It seems as if for the past thirteen years, James Cameron’s technical marvel only found its way back into the conversation as “that movie that made the most money but made no cultural impact.” Add that with the film being constantly re-released into theaters, and some vocal moviegoers have become more cynical and dismissive of Cameron’s vision. No doubt, Avatar shares a complicated relationship with moviegoers and has gone through its ups and downs in our cultural discussion.
But that cynicism has been growing at an alarming rate, and I have watched it affect our moviegoing behaviors, our choices in what to watch and what to skip, and the kinds of stories big blockbuster movies cater towards. I could only arrive at one conclusion – we’ve forgotten about sincerity and romance in movies.
Today, blockbusters have become almost entirely IP-driven, resulting in audience expectations becoming more demanding and new content to become more metatextual and ironic — movies need to wink at the audience. They need to make fun of themselves, as if they need to get ahead of the curve and make the jokes before we do. Because it’s more important to look smart than to look genuine.
So when the marketing for Avatar: The Way of Water began, it took a while for its existence to actually resonate. But it was in the second trailer when things started to click, when the words “Return to Pandora” appeared. It’s not just the sense of beauty, awe, love, and joy, but it’s the passion that you can feel coming straight from the filmmaker himself. Frankly, it’s what we’ve been missing from big movies.
James Cameron is a filmmaker who understands many things, but one thing that sets him apart from many others is his ability to tell universal stories through visuals. His writing excels not in his dialogue but in his desire to be present in his world with his characters, which is one of the reasons why the first Avatar feels so immersive. But The Way of Water pushes this premise further. Of the many things it gets right, the biggest achievement is it proves this world has so much more story to be told.
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, The Way of Water centers around the Sully family, which consists of Jake (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their kids — Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).
There’s also Spider (Jack Champion), a human child left behind at base when the sky people retreated at the end of the first film, who shares a warm but also thorny relationship with the Sully family. While the children accept and love Spider unconditionally, his face only reminds Jake and Neytiri of their enemy. After all, he’s not “one of them.”
With the sky people suddenly returning with a vengeance, the Sully family and the Na’vi see their way of life threatened once again, as they do everything they can to ensure their survival. But this time, so much more is at stake. Jake and Neytiri have much to lose, but most of all, their enemy has a familiar face: the unstoppable Colonel Quaritch (a suped-up Stephen Lang) is back, now in Avatar form. And he’s coming after them.
With the world of Pandora and its grand conflict between the Na’vi and the sky people already established in the first film, this sequel is able to spend a lot of its runtime on building characters and relationships. Unlike the first film, which is purely told from Jake’s point of view, The Way of Water embraces its large ensemble cast and gives each character their own storylines. These range from Lo’ak forging his own path to become a great warrior to Kiri feeling an intimate direct connection to Eywa and not understanding why she has it. Rest assured, the new cast members give fantastic performances, especially from Dalton. Even Weaver offers an astonishing amount of vulnerability in her voice, even if she inevitably doesn’t sound like a child.
Though on the surface (that was not an intentional pun), it appears that Jake is sidelined in his movie, the end results show that it’s all for the better. With the story now being heavily focused on family and the times that can clash with community, many character decisions and considerations that would’ve been easily made in the first film are now impressively made complicated here.
With that, Jake is surprisingly the most interesting he’s ever been, and Worthington is given several moments of confrontation and inner turmoil to show he can nail all the emotional beats through motion capture. It’s a fantastic performance, one that is miles better than the first time. A lot of that praise needs to be shared with Saldaña, whose performance as Neytiri is even more expressive and complex here than before. The two share great chemistry together not just as parents in a family but also as partners in a never-ending war.
Even Colonel Quaritch gets to become a nuanced, three-dimensional villain thanks to his newfound situation being in an Avatar body. It forces him to become part of Pandora more than ever before, even experiencing some of what Jake experienced in the first film. How that muddles his motivation or provides him with new risks is fascinating — it’s exactly what you would hope a sequel would do to a returning character.
Though it is a sequel, a generous amount of its runtime can feel like a reskin of the first Avatar, being so focused on spending time with characters and fantastical creatures and the world of Pandora. Take the forest creatures you oohed and aahed about back in 2009 and make them take place underwater this time. Jake learning the ways of the Omaticaya Clan in the first film is replicated here with the Sully family learning the ways of the reef people of the Metkayina. Furthermore, with an ensemble cast this large, some characters will inevitably receive more attention than others.
For some, this can seem unnecessary and overlong, but it is at least all in service of story setup and world-building. Cameron conceptualized a whole planet in the first film, so you would expect its succeeding films to expand on that world bit by bit. Even if you think you are experiencing the same gorgeous world over and over again, Cameron allows you to experience them through multiple characters, as opposed to a single protagonist in the first film.
His attention to detail proves rewarding, as the Metkayina people and their way of life feel real and graceful — it’s like marrying Maōri culture and spiritualism with Pandora’s ethereal fantasy, and it makes perfect sense. Both Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet give terrific performances as Tonowari and Ronal, the leaders of the reef people, as they express their hesitations and duties to protect their people but also their willingness to extend a hand to the Sully family and offer their protection, resources, and philosophy. Who knew that communicating with giant talking whales (called Tulkuns) could be so soothing and moving? They are, dare I say, the best creature designs on Pandora to date – even better than the Ikrans.
But the most important thing is this time, these sequences build off of each other. There is escalation and an ever-present sense of looming danger. Where the first film is about a shaky colonial situation eventually becoming a war, this second film is about the war’s effect on those who never asked for it, and how war becomes a relentless hunt. And so scenes involving Jake and Neytiri’s children, families, and bonds with creatures – they actually matter because it can all be taken away in a flash.
The third act of The Way of Water is not only breathtaking and immensely exciting to watch, but it is genuinely tense and heart-pounding. I was at the edge of my seat because it felt like no one was safe, and that was when I realized Cameron’s patience in the first half of the film paid off.
The action, the choreography, the geography of where the heroes and enemies are, the visual cohesiveness of what’s going on, the sweeping cinematography – it is the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking. The visual effects are, of course, unbelievable. It’s not even a question of “how did they do that?” but more like you suddenly remember every once in a while that what you’re looking at is not real, and your brain just stops working. We often say “visuals don’t make a movie,” but when the filmmaker takes thirteen years of time to perfect their technology and perfect their visuals, the difference is night and day on screen. You see the time and dedication in every shot.
It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most technically impressive films ever made, but the difference in quality compared to the average mainstream blockbusters is so stark, it’s kind of laughable, maybe even embarrassing. James Cameron disappeared into the water for thirteen years, and then rose back up from the depths to remind us all what an expensive blockbuster should look like and feel like. But it is the story this time that is the beating heart of the film. The stakes are more personal, the character decisions are more complicated, and as a result, the emotional highs and lows are tremendous this time.
I still remember where I was in 2009 when I experienced the first Avatar in theaters: I wondered if that was what audiences experienced in 1993 with Jurassic Park or in 1977 with Star Wars. It felt like a movie that “changed everything” and redefined what was possible on the big screen. Regardless of that first movie’s tropes, simplistic writing, and other problematic elements, it will always be one of the greatest theatrical experiences in my life.
Thirteen years is a long time to experience something like that again, but it is here, it is worth the wait, and it is a profound leap forward. Avatar: The Way of Water is a spectacular achievement, an epic homecoming in the most affectionate way. It asks us to not be cynical because there is so much to appreciate. Blockbusters that say these kinds of things with utmost sincerity are hard to find. James Cameron not only loves Pandora so much, he loves its people and its humble, grateful inhabitants. He’s showing us that it’s beautiful and awe-inspiring and romantic… and it must be protected at all costs. And because of that, he has now made not one, not two, but three of the best movie sequels of all time.
20th Century Studios will release Avatar: The Way of Water only in theaters on December 16.