When it comes to success in the film industry, people like James Cameron do not need much help or defense. Beyond his early successes with films like The Terminator and Aliens, the routine of making costly blockbusters, being doubted that he can’t recoup those costs, and then delivering an experience unlike any other that, in turn, people go out in massive waves to see, is impressive, to say the least. Avatar hit theaters 13 years ago, practically making Avatar: The Way of Water a legacy sequel. The long wait can be attributed to wanting to get it right when it comes to expanding off a new universe. But what does “getting it right” entail? Looking at the results, this movie no doubt delivers on a massive scale, as one would expect. While there’s even more to praise when considering the visual effects, a strong effort went into crafting a more complex story concerning the world of Pandora. This has led to a compelling tale concerning family bonds that still features incredible imagery and terrific action. And yeah, The Way of Water has led to crazy shots of space whales taking on heavily armed mercenaries. Cameron has returned, and he’s upping the ante for the better.
The story picks up over a decade after the first film’s events. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have created a family together, with four children of their own. After the defeat of the evil colonizers, the Na’vi and the humans on their side have made a peaceful existence in their region of Pandora. However, a return of human forces pushes the forest tribe into retreat. This is further complicated by the revival of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his troops, as their memories have been embedded into avatar bodies, making them even more dangerous than before.
As a result, Jake decides it’s best for all if he and his family take shelter with the reef people, away from Quaritch, who has a vendetta against the Na’vi who killed his former self. Of course, moving in with the reef people also means adapting to their ways, an essential task if they want to be able to pull their weight and defend themselves within this unique environment.
The thing I enjoy most about The Way of Water and part of what excited me for another adventure on Pandora was all the potential clearly laid out for expanding on this world. It’s what throws me off about those who presumably love movies yet scoff at the idea of a talented filmmaker building a new world from the ground up. Yes, Cameron announced multiple sequels to the most successful film of all time (bring up Gone with the Wind if you’d like, but I don’t think it needs sequels), and what did we get from it? One piece of a continually expanding realm. If I can enjoy Dino Theme Park 6, Spider-Man 8, and Batman 9, I have plenty of interest in Pandora 2-5, working off of ideas not based on any previous fiction but instead carving out its own path with original characters.
With that in mind, put Cameron in the water, and something great is bound to happen. The Way of Water gets audiences off to a solid start with a reminder of the familiar, as we take in the forests of Pandora, the creatures found there, and those wonderful floating mountains. Once the plot really kicks into gear, however, we are whisked away to this new location involving the reef people and their ocean surroundings. It’s very impressive. Pushing things past their limits, Cameron had his actors all working on underwater performance capture, once again requiring new technology to make this possible. It has paid off. The combination of characters, the astonishing sea life, and just the look of the water itself (in stunning and immersive 3D), has allowed for the exact kind of wonder one wants from this adventure.
Now, this would only go so far if the narrative had little else to offer, but much as I expected, with a more generic (yet effective) story out of the way, this sequel has an opportunity to go in new directions, and it does. Not forgetting that Avatar has massive mainstream appeal in mind, a writer’s room has come together to craft narratives for each of these sequels. The Way of Water really works at pushing a focus on the strength of family. Writers Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno have taken it upon themselves to build off some interesting concepts and weave together a plot that takes plenty of organic turns, never displacing what we’re supposed to feel about these characters. It makes for a film huge in scale yet surprisingly intimate in focus.
On the one hand, the story shifts away from Saldaña, the first film’s best character, and leaves at least one of the kids feeling a bit one-note. However, with so much focus on Jake and Neytiri’s children, there’s a lot to like about how this story plays like a coming-of-age adventure matched with another battle between nature and the military-industrial complex. Add to that a more seasoned version of Worthington, who still provides some narration, and you have a more compelling lead, as he has real things to care about and fight for beyond the more abstract notion of saving a place he’s grown fond of.
There’s a lot to like about many of these performances, even if some of the developments feel like they are preparing arcs for stories in future films. Saldaña is still very good as Neytiri, matching her warrior spirit with being a fierce mother. Lang is a lot of fun as the despicable Quaritch, who is on the verge of becoming really interesting as more than just a cunning antagonist. Kate Winslet reunites with Cameron as another stern mother and wife of the reef people’s chief (an always welcome Cliff Curtis). The two deliver as needed.
The most impressive work is coming from Sigourney Weaver, who returns as a new character – the adopted daughter of Jake and Neytiri, Kiri. Here, Weaver is in a role that connects a lot with the film’s theme involving spirituality and the natural life of Pandora’s interconnected ecosystem. It allows for deeper looks into the lengths Cameron has gone to create a world that functions on logic and ideas entirely fit for a science fiction story. To pull this off, it’s a credit to the performance and Weta Digital for continuing to understand how to digitally realize the emotions coming through these characters (they know how to get the eyes right).
In turn, this all supports the story being told. While the overriding plot involves building toward another epic showdown, at the core, this is a story about the lengths a family will go to stay together. We see it from different angles. Jakes struggles with how being a parent means he can’t just throw himself into any situation with abandon. The kids must contend with having a hero of their nation as their father and finding out the right ways to be independent and dedicated to their clan and the greater good. Matching that with the arc Quaritch goes through involving his new sense of self and a curious relationship development also allows for some good drama.
To note the addition of a region involving water again, it’s genuinely wild how amazing this all looks. It’s also great to see how Cameron is fully willing to have it go to strange lengths. It’s not enough that our heroes have to master riding on top of swimming/flying creatures. There’s a whole storyline involving these alien whales and how the Na’vi communicate with them physically and literally (yes, Winslet speaks whale in this film). With colonization and deforestation being primary concepts featured in the first film, the environmentalist streak continues here with some obvious thoughts on the effects of whaling, among other things regarding man’s treatment of the oceans. It’s not out of place, however, given how much time is spent letting the audience know how this ecosphere works.
The Avatar films do seem to be working on a familiar pattern. A slow-ish start leads into a long middle act that’s all about developing this world, seeing the characters flourish within it, and having us understand the stakes that come with possible destruction. This builds to an exciting and larger-than-life finale full of action. It should be no surprise that, yes, the man behind Aliens, Terminator 2, and True Lies knows how to bring the noise when it comes to fully satisfying action sequences.
The blending of humans, machines, various creatures, and the Na’vi warriors is so totally inspired that it makes other good movies look bad by comparison. Seeing Neytiri soar through the air on her flying beast while jamming arrows or spears into her opponents never gets old. A reliance on aquatic equipment at different times of the day allows for some truly dynamic sequences of mayhem. At three hours, this movie is quite long, but even if seeing the world being expanded feels like too much, this finale makes it all feel so worth it. Not many filmmakers can so effectively take a huge battle and turn it into a few emotional showdowns, yet here Cameron is pulling it off.
When James Cameron is asked why Avatar was so successful, he knows the truth, as it’s obvious. The film provided an emotionally draining journey as far as pushing so many boundaries this visual medium provides while also telling a crowd-pleasing story that was accepted on a universal level. Avatar: The Way of Water is no different in that general sense. It is a technical marvel, to say the least, but that could only go so far if it didn’t have more to offer. Fortunately, the time spent developing the first of several sequels has paid off tremendously, as this is a supremely entertaining adventure that’s bigger and better than the first, and you can bet I am pumped to see more stories from Pandora.
[I don’t know how else to address the use of 3D and HFR except to say that Cameron just gets it better than others, and, along with having crystal clear picture, the immersive level provided by these viewing formats makes the extra dimension and visual adjustments a real treat.]