Water has always been James Cameron’s great muse. We see it in the liquid transmutations of the Terminator, the deep-sea exploration of Titanic, the xenomorphs of Alien, the Florida Keys finale of True Lies and, of course, in Titanic, the apex of Cameron’s achievements in traditional analog cinema. While Avatar certainly ushered in a new era of spectacle in his career, Avatar: The Way of Water sees Cameron finally consummating this watery vision in digital cinema, and in 3D, as comprehensively as he achieved it in Titanic, as he himself acknowledges by structuring the film’s third act around a Titanic homage. In fact, The Way of Water might be the apotheosis of Cameron’s liquid visions in any medium, the film where he comes closest to converging his directing and diving careers, at least in its second act, which brings 3D technology underwater for a spectacle that truly has to be witnessed to be believed.
In other words, The Way of Water is as much of an advance on Avatar as Avatar was upon Titanic, and often seems to be offering us a new cinematic medium that is as different from digital film as digital film was different from analog film. Since the 3D revolution promised by Avatar never really came about, it would be easy, and perhaps tempting, for Cameron to turn The Way of Water into an elegy for the 3D 2010s that never were. Instead, he goes in the opposite direction, by continuing to explore the outermost limits of 3D technology, primarily by pairing it with underwater footage, and fluid dynamics more generally, to embed us in, and embody us through, the screen, in ever more extraordinary ways. We see this ambition in the first really astonishing 3D sequence in the film – a Na’vi avatar emerging into consciousness, and gradually opening their eyes. A glimmer of light moves around the screen, and seems to pierce straight into the viewer’s eyeball, until it has traced out the contours of the character’s eyeball, thereby promising to offer us a new cinematic consciousness as well.
This sequence paves the way for a prelude that emphasises liquid states more than ever before – states that ebb and flow so mercurially over the film that they erode the story down to the most archetypal of coordinates. All that really needs to be said, here, is that The Way of Water sees the indigenous Na’vi of Pandora facing a brutal invasion from the humans, or “sky people,” which forces them to leave the forests and take refuge with the reef people, who inhabit a vast island chain in the middle of the ocean. That movement from terrestrial to oceanic spheres is foreshadowed in the earliest scenes, whether in the heat waves that precede the arrival of the sky people’s crafts, the rippling fronts of the fires they set across the landscape, or in the zero gravity scenes in outer space, where blobs of liquid hang in the air, and interface upon interface confounds all boundaries between solid and digital life. As these screens multiply, they turn the cinema screen into a holographic surface, a shifting iridescence that anticipates the way bioluminescence will be used as a vehicle for 3D later on.
Gradually, Cameron extracts two very different 3D aesthetics from this fluid 3D field. First, we have the linear 3D of the original Avatar, and the wave of films it inspired, in which objects move out of the image and towards the viewer, typically crossing several discrete planes of space in the process. This linear 3D is both associated with the technologies of the sky people and with more antiquated forms of cinematic spectacle, as in 3D update of the Lumiere Brothers’ 1896 short Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in which a locomotive hurtles towards the camera and is derailed at the very moment it breaches the screen. As Cameron frames it, the linear 3D of Avatar is closer in spirit to the earliest innovations of silent cinema than to the radical advances of The Way of Water. All the human technologies in the film look somewhat dated in this linear 3D, which has waned dramatically in the last decade as a tool for colonising and regulating space. Occasionally, the sky people try to absorb the more emergent 3D fluidity as their own, but in a monstrous and mutated way, as when they place Spider, Quaritch’s son, played by Jack Champion, in a huge centrifuge in order to extract his thoughts.
By contrast, the Na’vi embody a new form of 3D – a fluid 3D that immerses us in the full texturality of Pandora, rather than trying to cordon off or contain space. Unlike the functionality of the sky people optics, this 3D mode is curious about small details of the landscape, like an extension of the cinephile’s eye, and first emerges through two of the most iconic spaces from the original film. The first of these is the sky forest, a floating realm of tree-covered rocks in what appears to be a partially gravity-free microzone, and which we see in far more granular detail now, since it houses the headquarters of the Na’vi insurgency. Up close, this space is even more difficult to parse in terms of regular boundaries between air, earth and water, since it’s full of enormous rocks that hang, suspended, but also doesn’t provide the Na’vi themselves with the same buoyancy, meaning they have to fly from outcrop to outcrop. Neither quite gravitational nor free of gravity, the spatial incoherence of the sky forest evokes a new viscous space, or experience, that collapses film and audience – that turns characters into avatars for viewers in a new way, as if to immerse us straight into the viscous solution that suspends humans whenever they enter Na’vi bodies within the world of the film.
From the sky forest, Cameron shifts back to the forest, which is even more abstracted than in the original, a concatenation of sinuous and lilting fluids that collapses all distinction between liquid and solid space, and seems inspired by the bottom of the ocean floor. All deep blue-greens and bioluminescence, it’s like a benign counterpart to the deep-sea imagination of Aliens and, in this opening act, crystallises around an extraordinary shot of a Na’vi child relishing the texture of the grass against her skin as jellyfish float and constellate overhead. As one cinephilic detail after another accumulates – wind in the trees – this liquidity reaches its tremulous peak with the daily eclipse, absorbing it into the planetary rhythm of Pandora as a heat haze ushers in the final occlusion, and the darkness prompts a sudden rainshower.
The titular way of water is this new 3D style, a consummation of Pandora as a unified liquid sentience, a thinking, feeling, loving biosphere, as a flashback to one of Dr. Grace Augustine’s scenes from the original reminds us. When encapsulated and encased in Cameron’s 3D vision, there is no distinction between the undulations of Pandora and those of Na’vi bodies, so by attempting to terraform Pandora, the sky people are also seeking to colonise the Na’vi anatomy as well. They do so by reducing the Na’vi to a series of mechanical imperatives, devoid of any spiritual sustenance and significance, in response to which the Na’vi retreat to the sea clans, who initially greet them with scepticism, and remind them they are forest people, not reef people. Yet the two topographies are as fused in the islands as they are in the forest – the coastal settlement of the Metkanyina is built in the roots of a massive tree.
This brings us to the second act, the centrepiece of The Way of Water, the reason the film stretches to over three hours, and arguably the greatest sequence in Cameron’s career to date – the vision you sense he was yearning for when he developed the Avatar universe three years before Titanic, and pitched it for 1999, but that took him over two decades to realise and visualise. As we move underwater, the old linear 3D, with its discrete planes of space, is replaced by a kind of total texturality, the 3D equivalent of Orson Welles and Jean Renoir discovering deep focus in the 1940s. The first sequence alone was immediately the most beautiful 3D I had ever seen, as all the fluidity, delicacy, curiosity and mercuriality of the new liquid 3D comes to the fore to produce a state of pure immersive wonder. Cameron lingers at the surface of the water during this first dive, shooting it from below, and allowing its cross-section to ripple across the frame, poising us at this tremulous cusp of wonder for as long as possible. Time and again, the film returns to this surface space, but two moments are particularly memorable. In the first, a Na’vi girl floats in less than a foot of water, as if to inhabit the surface as completely as possible, which she experiences doubly through its rippling shadows on the sand beneath her. In the second, the Metkanyina hunters take Lo’ak, played by Britain Dalton, the youngest son of Jake Sully, still played by Sam Worthington, to the open ocean, where they crest in and out of rolling waves, relishing the volatile surfaces.
This total texturality creates a profoundly ecumenical sense of the synergy between all things, starting with the supposed differences between Na’vi and Metkayina, between forest and reef people. On the one hand, the gap between these two tribes is as marked as that between Na’vi and humans, as Cameron emphasises by depicting Jake plugging into a flying fish in the same way that General Frances Ardmore, the leader of the human attack, played by Edie Falco, plugs into a Na’vi suit. Yet their time with the reef people also brings out the Na’vi’s inherent taste for fluidity, as their forests move below water, and their sky caves turn into the reticulated structures of the coral reef. 3D technology becomes the vehicle for a Gaian encounter with the cosmos as a single liquid entity – “the way of water has no beginning and end, the sea is around you and in you” – which Cameron further condenses into the bioluminescence that transmutes this fluidity into an alchemical architecture. In one of the most beautiful scenes, Cameron, and the Metkanyina, unfold a series of bioluminescent textures and entities – one provides breath, one provides light, and the last captures the aesthetic totality of the ocean, as a reef diver choreographs it back and forth in the most delicate 3D haptics so far. At moments like this, The Way of Water matches and exceeds the formal brilliance of Fantasia, splitting the difference between CGI and animation – or showing that the true vehicle for the peculiar weightlessness of CGI was always the underwater realm.
These 3D textures culminate with the Cave of Ancestors, the most sacred place in Pandoran mythology. For the first time in the islands, we see the free-floating rocks of the sky caves, and when we head underwater, we’re met with the Spirit Tree, an apotheosis of the film’s bioluminescent visions. Not only does the Spirit Tree confound forest and reef, liquid and solid, but it collapses time and space, since touching it brings people into contact with their most buried memories, and eventually collapses self and other, since it also connects people to the deepest and most liquid memories of Pandora herself. In other words, the Spirit Tree collapses the avatar-user connection, subsuming the audience entirely into the world of the film, and produce a total engagement quite unlike anything I’ve experienced in cinema for a long while. From hereon out, The Way of Water is like seeing the ocean for the first time, or being introduced to a whole new planet by way of David Attenborough (and it recalls his beautiful series The Blue Planet in particular). It feels like Cameron devised an entire ecosystem, an entire ecology, that we only glimpse, so rich and vivid is its biophysical detail.
This leads onto the other striking feature of this second act – the way it deanthropomorphises relationships. Admittedly, the interactions between the Na’vi are pitched pretty broadly, but they largely vanish in this part of the film, giving way to one of the most beautiful friendships in Cameron’s career – between Lo’ak and Payakan, a whale that befriends and protects him. This human-whale connection is the centrepiece of The Way of Water, and takes its 3D aesthetic to an even more cosmic level. In one scene, Lo’ak rides home on Payakan, both creatures decorated with bioluminescence that glows in tandem with the stars rotating above. In another, Cameron zooms out from what seems to be Lo’ak running his hand on the surface of the water beneath him, an image that is impossible to parse until we turn 180 degrees and realise that Payakan is carrying him just beneath the ever-mercurial surface. Through Payakan, Pandora now becomes so cosmic that it collapses into outer space, and becomes quantum liquidity, defying all normal coordinates of up or down, above or beneath.
The result is a remarkably plaintive and plangent sense of animal subjectivity, epitomised by Lo’ak’s most cosmic communion with this whale. Swimming into Payakan’s mouth, the stars and bioluminescence we saw on the night ride now converge into a galaxy on the stomach walls, as Lo’ak connects with the part of the Spirit Tree that resides inside this creature (as a part resides in all creatures on Pandora) and vicariously experiences his whole cetacean family being killed by human hunters. Back outside, Lo’ak only continues and intensifies the most beautiful embrace of the film – wrapping his arms around Payakan’s two right eyes (he has two on each side) as if hugging his gaze as much as his body, in a sublime interspecies embrace. All Lo’ak’s affection tends to revolve around this part of Payakan’s body, including his right fin, the closest part of his body to his eyes, and the only part he can see directly. In fact, Lo’ak first bonds with Payakan, and signals his openness to a relationship, by removing a harpoon that has been embedded in this fin for decades, ever since his whale family were killed. In those eyes and fin, that tactile gaze, both so different from and so close to humanity, lies one of the most beautiful animal-human relationships I have ever seen on the big screen.
Conversely, the next scene, in which the humans hunt down another whale, may be the most traumatic animal death since Bambi’s mother. In awful contrast to Lo’ak’s communion with Payakan, we’re presented with a series of mechanical crabs scuttling across the upturned belly of a whale relative, an almost unspeakable violation of the textures that we have come to know and love. Even worse, we cut to a group of scientists hoisting open the whale’s mouth, entering its stomach without invitation, and using a variety of lurid implements to drill deep into its organs, and extract a tiny amount of liquid, the most precious liquid in the human universe, since it stops ageing indefinitely. Once again, the human world can only appropriate the liquidity of Pandora in the most monstrous way, in a way that is inimical to the very meaning of that liquid, whose all-embracing assurance of the continuity of all life is replaced here by the human imperative to shore up each individual life at the cost of any and all others. Worst of all, the main scientist, Ian Garvin, played by Jermaine Clement, understands what is he doing, explaining to Spider, even as he drills deep into the whale’s viscera, that these cetaceans are masters of art, philosophy and mathematics, gatekeepers for Pandora’s flow.
This horrific spectacle leads into third act, the showdown between humans and Pandorans, which itself occurs in two discrete stages. The first is less dynamic, since it falls back upon relatively traditional 3D effects to accommodate the combat, returning so dramatically to the older linear 3D style of Avatar that it seems like the humans are winning even when they’re not. The last residues of lyricism briefly vanish as the humans extract Na’vi from a massive underwater kelp forest, using technology that stolidly separates forest and water, most abrasively the enormous speedboats that batter and smash across the surface of the ocean. Most of this scene involves gunfire, which isn’t all that interesting in 3D, often recalling the showdowns in mid-range 90s action films, and not in a good way. That said, it does clear the way for some enjoyably cheesy 3D, especially around Brendan Cowell’s campy performance as Captain Mick Scoresby, an Aussie mercenary who cheers on his men like he’s at a Sharkies home game. When he meets his end, his arm rips off, and ricochets towards the camera, devolving this linear 3D model into an even older, cornier and more lurid 3D shock aesthetic.
Yet right when 3D seems to have returned to its roots, Cameron re-engages the fluid dynamics of The Way of Water, by shifting the action to the human ship, where water unexpectedly becomes an antagonist for the Pandorans, channelled as it is through a series of hostile spaces and technologies. A spiritual sequel to Titanic ensues, Cameron’s formal acknowledgment that he has finally produced the film he envisaged in the mid-90s, and reimagined his lifelong connection to the ocean once again. As oil spreads across the water, it turns the tremulous surfaces so precious to the film into a vehicle for fire, while the bright and red textures of the human world, so inimical to the deep blue-greens of Pandora, are fused with the ocean too. Most of Jake’s family are sucked into the hull of the ship, where they have to navigate the submerged passages and corridors as the entire structure heaves on its side, discorrelating them from the natural flow of water, which suddenly becomes unnaturally destructive – rising every minute, trapping them against grates, operating against the normal pressure of doors and safety of passageways. Traces of Aliens emerge as the lights plunge off, and Cameron directly quotes Titanic as two Na’vi children cling to the prow, telling each other to hold on, before the ship turns over, mirroring the cruelly naked upturned belly of the hunted whale.
The Way of Water now reaches its agon between old (linear) and new (fluid) 3D, between the original Avatar and its sequel. Right as Cameron finally folds Titanic into Avatar, we see him extract The Way of Water from Avatar (and, by extension, from Titanic). To rescue her family, and link these visions, Kiri, also played by Sigourney Weaver, summons bioluminescence to bring them out of the sinking hull. As it coalesces across the screen in one feathery reticulation after another, and we return to the 3D lyricism of the second act, Lo’ak repeats the film’s mantra: “the way of water has no beginning and end, the sea is around you and in you.” With the most delicate and textured visions of the film unfolding before our eyes, the 3D lyricism is now strong enough to thrive even in the midst of all this human wreckage, before calling in Payakan, who gathers up the family in his cosmic sweep, and provides them with their last propulsion to the surface, where they congrgate on his fin, as he channels their shared experience into a cry, the cry of Pandora, and they all gaze up at the final lip of the eclipse.
While there is an obligatory coda, this image is the true final note of the film, which takes us beyond world-building (certainly world-building as Hollywood now understands it) to something more like world-participating, or world-inviting, or world-emerging, inciting the viewer to immerse themselves in an emergence that most current franchises would never tolerate. Sure, it’s cheesy at times, especially whenever we’re dealing with family dynamics, or dialogue within the Na’vi, but even its cheesiness, and earnestness, feels precious against the perky nihilism of Marvel and DC. From the 90s new age aesthetic, synthpipes and all, to the sheer strangeness of the world, which reminded me of the hush of early exploratory games like Myst and Riven, to the mystery and magic of its Fantasia-like formalism, The Way of Water took me back to the 90s, and reminded me of nothing so much as the first time I walked out of Titanic, galvanised by awe – an experience I never thought I would have again.