Whether you love it, hate it, or are completely indifferent to it, James Cameron’s sci-fi epic about blue alien cat people changed the movies forever when it hit theaters in 2009. Avatar stands as the highest-grossing film of all time to the tune of nearly $3 billion dollars, a number that’s lightyears beyond its competitors despite it being an original story not tied to any preexisting property or franchise.
That’s what makes the phenomena of its success so interesting; consider the fact that the rest of the top ten highest-grossers are made up of three Avengers movies, a Spider-Man movie, the seventh entries in both the Fast & Furious and Star Wars franchises, the fourth Jurassic Park movie and *shudders* the 2019 remake of The Lion King from Disney. Avengers: Endgame, the film closest to Avatar’s record (at one point actually surpassing it before a rerelease allowed Avatar to take it back) is the twenty-second entry in a mega-franchise based on comic books.
The only other original on the list is, fittingly, also from Cameron: Titanic. And while, yes, that is based on a real historical event, it’s still a fictional story about fictional people. More importantly, that movie was the first to ever hit $1 billion and top the list until Cameron beat his own historic record with Avatar. All that is to say, the guy seems to have the sauce. Neither is a perfect movie (at least not by my admittedly ill-defined standards) but there’s an undeniable mass appeal to their massive spectacles (both of which are presented with groundbreaking effects) and grand dramatic narratives.
Whether the cutting-edge technology behind the motion-capture performances and digital environments of Avatar make up for its weaker plot, character and dialogue elements (not to mention some of its tired colonialist tropes) is up to the individual. It changed the game either way, and when looking back after over a decade of increasingly homogenized blockbuster content, it stands out as something that feels a good deal more alive and earnest than even the most exciting of superhero movies. Still, times have changed. The 3D revolution that Avatar brought forth has long since passed and it’s hard to say whether audiences still care enough about the planet of Pandora and the story of Jake Sully (should they even be able to recall his name in the first place) to make the new sequel as much of an international sensation as the first.
It’s been proven more than once that it’s foolish to bet against Cameron, but whatever the monetary and cultural outcome may be, Avatar: The Way of Water is a fascinating example of a movie that far surpasses the original in several ways yet is also held back by both familiar and brand new issues. Whereas the first film lacked compelling characters outside of, arguably, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri and Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine, the sequel’s strongest feature just so happens to be its characters and their individual arcs. What’s even more impressive is how it accomplishes this despite stretching the cast out a considerable amount. What’s downright miraculous is that said cast is largely composed of kids this time around.
After humans were sent packing from Pandora thanks to the efforts of Marine-turned-alien savior Jake (Sam Worthington), his wife Neytiri and the rest of the Na’Vi, The Way of Water picks up years later with the planet enjoying a time of renewed peace. Jake and Neytiri have established a family all their own; there’s the oldest son Neteyam (James Flatters), middle child Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), along with their adopted kids Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, more on that in minute) and Spider (Jack Champion). Life is bliss until the humans predictably return, forcing the Sully family to flee the forests of their home to Pandora’s coastline, where they must adapt to new challenges, a new culture and a looming battle on the horizon.
I very much prefer the extended version of the first film over the regular theatrical cut. The extra scenes help give several characters some sorely-needed depth and make the film feel more thorough overall. The Way of Water would probably benefit from a longer release as well. While it thankfully doesn’t need any boost in the character department, much of its actual plot feels choppy and abbreviated to the point where some parts feel questionable if not outright nonsensical. The introduction of the Sully family and Pandora’s current state is charming but rushed, bombarding the audience with a ton of new major information in very quick succession.
You’re not given much time to really ponder the logistics of how Kiri is the mysterious miracle daughter of Grace’s inert Na’vi avatar (Huh? Exactly.) or the fact that the villainous Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is back from the dead and out for revenge in an avatar of his own. Jakes takes his family and runs when he realizes they’ve been made targets, seemingly to protect all of his fellow forest dwellers, but won’t the humans just come kill everyone anyway?
They certainly seem like they plan to, at least based on what a general played by an out-of-place Edie Falco tells us. Jake’s decision regrettably can read more like he’s abandoning his people rather than protecting them. Other issues arise from strangely edited scenes that come across like important beats and interactions have been cut in favor of a more streamlined runtime. Even after three hours, the film still doesn’t feel quite long enough to have explored everything it introduces to a satisfying degree.
Yet the film’s problems are largely washed away with the tide once the Sully’s arrive at Pandora’s shores and The Way of Water begins delivering on the promise of its title. Do you remember the “Post-Avatar Depression” after the release of the original movie? Some fans were left in a state of existential pity after becoming enraptured by the bioluminescent forests of Pandora only to then have to live in a reality where it doesn’t actually exist. We’ll likely see more of that with this sequel. Cameron and his team make the film’s second act a transportive experience, successfully immersing you in the wonder and beauty of Pandora’s beaches and oceans through both the expected mind-melting special effects, and using the genius simplicity of the perspective of the children.
It’s undeniably captivating and effectively heartwarming to watch Lo’ak bond with a friendly space whale or Kiri find a sense of belonging within the sea. There’s that genuine sense of scale, discovery and awe that only the best movies are able to properly convey, and Cameron does it all while setting up crucial character points that pay off tremendously in the action-packed final hour. It’s what helps make The Way of Water far more emotionally cathartic than its predecessor. Going into this movie, I thought that I’d at least be wowed by the effects and the action. I never expected to be moved close to tears by blue alien children.
The action itself remains just as rousing as ever from Cameron. The climactic third act puts the vast majority of blockbuster set pieces to shame, even with it being smaller in scope than the previous film’s all out war finale. And as can be properly explained by people far smarter than me, the technology behind the film’s stunning water sequences is a landmark feat unto itself.
The already impressive motion-capture performances are also noticeably better in this sequel and often shown off through the use of vivid and detailed closeups. The acting itself has also improved; those who took issue with Worthington in the first film will be pleased to see that he’s much better this time around, and Lang proves himself once again to be this franchises not-so-secret weapon. The kids are great, Saldana is still a class above the rest, and the insane decision to cast 73 year-old Weaver as a young teenager somehow works to tremendous effect.
While similarly imperfect, The Way of Water ends up being a much richer offering than its predecessor. There’s undeniable heart here that’s only complimented by the movie’s technical wonders rather than eclipsed by them. For all its flaws, it’s an experience that could quite possibly change the game all over again. See it as intended on the biggest screen possible.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is now playing in theaters.