Review: AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER Is A Stunning Return For James Cameron

Avatar Way Of Water
Image via Disney/20th Century Studios.

Let’s cut right to the chase, shall we? Is writer/director James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way Of Water worth the thirteen year wait from the release of his original groundbreaking, science-fiction epic Avatar?

Yes.

Avatar: The Way Of Water is a stunning visual achievement both in creativity and in technical accomplishment. Cameron takes us back to the alien moon Pandora to check in with the native Na’Vi people who have renewed their struggle against the colonizing humans from Earth and to further explore the ecosystem the director has created for these films. This new story is larger and more epic while never losing sight of its characters within its grand scope. Visually, the film sets a new high bar that other filmmakers will need to work hard to equal. As Cameron moves from the jungles of Pandora to its oceans, the scope of the movie enlarges, pushing against the boundaries of even its optimal large screen, IMAX 3D presentation. This is a film that demands to be seen in a theater and on the biggest screen possible.

The Way Of Water opens more than a decade after the events of the first film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthinton) is fully accustomed to living in his Na’vi avatar body, having forsaken his human form in the previous movie. He and his mate Neytiri (Zoe Seldana) are raising a family while leading the local jungle tribe. But with the moon rich in needed resources, it was inevitable that the humans expelled years ago would return in greater force this time. And when the do, Jake leads a guerilla campaign against the human colonizers that yields some successes. But when it becomes clear that his family is being specifically targeted by the human soldiers, he moves them far away to an archipelago of islands in one of Pandora’s oceans and the Metkayina, the tribe of Na’vi who live there. However, even that safety is relatively short-lived and Jake finds that he and his family have to take a stand against the invaders.

One of the criticisms leveled against the original Avatar was the simplicity of its story. Comparisons were made to both Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves and the animated Fergully: The Last Rainforest for similarities in plot and themes. And there is definitely some validity to criticisms that that the original’s plot was fairly straightforward. But Cameron’s script here has a bit more depth, no doubt in part thanks to a writers room he convened to flesh out the four sequels he is hoping to ultimately make. (Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writing and producing team behind the recent Planet Of The Apes reboot trilogy, share a screenplay credit with Cameron on The Way Of Water. The rest of the writers room, Shane Salerno (2000’s Shaft reboot) and Josh Friedman (Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of War Of The Worlds), will share scripting credit with Cameron on parts 3 and 4 respectively. Everyone looks to be receiving a “Story By” credit for all of the films.) Now that he has a family, Jake’s personal stakes in keeping humans off of Pandora are even higher. And as leader of the clan who takes up the fight against the returning “Sky People,” he finds himself in conflict between raising his sons in the warrior traditions of the Na’vi and keeping them safe from harm. Cameron makes sure to flesh out Sully’s family, so when they do go into battle in the climactic third act, the audience is as concerned for their survival as Jake is.

In fact, much of the middle third of the movie – as the Sullys settle in and explore their new home with the Metkayina tribe – is told through the eyes of his children. Like many kids who find themselves uprooted from the only home they’ve known, they are at first resistant to their new surroundings. They don’t get along with some of the other children their age, and they have to fight to show that their differences aren’t detriments to living in their new home. Some may find this section to be a bit slow, depending on whether you have bought into the wonder and spectacle of exploring Cameron’s world. But on a story level, this does strengthen characterizations and set up certain things that will be paid off in the movie’s climactic and action-filled final act.

Thematically, Cameron is on familiar ground. Much like the first Avatar, The Way Of Water clearly shows the director’s love of the ocean and its important place in the overall biosphere of the planet. Ecological and conservation concerns are again at the forefront as is the critique of colonialism. There is an extended sequence where Cameron takes us on what is essentially a whale hunt, as humans attempt to kill one of the large aquatic mammals that populate the Pandoran ocean. It is harrowing and coming as it does after a scene in which one of the Sully children forms a bond with another of these creatures really hits home emotionally. Cameron also tosses in a bit of commentary on the Vietnam War. Not all of the themes here are as fully explored as the story’s world-building is, but with three more planned films, Cameron could be holding further development, as well as answers to a few dangling plot threads, in reserve for those future installments.

It is a well known truism that murkily lit CGI can hide a multitude of sins. But there is no hiding anything when the majority of the film is set in a sunny clime and sequences are presented in high-definition High Frame Rate. The clarity of these images is remarkable and there are no flaws to hide. Every frame of this film depends on CGI and it is all perfectly rendered. Never is there a moment when anything on the screen is less than convincing. For as immersive as the original Avatar was thirteen years ago, this new film is even more so. Even the extension of motion capture technology that he is debuting here – capturing performance underwater instead of faking it on dry land – has a polish to it that belies its relatively new status.

Is Cameron showing off? Absolutely, he is. But he does it with such precision, it is easy to forgive him. He’s definitely earned the right.

Avatar Way Of Water
Image via Disney/20th Century Studios
Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7040 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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