Review: 'Avatar: The Way of Water' Looks Gorgeous, But It's Familiar

December 15, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water

"We're not in Kansas anymore," we're back on Pandora. And everyone is back - even Quaritch. Sci-fi master filmmaker James Cameron's sequel to Avatar is finally here, finally playing in theaters worldwide, after a 13 year wait. It's the first of many sequels – hopefully – and it's obvious watching Avatar: The Way of Water that this is the opening chapter of a much bigger story about saving the planet from greedy, careless human beings. If wasn't already clear in the first Avatar, The Way of Water makes it very clear – humans from Earth are the villains. They're the bad guys – all of them. Except for the scientists, of course. As we all know, the story in Avatar follows a military man from Earth who becomes a Na'vi, one of the native bipedal creatures that lives on Pandora, after learning their ways and becoming immersed in their culture. Humans want some precious resource on the planet, so they blow up their beloved spiritual tree, but the Na'vi fight back and kick their ass and send them home. Of course, they return to finish the job and get more resources.

The Way of Water is indeed Cameron's highly anticipated "bigger and better" set-on-another-planet sequel but as much as it lives up to the hype in terms of spectacular visuals and thrilling underwater sequences, it retreads familiar territory with regards to the story. The plot in The Way of Water follows former human hero Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), and his Na'vi wife Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldaña), as they become a family on Pandora. They end up with a grand total of five kids, two of which are adopted; one of them is a human, while the other are Na'vi. "This family is our fortress," Jake repeats numerous times in the movie. This is both a literal and metaphorical statement, as the family must fight off more humans again when they come looking for them. Col. Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang), the big bad villain of the first movie, has been magically sci-fi reincarnated as a Na'vi, with his memories digitally transplanted back into his new big blue body. The first of many "wait, haven't we seen this before?" moments throughout Avatar 2.

I'm a die hard, extra geeky science fiction nerd. Always have been. I enjoyed the first Avatar quite a bit, I think it's beautiful and entertaining, but it's not an all-time favorite. Avatar: The Way of Water is similar in many ways to the first one, almost as if James Cameron just said hey let's repeat this story all over again but with underwater scenes. Which was actually the rumor all along regarding the sequel, and how he was going to expand the story while keeping everything set firmly on Pandora. It seems as if Cameron isn't intending to leave anytime soon. I highly doubt the Na'vi are going to leave and go to Earth to stop the humans from returning (but you never know…?). The strangest decision in The Way of Water is the narrative choice of having Sully and his family decide to hide with the water clans in hopes that this will stop the humans from finding them and getting revenge. Has this ever worked? Every last person (on Earth) knows that the bad guys will still come and find them – always. There is no escape. You must confront them directly – but this movie is afraid of doing that. Instead, Sully believes that running away and hiding will bring them all peace.

This decision is not only naive, but incredibly flawed. At the end of the first Avatar, the Na'vi barely defeat the humans and their advanced weaponry. Years have gone by yet the Na'vi have not discussed the human's return, nor have they come up with any plans, tactics, or strategies for how to fight them when they return. How is this possible? It doesn't make any sense they would ignore this for years. Instead, the Omaticaya clan of the jungle has retreated to a secret safe haven hidden in the floating rocks. When Sully and his family get worried the humans will come find them, they foolishly head to the ocean and very quickly convince the Metkayina clan to take them in. He doesn't even warn them that humans will likely come after them there, too, and probably kill more Na'vi in the process. After nearly an hour long opening recap and establishing opening act setting up the stakes, we finally get to the best part of the movie - Sully and family assimilating with the water Na'vi and learning their ways. Mainly how to swim swiftly & efficiently, interact with water creatures, and survive in the water. This middle section is breathtaking to watch, though it still feels flawed.

As the movie plays out with its epic third act action finale, it's also clear that this sequel is almost an exact copy of the first Avatar. There's an introduction to the new world, then an integration second act where they learn to bond with and "swim" with two or three different water creatures, then there's a finale where they battle the humans when they come find them in their new home. Even the slip up of how they figure this out isn't that unique. The stakes are different, but this is all so familiar it's a bit frustrating. My theory is that, perhaps, Cameron needed to tell this story to setup the next sequels, Avatar 3 + 4 + 5. Like many Hollywood blockbuster franchises of the 2010s/2020s, this first movie is all about establishing characters, setting up the world, setting up the stakes, and preparing everything for the sequels. However, it's strange to do this after 13 years of waiting following the first movie, especially when the first movie does this so well already. Yes, we need to meet all the ocean creatures, but by the end of this I was thinking, "wait, that's it? That's all that we get to see in this one?" Indeed, I can't wait to find out what happens in Avatar 3 sometime in 2024.

Avatar: The Way of Water Review

There are some unique elements within The Way of Water that I do love anyway despite the flaws, first and foremost the adorable Pandora whales. Referred to by local Na'vi as tulkun, they're obviously just massive intelligent creatures meant to be similar to what we know as whales. Cameron is a lover of the underwater world on planet Earth, so it's no surprise that he's never going to leave the water once diving in with Avatar 2. All of the water creatures are extraordinary and beautifully designed, especially the gnarly skimwings that the Metkayina clan rides for hunting & fighting. The tulkun play a very important role in The Way of Water, and they're just lovely creatures. They're a key part of the plot, not only with a huge chunk of the second half showing humans hunting them (in what is obviously a Pandoran depiction of the vicious whaling that took place on planet Earth up until the 1800s), but also with their role within the ecosystem of the entire planet. Considering an early rumor hints that Avatar 4 might have the subtitle "The Tulkun Rider", they seem similar to Sandworms on Arrakis, but in the water on Pandora instead. Except they're adorable and friendly.

The best character in the movie is Spider, played by newcomer Jack Champion. He's a human child who stayed behind on Pandora when the humans were sent out at the end of the first movie. So the Sully family took him in, and he was raised as a Na'vi. He literally paints himself with patterns to look like a Na'vi. I love how perfectly he's depicted as a human that thinks he's a Na'vi, a connection to Mowgli in The Jungle Book. The way he lives entirely with an oxygen mask, yet it's never an issue because it's just natural to him; and the way he runs and jumps around confidently like the Na'vi is exhilarating to watch. He's a tad annoying at times, but that didn't bother me. Importantly, his character is the most complex and most dynamic because of what happens to him and his relationship to other characters. There's a very intriguing identity crisis problem buried deep within him, and this is made even more complex by his love for the Sully family and his connection with the Na'vi. But of course he's still considered an "outsider", he's still a human, even if he doesn't really think he is. This intricate internal turmoil begins to brew within him throughout this movie, something that should be explored in the sequels as he grows up following the events of The Way of Water.

In terms of the visual experience, yes of course this Avatar movie is awe-inspiring and mind-boggling. The VFX artists at Weta and ILM have outdone themselves, once again, as they did with the first Avatar. There isn't a moment in here that isn't entirely convincing and pristine. Above all else, Cameron and has epic crew of artisans have the perfect amount of passion necessary to make Pandora feel as vivid and detailed as Earth itself. The best shots are during all the underwater scenes, where you just want to sit and stare at all the fish and go swimming with the kids. I kept wondering how is the water so clear and so clean, mostly because it's easy to see every detail in these shots and there isn't much debris, only to remember that ah yes, humans haven't (yet) polluted this planet and dirtied the waters like on Earth. At this point, pulling off perfect VFX is more of a testament to how much time and effort went into all of the CGI work, rather than this being a groundbreaking example of digital imagery in cinema – Avatar already achieved exactly this 13 years ago.

Avatar: The Way of Water Review

Similar to the first movie, even if I have issues with the story, even if there are flaws in the narrative, I can still be completely immersed and swept away by the experience of watching The Way of Water on a gigantic IMAX screen at the theater. That's the ultimate power and the rejuvenating glory of the Avatar movies so far. They are towering, epic, incomparably awesome cinematic experiences that are the fantastic epitome of visual splendor and cutting-edge filmmaking technology. Every drop of water, every pore in the skin of every Na'vi, every tear, every bug and fly and animal on Pandora, they're all perfectly visualized and rendered. Part of the experience of Avatar: The Way of Water is watching it projected on the big screen, in Cameron's 3D presentation, make audiences truly feel like they're on Pandora for three hours. Unless you have a movie theater at your home, this can only be properly experienced at a movie theater. This makes it all worth it, thanks to the meticulous world building and patience necessary to create this entire planet. I honestly didn't enjoy waiting 13 years for this sequel, but if that's what it takes to make it look this amazing, then so be it.

Even with a final run time of 3 hours and 12 minutes, The Way of Water still feels zippy in spots. It's a bit strange how much it feels extremely long and dense watching it, but the editing is also rushed and choppy at times. Almost as if Cameron really made a 4 hour long movie, but had to trim it down for release (like with the LOTR: Extended Editions - I would watch all this footage) meaning some scenes are cut down a bit too much. This is still only the start of the story with Jake Sully and Neytiri and their family. While I am excited to find out what's next for Pandora, we have to wait another two years until Avatar 3 opens. But I'll be there on opening night, just like with these first two movies. At the very least because I want to watch the tulkun get their revenge and take out more humans. I just hope they finally do something different in the next few movies, we don't need to rehash this same story again. Throw some curveballs, Jim, make us think about loyalty, make us wonder how they can ever stop these humans if they'll always come for more resources with deadlier weapons. The Na'vi really need to come up with better tactics the next time they come after them.

I can talk about Avatar: The Way of Water for hours & hours. There's so much more to discuss. I adore all of the Sully kids: Kiri, Lo'ak, Tuk, Neteyam, and Spider. I'm surprised by how much Neytiri gets pushed into the background. The final battle is badass but not as epic as I was expecting (I guess they're saving that for the next movie?). I'm looking forward to watching it a few more times, to see if my thoughts change, and to escape back into Pandora once again. Take me away, Cameron, let me dream of swimming with the ilu, too.

Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd - @firstshowing

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