Ignore the snobs – Avatar: The Way of Water deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture
What is an “Oscar film”? In recent years, the traditionally starch-shirted Academy Awards voters have – on occasion – proved unexpectedly open-minded when it comes to deciding Best Picture winners. Parasite couldn’t be further from traditional “Oscar-bait”. Likewise The Shape of Water, and this year’s frontrunner Everything Everywhere All at Once. But while the Academy has expanded the perimeters of what Oscar films are, it still has an ossified prejudice when it comes to what Oscar films aren’t. And one thing they resoundingly aren’t is Avatar: The Way of Water.
The Way of Water, the long-gestated follow-up to James Cameron’s Avatar, follows ex-human Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), as he relocates his Na’vi family to another area of planet Pandora, to live with the briny coastal tribe. It is one of 10 films nominated for Best Picture this year, and is more or less a dead cert to lose. (A sign of changing times: the original Avatar was actually the Best Picture frontrunner back in 2010, before being edged out by The Hurt Locker.) Top Gun: Maverick, the only other popular blockbuster to make the 2023 nominees list, has far more of a chance – 20/1 odds as opposed to a pie-in-the-sky 150/1. But despite this predictable shunning, The Way of Water is a great film, a tremendous feat of classical filmmaking craft and space-age spectacle.
The inconsistency rankles. Top Gun: Maverick has been heralded as the saviour of the industry, having scooped nearly $1.5bn (£1.2bn) at the box office in the arid and precarious post-pandemic landscape. At the Oscar nominees luncheon, Tom Cruise was swarmed and adulated like Daenerys with the freed slaves in Game of Thrones; Steven Spielberg gave Cruise his fawning gratitude for “saving Hollywood’s ass”. Where, I ask, was this love for Avatar?
Perhaps The Way of Water’s universe – a world of oversized blue aliens, family values and lore-intensive eco-spirituality – is simply too silly to endorse. Avatar is immodest in its ambitions. It traffics in that most ethereal of cinematic currencies: wonder. To experience The Way of Water fully, you must submit to its grandeur, to its earnestness and idealism. Beneath this, though, there is a machine of clockwork precision. A sequence in which a boat of mercenaries methodically hunts down and kills a gigantic alien whale (a “Tulkun”) is one of the most thrilling and well-assembled of Cameron’s entire oeuvre.
Maybe the issue is the Academy’s aversion to the stink of commerce. The original Avatar was a box-office-record-smashing kaiju of a film; it now sits atop the all-time list of highest-grossing movies ever made. In the years since its release, however, it has been buffeted by rote revisionist takes. Thinkpieces declaring that Avatar “had no cultural impact” abounded. I can’t speak to the cultural impact of its sequel, but the sheer number of people who went out to see it surely can’t count for nothing.
Rather than continue the trend of vapid CGI-driven action films, The Way of Water has made the technology vital again. The behind-the-scenes explainers on how CGI was integrated into the film are mind-boggling. The idea that it should be lumped in with, say, Marvel fare – films whose rushed, tacky special effects have been openly mocked by the filmmakers themselves – is egregious. With bright, vibrant visuals and crisp, expertly intelligible action, it is the antithesis of modern blockbuster sludge.
In some ways, too, The Way of Water is a victim of its own integrity. In contemporary Hollywood, wry self-disparagement is the name of the game. Blockbusters are never allowed to be as earnest as Avatar without having their pomp deflated by prosaic banter. Increasingly, we see films devised with internet virality in mind: scan through most recent releases and you will invariably find a selection of moments – shots; gestures; lines of dialogue – that seem self-consciously designed to be “memed” as quickly and lazily as possible. Avatar does not do this. And it is all the better for it.
Cameron and co don’t need a Best Picture win to vindicate The Way of Water’s success. To quote Mad Men’s Don Draper: that’s what the money is for. But it would be a deserving winner nonetheless, a throwback to when cinema was something to be marvelled at, not simply consumed. Something old that feels exhilaratingly, unashamedly new.