Avatar: The Way of Water Puts Most Modern Blockbusters to Shame
James Cameron’s sequel to his 2009 epic is proof that cinematic wonder still exists.
These days in Hollywood, scale seems to be one of the easiest things to achieve on-screen. Breakthroughs in visual-effects technology mean that audiences get to watch one epic battle after another, and are accustomed to seeing dozens of superheroes zipping around pointlessly. James Cameron has always been a director who harnesses the latest CGI advances to whip up thrills, but with Avatar: The Way of Water, his first film in 13 years, he faces an undeniable challenge. Can audiences still be wowed, given the constant torrent of wide-screen spectacle? And are there new delights to be discovered in the alien world of Pandora, all these years after the original Avatar?
The answer to both is a resounding yes, which isn’t a surprise considering Cameron’s track record. He has a habit of making blockbusters that are exemplars of the form while also feeling buzzy and distinct, and he created two of the best sequels of all time (Aliens and Terminator 2). Still, I admit I felt some trepidation during the first 45 minutes of The Way of Water, which are busy with plot details as the film updates the audience on the past decade-plus of Pandoran life. The first Avatar worked because it leveraged familiar storytelling tropes in service of awe-inspiring 3-D visuals, helping to plunge viewers into a new world via a winsomely familiar narrative. But after a slow start, The Way of Water manages to repeat that formula without being a tired retread.
The story still focuses on Jake Sully (played entirely in motion-capture by Sam Worthington), a human Marine who infiltrated the civilization of Pandora’s native species, the Na’vi. The alien body he mentally puppeteered in the first film is now his only physical vessel, and in the intervening years he’s become an insurgent warrior of some renown, fighting off human colonizers and raising a brood of kids with his mate, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The Way of Water’s opening act lays out the complicated web of relationships around Jake. He has three kids and an adopted Na’vi daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who is bizarrely related to Jake’s old human boss, Grace Augustine (also Weaver), and is also raising a human orphan named Spider (Jack Champion), a shirtless white kid with dreadlocks whose overall vibe is, shall I say, a little questionable.
That’s a lot to explain, even before Cameron and his four co-writers explain how the first film’s villainous Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has returned, now in a Na’vi body, to continue humanity’s vicious colonial mission of mining Pandora’s land and hunting its Indigenous species. The Way of Water only enlarges Avatar’s refreshing skepticism about the human race; almost every character in the film is Na’vi now, and there’s no need for a Dances With Wolves–style story arc of our hero falling in love with a new culture. Instead, The Way of Water sees Jake and his family leave their life in the Pandoran forest to escape Quaritch, moving to an oceanside community to learn the way of, well, water.
The aquatic clan is led by pale-blue Na’vi played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet, and they are diplomatic but distrustful. They have flipper hands, free dive with ease, and ride winged ichthyosaurs, so Jake and his family have plenty of new rules to learn, most important the clan’s symbiotic relationship with a sentient species of giant whale called tulkun. This is how Cameron gets to make everything old feel fresh again, by forcing veterans like Jake and Neytiri to learn new tricks, and the film’s sumptuous marine environments are as bedazzling as the first one’s floating mountains and gargantuan trees.
Cameron actually succeeds at replaying the hits without feeling repetitive, which is impressive given that The Way of Water has the same basic structure as its predecessor. The first act does all the necessary world-building, the second focuses on learning more about Na’vi culture and meeting all kinds of strange creatures, and an electrifying finale sees the natural world rise up against human invasion. Most of The Way of Water’s new characters are charming (though I had some trouble telling the difference between Jake’s two strapping sons), but as with Avatar, the real draws here are the creatures and the environments, all bursting with imagination.
But The Way of Water wouldn’t work if it didn’t nail the ending, and use that accumulated scale in service of something genuinely jaw-dropping. Cameron is as precise a visual storyteller as it gets when it comes to large-scale action; yes, his films take years to make, but that’s because he follows none of the choppy shortcuts employed by so many modern blockbusters. The final battles in The Way of Water are rousing, but they’re also feats of geography, astonishing in how they manage to keep the audience focused on a huge ensemble of characters who are jumping between various locations.
Action aside, one’s patience for The Way of Water and its three-hour-plus running time may still vary; if you do not remember the original film fondly, I don’t know that the sequel is going to change your mind on Cameron’s achingly sincere approach. But although I was not surprised that The Way of Water’s visuals blew me away, I was shockingly invested in the emotional complications of the Sully family (many threads are left dangling for the already confirmed Avatar 3). Maintaining a sense of stakes will be necessary for the series going forward, especially if it plans on rolling out new entries at a quicker pace. But for The Way of Water, the decadence is more than enough—for cinemas that have been starved of authentic spectacle, finally, here’s a gorgeous three-course meal of it.