REVIEW: Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Britain Dalton’s LO’AK interacts and bonds with Payakan, a whale-like creature, in AVATAR: THE WHALE OF WATER — PHOTO: 20th Century Studios / Disney.

Directed by James Cameron — Screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver.

The long-awaited sequel to Avatar that many have bemoaned was unnecessary (in spite of the original film being one of the biggest films of all time) is here. Frankly, I wasn’t sure it was ever going to come out, but, after a 13-year waiting period, it is finally here. It exists. I was 16 years old when the first film was released. Now I’m 29. The wait is over. And, hey, it’s actually an excellent improvement on the first film. Moreover, it definitely is a must-see transportive theatrical experience.

Just like in real life, in Avatar: The Way of Water, a lot of time has passed since the events of the first film. Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), in his Na’vi avatar body, and his Na’vi soulmate Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) have had many children together and built a family. They have two Na’vi-hybrid sons — Neteyam (played by Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (played by Britain Dalton) — and a Na’vi-hybrid daughter — Tuk (played by Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) — together and have also adopted a human boy named Spider (played by Jack Champion), as well as Kiri (played by Sigourney Weaver), a Na’vi-human hybrid born from Grace’s comatose avatar (Grace was Sigourney Weaver’s character in the first film). However, peace on their home moon Pandora is about to end, as the sky people — i.e. humans — are making their return with the hope of further colonizing Pandora, as well as hunting its wildlife. On their spaceships, a Na’vi avatar (played by Stephen Lang) wakes up with all of Colonel Miles Quaritch’s memories, and he is hell-bent on getting his revenge on Jake and Neytiri.

All of this is introduced in a busy and somewhat clunky first act that perhaps isn’t the best representation of what Cameron is trying to accomplish. This act does a lot of hard work in establishing the new status quo, but it also raises some questions, as they don’t elaborate on some pretty important developments. New characters appear with very brief and quick introductions, and the film seems to be leaving some of these things up for future films, but that obviously doesn’t help this film here and now.

Many of these problems smooth out as the film moves into its emotionally involving second act. This is where Cameron’s true interests lie, as he focuses in on the film’s environmentalist theme, as well as a new deep interest in how we treat our ocean and the animals that inhabit it. This is a part of the film where the ‘Jake Sully vs. Colonel Quaritch’ subplot sort of takes a backseat, and instead we get a lot of excellent scenes with the wider Sully-Na’vi family. Kiri and Lo’ak really shine here. Lo’ak’s friendship and bond with a whale-like species is established, and it’s one of my favorite things about the entire film — it’s absolutely beautiful (a sweet development, but also a visually stunning sequence). Here he’s also very much concerned with establishing new corners of Pandora, and it’s excellent world-building on-show as we meet new tribes — including the Metkayina, the reef people — with different physiques from the Na’vi that we already knew of beforehand.

And then we eventually reach a third act in which it truly becomes the sci-fi action epic that it was advertised as. This extended action portion of the film is an improvement on the busy conclusion to the first film, and it features a harrowing greatest hits sequence on a sinking ship that immediately makes you think of James Cameron’s entire career, but especially The Abyss and Titanic. It is intense and suspenseful and action-heavy, and since this is an original franchise conjured up by Cameron himself, you can’t exactly know how it’s ultimately going to play out.

While I adore its themes regarding family, the ocean, wildlife, and environmentalism, the main selling point in an Avatar film are the visuals. The original 2009 film blew everyone away, and this one will too. Every visual effects character looks more richly textured and real, and the beautiful underwater sequences are jaw-dropping and chill-inducing. I know I’m not the only one to compare it to a nature documentary, but it really must be emphasized, because it simply looks astoundingly good. The visuals effects artists and animators have done an incredible job in realizing Cameron’s vision in a way that even the most unrealistic creations sometimes look real (the textured detailing really is unbelievable). State-of-the-art visual effects and 3D are so good that you sometimes may think to pinch yourself to believe what you’re seeing, but there are moments where Cameron’s ambitious 3D vision will be divisive. In The Way of Water — like Gemini Man and The Hobbit before it — the director has experimented with a higher frame rate that is really jarring the first few times. You mostly get used to it (it is much better than when it shocked me back in The Hobbit days), but there is this video-gamey quality to some of these scenes that may take audiences out of the film too often.

I’ll add that the dialogue is sometimes kind of awkward, as certain Na’vi, for example, tend to call each other “bro.” I also think it’s fair to say that the actual story is quite simple, that certain developments are telegraphed, and that its ambitious list of characters and subplots (and excessive runtime) sometimes sidelines characters who merited a greater focus (namely Neytiri, as Saldana is still incredibly compelling even through motion capture). So, not all of it works equally well all of the time. The thing is, though, that in spite of these problems, the film really sneaks up on you and pulls you in. I was constantly surprised by how emotionally invested I was in it. It got me. Hopefully, the version of this film that we’ll eventually get to see in our living rooms is anywhere near as effective.

For so long it has seemed like such a waste for Cameron to saddle himself with franchise-building and endless sequel-making. And while it still is a shame that he’s not focusing on varied and new original works, this sequel is a reminder of his power as a pop filmmaker and I’ll gladly take several more of these if they’re to be this good, ambitious, and visually innovative. Avatar: The Way of Water is a fitting title because, in certain ways, it blows the first film out of the water. I’d call it a definite improvement on the first film, which I merely liked. I am in awe of the updated breathtaking visuals, and I was moved by its beautiful focus on our bond to misunderstood creatures from the vast ocean. James Cameron, I see you.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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