First Reactions to Avatar: The Way of Water – James Cameron Did It Again

After 13 years of waiting, a lucky few (of which I was included) were finally able to travel back to Pandora yesterday and see what James Cameron, Mr. “King of the World” himself, had cooked up for us after all this time. And, surprise surprise (I say sarcastically, given that every time Cameron has been counted out before – whether it was for 1997’s Titanic or the first Avatar – he’s always come out on top), it looks like the Oscar-winning director delivered once more. As the last major awards contender to screen this season, Avatar has been the one remaining question mark when it comes to our Oscar predictions, and now, all our doubts have been dashed, with profuse praise from seemingly all who have seen it – most of which is centered around the film’s vast visual majesty.

However, for those who want a little more from their blockbusters, have no fear, as the critical consensus thus far also seems to indicate that this sequel has a stronger story this time around as well, and even if Cameron’s occasionally dodgy dialogue is also present, the new characters in the cast – particularly, the Sully children – are all so compelling that you’re drawn into the drama anyway.

As for my own thoughts…

I’m in the camp that prefers The Way of Water to the first film, and that’s no minor achievement coming from someone who essentially devoted their life to the original when they were ten years old. It’s not just the astounding technological advancements, too; it’s the way Cameron and his cast and crew poignantly push the franchise forward with powerful new protagonists (Britain Dalton’s Lo’ak and Sigourney Weaver’s Kiri in particular are total standouts) and a deeply felt focus on family – the one we’re born into and the one we choose. Cameron’s a master at making the “simple” magicalThe Way of Water might not be saying anything new in regards to these themes, but the way it gets its moving messages across – enhanced by the arresting visual atmosphere of the film – is nothing short of stirring, staggeringly so.

I have a hard time seeing how this misses a Best Picture nomination, frankly. It’s essentially had a spot reserved for it all year long, and now that it’s not only met but exceeded our expectations, its path to the Best Picture line-up is pretty much clear. It’s already widely seen as an improvement on the first film (I anticipate higher critical scores this time out), it’s going to be the biggest box office hit of the year (and during the most crucial voting period), and the franchise (and Cameron) already has its fair share of support in The Academy, especially in the crucial crafts branches. Plus, I – and many others – would call it the current frontrunner for two major trophies: Best Visual Effects (duh) and Best Cinematography. The latter is still being contested (could Top Gun: Maverick, a recent critics favorite in the category, make a play for the prize?), but given how often this category favors big-budget VFX-driven cinematic spectacles (the first AvatarInceptionGravityBlade Runner 2049Dune, etc.) and how there has yet to be a film to seriously take the top spot, I’d say Avatar‘s ahead.

Avatar: The Way of Water

Where else can it contend? Let’s run through the crafts first: Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Sound all obviously feel in reach (again, it’s the cinematic spectacle of the year, with the crafts firing on all cylinders, so how does it miss?), though at this juncture, I’m just viewing it as a nominee here, given the greater competition in these three categories. Some have had it shortlisted for a Best Original Score nomination as well (including yours truly, on occasion), but I don’t think it’s necessarily a sure thing there; the score isn’t quite as sweeping and ethereal as it was in that tantalizing teaser trailer, and it also reuses the original’s themes extensively, which could put it on the outs with the branch. It might have a better shot in Best Original Song, where The Weeknd’s “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me Strength)” will compete. The song plays right at the start of the credits and effectively complements the film’s empowering ending, though this category is becoming brutally crowded at the Oscars, so I might not put it in the final five just yet.

What of James Cameron? It seems unconceivable that someone could advance the film medium in such a technically audacious manner and not earn an Oscar nomination for the work, but that’s exactly what I’m worried about with how finicky The Academy’s directors branch is with their thoughts on blockbusters (last year’s snub for Dune‘s Denis Villeneuve still stings). Sure, Cameron is a former winner and a big name who commands significant respect and commendation throughout the entire industry, but if voters don’t feel he’s done enough new here (which would be bonkers), he could still miss out on that nod. Let’s see how he performs at the precursors first (particularly DGA) and then plan on how to proceed. (And I’ve been asked a bit about the actors, so I’ll add that I don’t think The Academy is ready to recognize motion capture performances just yet, though I will give yet another shoutout to the stupendous Britain Dalton and the ever-entrancing Zoe Saldaña, who once again delivers beautifully in her dramatic beats).

Avatar‘s awards story is far from over – we have yet to see how high it will fly at the box office, and I’m curious how enthused all industry awards bodies will be about another trip to Pandora – but these rave reactions tell us all we need to know right now: it’s on the right track, and it’s good to be back.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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