‘Avatar: The Way of Water’- Film Review: James Cameron Has Done It Again

If you were to ask me five years ago if I was excited about a sequel to Avatar, it’ll be an up-in-the-air answer. Because back in December 2009, writer/ director James Cameron took us to the world of Pandora in the global phenomenon. It was on top of the world, breaking box office records and three Oscar wins. Admittedly, Avatar isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but in the decade since it was the ruler of the blockbuster, the hate over it wasn’t warranted, especially when it’s always cool to hate on a popular movie in pop culture. But with the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, the world will soon get to see the follow-up to one of the most popular movies ever made.

Set a decade after the humans were forced out of Pandora and former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) transformed his mind into the body of his Na’vi avatar, he has adapted well to this new world and living the rest of his life peacefully on the moon with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four children, one of whom is adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). They’re living in harmony with the rest of the Na’vi, protecting Omatikaya clan. But, unfortunately, not everything is as it seems since the “sky people” found a way back to seek vengeance to take back to the planet, particularly a familiar face in Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). As the target, Jake takes his family to seek refuge with the water clan called Metkayina, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), who takes in them and must adapt to a different environment. 

Does anybody want a sequel in the first place? Well, this is the first of five coming up. As someone who really liked the first, even though I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, something had to persuade me. And right as the first trailer dropped, that was when the momentum got people talking about this franchise once more in a positive light, especially after the re-release. Much like the first, it wasn’t a sequel he wanted to rush into because he wanted to see if the technology advanced, especially to perfect motion capture underwater. But, whatever he and his team were doing to take up three to five years of shooting with a budget close to $400 million, it had to be worth it. And because of that, this reminded me why Cameron and sequels go hand-in-hand. He’s responsible for two of the coolest sequels ever in cinema history with Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. With The Way of Water, you better believe he did it again by surpassing all my expectations for a visual feast for the eyes.

First, can we discuss how this visual look was brought to the table? Obviously, the first looked fantastic for its time and it still now. But was this going to up the scale? Compared to the first, absolutely! The first ten minutes made me wonder how Cameron and his team of visual artists crafted the detailed world of Pandora once more to fall in love, along with expanding the different cultures surrounding the element of water. Calling it impressive would be an understatement. Every frame to fill up the screen with its world-building didn’t prepare me for the stunning visual effects from WETA, but it just appeared better than I could have ever hoped for. The motion capture is unreal, and I couldn’t tell if its purely makeup effects or made everyone as realistic as possible. 

We’ve heard so many about the underwater scenes, and the work is even better when it’s the most detailed effects of recent memory. The tribe of Metkayina is explored in how they can breathe underwater and have fin-like hands, seeing Na’vi’s as the aliens. Half the time I thought this was a real species we got a glimpse of from the far-off future. 

Sam Worthington’s star power rose to fame in the first movie, but he definitely gives a much better performance in this than in the first as Jake Sully. That might be because we’re now seeing him not only as a leader, but as a dedicated family man who’ll do anything to protect his family from harm. Zoe Saldana as Neytiri doesn’t have that much to do early on besides being the supportive wife, but like before, she’s fantastic. Stephen Lang’s return as Quaritch is actually also much better here with the idea of him becoming the race he hates the most. 

Out of the new characters to remember after it’s over, I was initially worried this would focus too heavily on the children. Thankfully, they rocked. I couldn’t get enough of Sigourney Weaver as Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter Kiri. Of course, Weaver played Dr. Grace Augustine in the first but is brought back to the sequel as this free-spirited kid. At first, hearing the acclaimed actress voicing a teenager was strange, yet I got over it quickly. Britain Dalton as Lo’ak also stood out as the reckless son who’ll always feel like number two compared to his brother. His arc was undoubtedly the strongest out of everyone in forming a connection with this sea creature that totally won’t remind you of Free Willy.

And since our screening was in a Dolby theatre with 3D, this was the first film I’ve seen in the format in five years. The reason being is 3D tends to give me a headache, and it’s a gimmick that died out almost shortly after the considerable epidemic after studios believed in the system after Avatar. To my surprise, it was a more immersive experience than I imagined, taking you through Pandora and new locations as if you were riding along. I genuinely forgot I was still wearing the glasses. The only problem I and others had was 48fps (frames per second ), where numerous sequences felt like you were watching a video game cut scene due to how smooth the film was looking. This was my first experience in the theater with a high frame rate (I never attempted it with The Hobbit trilogy). Beautiful, yes. A little distracting? At times.

But Cameron never disappoints in the action department, and there’s more of them to captivate the audience. The last hour just blew me away that made me pumped and I could keep my eyes off the screen. In addition, there’s more of an emotional attachment since I cared more for the old and new characters. More so than before, I have to hand it to him for having its themes of family and survival hold together. I’ll even say tears have been involved that hit close to home—The Way of Water nails more improvements, which was solid. But on a technical level, besides the visuals, take everything in from Russell Carpenter’s cinematography, the production design, and composer Simon Franglen’s score that perfectly replicates what the late James Horner did.

With a runtime of 190 minutes long (his second most extended feature behind Titanic), it’s a lot of movie to take in. But like almost all of his other films, it’s surprisingly well-paced and edited for three hours since it allows you to stay invested in the story. It slowed down right as hour two gits. But just as I thought it was gonna lose focus, everything picks back up to an insane third act. Storywise, all I wanted was for it to be not too cliched. And I’d certainly say it’s an improvement on Cameron’s storytelling, alongside writing duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), despite some lines of corny dialogue that stick out. Still, it can borrow familiar story beats from the first like learning ways to another important vulnerable source. Those are pretty much nitpicks since you can ignore them as the film continues. 

If you never cared for the first Avatar, could you get more out of your time with this new installment? The Way of Water is a piece of fantasy that will help you understand why we love going to the movies and being transported to places on a whole other level. But I think this will be much better for those viewers. And much like Top Gun: Maverick or Glass Onion, it’s a sequel not everybody probably didn’t ask for, but it was superior in every way. Of course, the longevity of this film in the upcoming years depends on how well it’ll hold up. But this actually got me excited for the third installment entitled The Seed Bearer in the next two years or whenever it comes out, though I’m not sure how that’s going to top himself. 

Avatar: The Way of Water is an extraordinary sequel beyond belief. Never doubted Cameron for a second to bring together a vast improvement over the original, with some breathtaking, jaw-dropping visuals and a stronger, emotional story to latch onto. Out of every blockbuster release this year, this is what I’d call a true spectacle that must be seen on a giant screen possible. Call me crazy, but I loved it more than I thought, and I’m already excited to catch it again. 

Grade: [A-]

Avatar: The Way of Water will be released in theaters on December 16, 2022 | Runtime: 190 Minutes| Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language| Studio: 20th Century Studios

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