Avatar: The Way of Water review | James Cameron’s family-focused blockbuster

by W. Andrew Powell

We first saw Pandora 13 years ago, and through some strange magic, the alien planet actually looks and feels familiar once again. That’s not an easy feat but James Cameron pulls it off with Avatar: The Way of Water and one of the year’s biggest films by every measure you can imagine.

The action has been cranked up, the special effects are even more awesome, there’s a better script, bigger emotions, and it feels like a new chapter in a very large story.

Even going in with my doubts about the story, and whether it would be any good, Cameron really surprised me, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s not flawless, and it’s not the director’s best work ever, but it’s better than the original, and it makes me actually interested in whatever comes next in the sequels that are coming over the next few years.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)

The Way of Water starts where the original film left off, so anyone who hasn’t seen Avatar can kind of catch up, and we see how Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human-turned-Na’vi, has built a life and a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña).

The couple now has four children, including their adopted daughter, Kiri, played by Sigourney Weaver. The film goes a long way to develop these characters, however it’s Kiri who stands out thanks to a fantastic performance, and a really interesting character arc.

Kiri is the daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine’s Avatar, Weaver’s character in the first film, but no one knows how her Avatar had a baby, and more than that, she seems incredibly connected to Pandora, the life force of Eywa, and it’s plants and animals.

While it takes about 45 minutes to get started, Jake has been leading the tribe of Na’vi people since the events in the original film, and they’ve been doing a pretty good job keeping the invading humans from destroying everything. That is, until new ships arrive from Earth and they’re carrying new Avatars to take on Jake.

One small spoiler I’ll give away right now is that the leader of the Avatars is Colonel Miles Quaritch, played once again by Stephen Lang. That character died in the last film, but his memories and personality were saved and sent to Earth in case he died, and now he’s back as an Avatar with a number of other Avatar soldiers.

For Jake and Neytiri, and with the threat of their home being destroyed and their tribe murdered, they decide that the only option is to disappear and find a new home for their family. Flying across the ocean, that leads them to move to an archipelago and find a water Na’vi tribe that will accept them.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)

Naturally, you can’t run from your troubles that easily, and eventually Jake and his family will have to deal with the Colonel though.

The heart and soul of this story is really about family, and it’s not just Jake’s family either. Jake’s family is at the centre of the story, but I was impressed by the fact that we get some interesting and well-thought-out details about a couple of other characters as well.

From the very beginning, The Way of Water is beautiful, the special effects will blow you away, and in 3D the film looks stunning. In the past I’ve never been a fan of High Frame Rate (HFR) movies, which often adds a hyper-realistic look to special effects, but Cameron makes it work for the film.

The biggest benefit of HFR, that literally adds more frames on-screen per second, is that the intense action that can often look blurry or make it hard to see what’s going on in some films, actually looks fantastic. Even when there’s water splashing all over and characters fighting each other, HFR makes it a lot easier to see what’s going on.

For the script, I was a bit surprised, but Cameron, and writers Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver came up with dialogue and storytelling that’s far, far better than Avatar. The dialogue still stumbles a little at times, but the characters feel more nuanced, and sound more authentic in every way.

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)
Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)

However, I will add that there’s some dumb chauvinism in a couple of scenes, and it doesn’t make any sense. I can’t imagine the reasoning for having Jake treat Neytiri like a subordinate in one key scene, but it’s a weak choice for a strong writer and director.

My other big complaint with The Way of Water is the running time, and the recycled villain. Cameron uses the running time to craft a really elaborate story of family, and it does fly by, for the most part, but I think it still needed to be cut by at least 20 minutes.

The opportunity that the villain presents is also interesting, but I wish there had been a new opponent for Jake.

Beyond the story, and the characters, Cameron’s environmental message feels just as strong today as it did all those years ago in the original film, and you could potentially read a bit of an anti-military theme as well, if you consider that the marines invading Pandora will stop at nothing to get their targets. It’s a rare thing to see in a blockbuster movie, and I appreciate that Cameron is still making the point.

This has been a great year for film, and I’ve been blown away by quite a few movies, but The Way of Water is one of only a handful of blockbusters from 2022 that actually need to be seen on the big screen. If you can see it in a theatre, I fully recommend it.

I’m also looking forward to seeing The Way of Water again, to see how it holds up on a second viewing, but for now, I’m hesitantly optimistic about the sequels, and seeing more of Pandora over the next few years.

Avatar: The Way of Water is playing now in theatres.

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