Avatar: The Way of Water, 2022.
Directed by James Cameron.
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement, Brendan Cowell, Jack Champion, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Matt Gerald, Duane Evans Jr., Chloe Coleman, Keston John, Toby Mortimer, and Jeremy Irwin.
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, learn the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.
Early in Avatar: The Way of Water, Na’vi leader Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) briefly narrates events between films, introducing him and Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldana) four children (of varying ages ranging from young adult to teenager to child) while summing up recent life on the moon Pandora. During this sequence, Jake mentions that after a short time, listening to and speaking Na’vi became as natural as doing so in English, with the film’s subtitles instantly fading away while shifting from one language to the other. In the grand narrative scheme of this 3+ hour epic, it doesn’t seem like anything important, and it’s not, but it is a reminder of how efficient and economic director James Cameron is at storytelling and world-building, seamlessly expressing an evolution of these characters and their lives.
That’s also useful to know because James Cameron (working with screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, all conceiving the story alongside Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno, with multiple installments left to go) is cramming every second of those three hours with eye-popping visuals, character beats, and spectacular action set pieces. Screened for awards consideration in High-Framerate 3D (although I highly recommend forgoing the janky HFR, as the experience is most likely more fluid and prettier without it), it takes less than five seconds to feel in remarkably capable hands, those of a gifted visual storyteller like there never has been and possibly never will be again.
James Cameron popularized 3D with Avatar, with countless filmmakers and franchises attempting to replicate that marvelous feat and typically failing (aside from a few memorable shots in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil adaptations and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, which James Cameron produced, I’m hard-pressed to think of any other time the format actually felt impressive, showy, and dazzling). So if one hasn’t seen that film in quite some time, it’s instantaneously jarring in the best possible way to find one’s bearings here inside 3D with unparalleled depth, vibrancy, and graceful movement (it’s hard not to feel like you’re swinging and leaping through the forest like the Na’vi).
As such, I admit to finding myself missing bits and pieces of dialogue establishing the new characters within the Sully family; shots of Pandora from cinematographer Russell Carpenter are that immersively captivating, accentuated by a wondrous score from Simon Franglen. It’s like playing a video game where you want to get off the story-based path and soak in the environments, flora, fauna, majestic creatures, and the detail of the character renders (the motion capture here is unbelievably lifelike). Fortunately, it’s still simple enough to get a handle on who each of the children is (among several other new characters), but it’s a testament to the mind-blowing craftsmanship that one is comfortable letting James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water wash all over yourself for the overwhelming, grandiose sensory experience it is. The characters and themes break through emotionally anyway because James Cameron ultimately knows how to balance the two.
Case in point, following the re-emergence of Stephen Lang’s villainous Miles Quaritch as a Recom (avatars using memories and DNA of dead people) with a similarly fashioned new squad, hunting down the Sully clan, albeit this time with intentions of colonizing Pandora since Earth is quickly becoming uninhabitable (although these films take place over 100 years into the future, it’s difficult to shake that James Cameron is angling for a real-life analogy here), Jake faces a choice of whether to stay and fight to defend the land or protecting his family by fleeing to a new home.
Without getting into the touching emotional core regarding familial duties and the right choices, the Sully family does traverse to the Pandora reefs, hoping to ingratiate themselves inside the Metkayina clan (they are a greenish-blue, with an amphibious resemblance and scaly makeup) led by Kate Winslet’s Ronal and her Olo’eyktan husband Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), a group with a profound connection to water, lyrically summed up. While introducing their children and several other characters, Avatar: The Way of Water slows down to marvel at the ocean, and its many lovely creatures, with copious amounts of astonishing scenes, shot underwater for real (the technology on display here is next-level insane.) As far as the oceanic village itself, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Besaid from Final Fantasy X, although far more ambitious in scope.
Anyway, even if the characters often feel minimally developed with surface-level complexity, no doubt stunted by scattershot messy storytelling with far too much to explore and provide layers to even with a 3+ hour running time, the performances find the emotion and heart of the story. The script occasionally feels as if an edgy teenager wrote it (there are once again some random and out-of-place swearing insults that sometimes don’t even properly resemble how anyone would talk), but it simultaneously knows how to build up a big fight feel and convey heavy stakes. There is urgency and many moments where characters genuinely feel in danger, and in some cases do die, because this is blockbuster filmmaking with guts.
Making up for shortcomings in characterization are the ideas James Cameron and company are going for; there’s an exploration of what it means to be family as one of the children is not Jake or Neyteri’s, but the biological daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s avatar, now a teenager named Kiri searching for her place in the world and an answer as to the identity of her biological father. However, the real mind-fuck (at least for me, considering I went into this movie blind) is that Kiri is also played by Sigourney Weaver, who delivers an organically moving performance (again, the motion capture is stunningly expressive).
Then there are brothers Neteyam and Lo’ak (played by Jamie Flatters and Britain Dalton, respectively) in the middle of a sibling rivalry, as the latter is oftentimes reckless and endangers his brother and sisters while the former is more rational, resourceful, and combat-skilled. The offspring also hangs around human child Spider a winningly feral Jack Champion, bringing to mind The Jungle Book), a leftover from the previous war with the sky people. It also shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out his origins and who he is related to, and once that is revealed, it allows the script to show off a different family dynamic. Lo’ak also happens to have an additional finger, earning him the label of freak, which serves as the launching point for another heartfelt subplot as he comes across a misunderstood gargantuan whale missing one of its fins that everyone else claims is violent and murderous.
As for Quaritch, his new body allows James Cameron to showcase a more sinister and primal depiction of connecting with the land and aerial creatures by taming force rather than spiritually. James Cameron cares deeply about land and ocean and protecting the world at all costs, so much so that portions of Avatar: The Way of Water seem to exist just to bask in its magnificence. Regarding the action set pieces, the film is an amalgamation of James Cameron’s entire filmography, with shots not just evoking Titanic (a relentlessly tense battle sequence set on a sinking ship) but also Aliens and the Terminator movies (a forest fire rages across Pandora with the same exact cinematography as seen for T2‘s Judgment Day sequence). Nevertheless, the underwater battles are unquestionably incredible, eliciting “how the hell was this accomplished” movie magic.
When it comes down to it, there’s much messiness to the narrative and much left to discover about these characters (including plot points set up for payoffs in future sequels), but that also has to be weighed against whatever is lost in translation while being floored by the spectacle of Avatar: The Way of Water. It certainly demands two viewings: one just to experience the insane technological accomplishments while feeling the emotion from natural story beats (sure, it’s nothing new, but James Cameron knows how to drive that home into something extraordinarily exciting that transcends familiarity), and another to home in on the characters themselves.
Either way, the journey puts most Hollywood blockbusters of the past ten years to shame, so let’s rejoice that we don’t have to wait ten more years for James Cameron to dazzle us again. Every image of Avatar: The Way of Water oozes personality and is bursting with life; that’s the way of masterful filmmaking from a living legend.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com