Few movies in history have come to theaters with the weight and expectations of Avatar: The Way of Water. Its director, James Cameron, has made four narrative sequels in his career and two of those, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, are inarguably two of the best sequels of all-time. Avatar, though, is on a whole other level. Released in 2009, the groundbreaking cinematic achievement ended up being Cameron’s, and Hollywood’s, highest-grossing film ever, and he was so confident and enamored with the world he created, he took over a decade to make this follow-up.
Now, Avatar: The Way of Water finally arrives, and guess what? It delivers. While not quite on the same level as Aliens or T2 (at least on a single watch), The Way of Water is a sequel that expands and improves upon the original in almost every way. It’s an enthralling, exhilarating, emotional story of a family in peril, with the most advanced digital effects in the history of cinema. Is it a little bit overindulgent? Maybe too drawn out at times? Sure. But the scope, ambition, and heart of the film more than make up for any of its flaws.
The basic story of Avatar: The Way of Water is simple. Humans have returned to the Na’vi planet of Pandora after about a decade or so away. This time, their evil plans are even bigger and most dastardly, and in order to execute them, they’ll need to kill Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the former human Marine whose consciousness was transferred to his Na’vi avatar in the last film so he could be with his love, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). At its core, that’s the movie. The bad guys want to kill the good guy.
Where things get more complicated is that in the years since Jake became Na’vi, he and Neytiri have formed a family. They have three biological kids—Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), who is the oldest; Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), second oldest; and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) the youngest—as well as the adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and a kind of de facto child, Spider (Jack Champion). Kiri is the biological daughter of Grace Augustine’s (Weaver) avatar, who perished in the last film so the nature of her birth is a mystery, and Spider is a human who was left on Pandora by the humans at the end of the first film, and who has since become a part of the family.
Think about all the possibilities that lie within those new characters: sibling rivalries, existential conundrums, interspecies dynamics—The Way of Water dives into all of it, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The mission to kill Jake Sully is led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who died in the first film but is brought back here in a Na’vi body that has Quaritch’s memories. And so he and his team’s integration into the Na’vi culture as a military exercise is another important throughline. One that leads Jake and Neytiri to make the hard choice to flee their home with their kids, asking a whole new clan of Na’vi to take them in so Quaritch won’t find them.
These Na’vi are the Metkayina, a people who live and thrive in the water, the exact opposite of the tree lifestyle Jake and Neytiri are used to. So the Sullys must learn the ways of the new tribe (led by two new characters, played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet) in hopes to contribute and keep themselves safe, all while the threat of war looms somewhere else on Pandora.
Yup, The Way of Water has a lot to set up, which is why it’s so long (it runs over three hours), but passes it the time as economically and quickly as possible. Cameron keeps the pace going in large part by dissecting the dynamic and at times volatile relationships. Take any two of the characters’ names above and the movie almost certainly has scenes, or maybe even entire storylines, about them. They learn new cultures, new customs, whole new ways of communication. The film’s exploration of each of these relationships helps it becomes a celebration of cultural differences and environmental appreciation. As a result, you become increasingly attached to the world and everyone and everything in it. The joy is in the discovery, and it’s never boring, even if at times it can be a tad drawn out.
Within the setup, Cameron also takes time to bask in the beauty of the world he and his team have created. In seemingly every scene, there are shots or moments that not only expand the world but are there simply to be beautiful. This might, in some instances, feel a little excessive but if you’ve bought into the world and characters, they can also be enlighting. At numerous times throughout, I whispered the word “wow” as characters flew out of the water on the back of exotic, colorful creatures as the late James Horner’s musical themes (reimagined and expanded by composer Simon Franglen) themselves soared too.
And while all of this might make Avatar: The Way of Water sound more like a nature documentary than a Hollywood action blockbuster, don’t worry, James Cameron delivers that as well. The first two acts are peppered with crucial action scenes that drive the story forward, all leading to the inevitable discovery of the Sully family’s location by Quaritch and his team. What happens next truly has to be seen to be believed. Cameron unleashes a relentless, exhilarating, one-hour-plus action set piece that takes place everywhere except on the firm ground. Things happen underwater, on the water, in the air, on a sinking ship, anywhere to give the scene a sense of awe. As it unfolds, you can almost hear Cameron pushing the envelope of what’s possible to put in a movie. None of which would matter if there wasn’t a strong emotional component, which is thankfully there too. The whole scene is not only tense and exciting but it’s filled with drama and heartbreak. And it just keeps going and going, outdoing itself again and again and again. By the end, you might feel like you’ve run a marathon because you’re so exhausted. But damned if it isn’t satisfying.
That’s the true magic of Avatar: The Way of Water: it’s such a complete and epic experience from the first minute to the last. It’s hugely propulsive, wildly dynamic, and chock full of jaw-dropping detail and smart decisions. Never once do you question that you’re watching the passionate work of someone who spent years meticulously considering every word spoken, every creature ridden, and every emotion conveyed through the stunning performance capture.
And make no mistake, the visual effects are stunning. The creatures, ships, world, and underwater scenes? Yes, of course. But more than any of that, it’s the way the technology compliments the actors and helps them create believable and emotive performances in such different bodies. Every actor does great work in the film, but the standouts are Weaver and Dalton as the middle Sully children, Kiri and Lo’ak. Not only are their stories the most important to the overall story, we see and feel each time one is forced to grow up faster than they should. Every time there’s a conflict with a sibling or parent. Their performances would be wonderful if they were just humans, but as seen through the performance captured magic of the Na’vi, they’re simply magical.
In Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron has brought Pandora back into the public consciousness with an awe-inspiring mountain of a movie. He’s introduced worlds, characters, and customs that are endlessly fascinating and altogether lovely. By the end, you’ll be amazed at the story that was told, marvel how it was told, but also anxiously await what he has in store for us next. Is it 2024 yet?
Avatar: The Way of Water is in theaters December 16.
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