My experience watching Avatar: The Way of Water couldn’t have been more different from my experience watching the original Avatar back in 2009. When that movie came out, I was in middle school. My parents wouldn’t drive me to the cinema, so I ended up watching it in class. I had heard so much about the movie and was excited to finally see it, but by the time the credits rolled I failed to grasp what all the hype was about. Maybe I was too young to appreciate what director James Cameron had accomplished, or maybe our teacher’s dinosauric projector didn’t do those accomplishments any justice. Regardless, I was too disinterested to give the movie another shot.
When Avatar: The Way of Water came out, I was no longer a kid. It had been several years since I graduated college, and I was backpacking through South America. First Peru, then Ecuador. Remembering how much I disliked the first film, I figured I’d liven things up by smoking a bit of weed. In a previous High Times article, I urged stoners to check out the Netflix documentary Alien Worlds, a fictional, David Attenborough-esque nature series about extraterrestrial ecosystems. Avatar is essentially Alien Worlds but with better CGI, so getting high seemed like a good idea. At the very least, I figured it would help make the film’s 190-minute runtime a little more bearable.
Finding marijuana in South America is pretty easy, by the way. The hostel I stayed at in Lima sold brownies. In Cusco, you can buy off art students selling their paintings in the park. In many other places, taxi drivers have it, or they will know where to get it for you. The weed here looks different than the weed from New York, California, and Amsterdam – the weed I am used to. It’s greener, leafier, and it does not have a smell – but it’s very potent, even for a frequent smoker such as myself. You get to smoke in some pretty unique places, too, whether that’s on the slopes of Machu Picchu, or in the parking lot of an Ecuadorian theater chain.
When I got my ticket for Avatar: The Way of Water, I assumed the movie would be in English with Spanish subtitles. Instead, it was in Spanish without subtitles. My Spanish is good enough to order a beer and ask for the nearest bathroom, but not nearly good enough to follow along with a movie I’ve never seen before – especially when I’m high. Still, I was pleased with how much I was able to understand. Avatar: The Way of Water is an action-oriented blockbuster that communicates as much through visuals as it does through dialogue, meaning you could probably turn off the sound and still get the gist of what’s happening.
The movie’s cliché-riddled plot, lamented by critics who watched it in their original language, also helped me figure out what the Spanish-speaking characters were saying. When the bad guy captures the hero and chuckles “Que temenos aquí?” my familiarity with other Hollywood movies tells me that “Que temenos aquí?” must mean “What do we have here?” (It does). Similarly, “Donde estamos?” whispered by a side-character when they discover a strange place, probably translates to “Where are we?” (Correct).
Just as Avatar: The Way of Water came out more than a decade after the original Avatar, so too does the plot pick up more than a decade from where the first film left off. Jake Sully, who came to Pandora to help colonize the planet for its valuable resources, has left his human body behind and is now a fulltime Na’vi. This time around, Sully and his Na’vi girlfriend Neytiri have a family comprised of three biological children and two adopted ones: Kiri, the Avatar daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine, and Spider, the human son of antagonist Miles Quaritch, himself reborn as an Avatar after being killed by Neytiri.
Unable to fight off the human invasion of Pandora’s forests, the Sullys decide to flee and take refuge with another Na’vi tribe that populates the planet’s the mangrove-covered shores. This is the point where the weed started to pay dividends. The locations from the first film look as impressive as they did in 2009, but they pale in comparison to the new marine environments. I feel confident in saying that water has never looked better on-screen, and there’s so much variety. During the movie you’ll visit crystal clear coral reefs, stormy seas, and murky depths glittering with bioluminescence.
Speaking of bioluminescence, Pandora’s oceans are positively teeming with life. While some of the creatures struck me as more extraterrestrial than others – the main ones are basically dolphins, flying fish, and whales with extra eyes and fins – all of them look equally realistic, which is just about the best compliment a movie like Avatar: The Way of Water can receive.
The original film had an at times comically simplistic narrative, one that presents the Na’vi as tree-hugging saints and humans as exploitative savages. The sequel introduces some degree of moral complexity, with Neytiri demonstrating she is willing to kill innocent people to protect her family and Spider saving his dad in spite of everything he’s done, but these moments are the exception rather than the norm. Avatar: The Way of Water, like Avatar, is an uncomplicated film because it tackles an uncomplicated issue. The central argument of this franchise – that environmental destruction is evil, inexcusable, and will lead to the death of all living things – is as relevant as it is foolproof.
In middle school, I did not know enough about climate change and pollution to grasp the earnestness of Cameron’s campaign. I also had not seen enough of the world to realize what all we were losing. The day before seeing Avatar: The Way of Water, I went hiking in a national park that basically looked like a real-life version of Pandora, with floating mountains and cascading waterfalls. Having been exposed to natural wonders that are as awe-inspiring as the ones Cameron creates for the screen – if not more awe-inspiring – I cannot help but see the beauty in a film I once disliked. But perhaps that’s just the weed talking.