondering, those cicadas I brought up earlier come back in 2024, just in time for Avatar 3)

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