Has any other film or film series suffered the same level of scrutiny and misjudgment that Avatar has? Originally James Cameron’s follow-up to highest-grossing-film ever Titanic, Avatar beat the “disastrous flop” allegations to become the highest-grossing film of all time, selling out for weeks on end, launching the 3D craze, and reaching a level of pop culture awareness that I once tried to impress a girl who loved the movie by learning to speak Na’vi (it did not work).
Yet despite its success, Avatar has become a punchline. It was seen as a fluke, a glitch in the Matrix that should not have happened and probably wouldn’t or couldn’t again. It certainly didn’t help that a sequel had been promised and delayed since 2012 – a full decade before Avatar: The Way of Water would actually reach theaters.
So, with technological advances and a theater market threatening to strangle any non-superhero properties, can magic find James Cameron for the third time? Financially, yes – this movie is going to make a sh*tton. As an artistic achievement, despite any misgivings I might hold, there’s enough wonder and craftsmanship to make this a cinematic accomplishment worth beholding.
In the aftermath of the Na’vi’s victory of the RDA mining company and Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) permanent melding with his Avatar, the former soldier and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have enjoyed a decade of peace. They’ve raised two sons – noble Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and hotheaded Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) – a daughter, Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and adopted a young girl mysteriously born from the Avatar of deceased scientist Grace Augustine (both played by Sigourney Weaver).
However, their peace is short-lived, as the U.S. military soon returns to finish the job they’d started. And to even the playing field, they’ve taken the minds of the original soldiers Jake once defeated and given them their own Avatar bodies – including the sinister Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Now hunted by a more dangerous enemy, Jake and his family flee to the tribe of the Metkayina people, a water-based tribe located deep in Pandora’s oceans. While there, the Sully clan remembers their roots with the planet, as well as the important of family and hope.
In case you were wondering if Cameron’s matured his themes, deepened his message, or addressed accusations of co-opting the real-life struggles of the Native population, I’m here to tell you that Cameron has – as expected – doubled down. The film’s opening action setpiece involves a group of warriors on horseback attacking a cargo train. The Sully children face backlash due to their “half-breed” status (which…yikes). Hell, within the first twenty minutes, a character explains that Earth is dying, so humans need to “expand to new frontiers.” Subtle, this ain’t.
The truth is that, while The Way of Water is very good, it admittedly doesn’t have that magic spark the first one had. It’s a gorgeous film, and the narrative is rich (although the script may have regressed? It’s debatable, but Avatar’s dialogue runs circles around its successor), but there was something special about the 2009 blockbuster. Avatar was a perfectly structured film, a master class in narrative and visual storytelling so that no matter how predictable it became, or how bad the dialogue, it still managed to resonate. It’s why the first film still breaks records for every re-release, and why the newest film, while impressive, doesn’t have that same energy.
Still, it’s certainly not a terrible film. Cameron does zero in on themes of parenthood and family that are surprisingly resonant. The environmental themes have been enrichened to include a haunting, beautiful anti-whaling subplot (to call it a metaphor would indicate any form of subtlety). And perhaps Cameron’s greatest strength is his understanding that no matter how bad the script, problematic the metaphors, or clumsy the beginning of a film may be, it doesn’t matter if you nail the third act.
Without spoiling anything major, Cameron spends his final hour testing audiences’ abilities to empathize with fictional creatures and for their secret proclivity towards karmic, Biblical justice. Through the sheer power of his filmmaking (aided heavily by the acting chops of Kate Winslet), he makes you feel for a space whale, fear for a group of spunky children, and then unleashes carnage through a combination of Titanic-esque sinking ships, oceanside murder, and killer whales on a quest for justice. Are there too many endings? Sure – although in a Lord of the Rings way, not a Marvel way. But I’m a simple man – if the sea dragons open their wings in unison and get into battle formation, I’m gonna squeal.
But let’s be honest here. You’re not seeing Avatar for the plot. You’re hear to learn more about the visual effects, and the ways that Cameron has elevated the craft. Well, that’s an interesting question. For the first half-hour, things feel a bit…disappointing. The digital work on the Na’vi has improved to unbelievable levels – they are now capable of expressing emotions on their computer-generated faces – yet the forests of Pandora no longer make us gasp the way the original once did.
Thankfully, only the first hour is set within the familiar forests. Most of the film is located on the beaches of the massive moon, meaning new creatures and locations to take our breath away. Cameron has gone out of his way to make every detail here accurate and engrossing – he even made the actors hold their breath underwater to properly digitize the experience.
Every detail pulls you into this world, whether it’s a photorealistic ocean, or space whales, or a massive boat run aground. And as an added bonus: you can see everything! Yes, unlike most modern blockbusters, Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter light this film bright enough that every inch of magic shines through. When it comes to spectacle there’s simply no one quite like James Cameron.
As for the performances, it is still commendable how dedicated this ensemble is to making the dialogue sound natural. Sam Worthington has been a bit of a joke since making a bundle off the first film and stepping back as a performer to focus on family. But this is, and always has been, inaccurate – while he’s always been hindered by the terrible voiceover monologues he’s expected to perform, his actual performance is as exciting and as carefully crafted as ever. As co-lead, Saldaña still rules in this role, even if she’s mostly a stoic ruler this time around than the fiery warrior that won over the world (don’t worry, though, she still gets the film’s most badass moments).
I don’t have much to say about any of the Na’vi teen performers; outside of Sigourney Weaver (who alternates between an utterly convincing teen and hilariously mismatched with her 73-year-old reality), none of them really stand out. I do want to shout out Jake Champion, who plays a human raised by Na’vi named Spider. Champion has that same twitchy energy that Cameron once used to make Bill Paxton a star, and that cannot be overstated. Cliff Curtis brings stern authority as the Metkayina chieftain, Winslet sells the hell out of a handful of monologues, and Edi Falco pops up as the new villain and just absolutely wipes the floor with every other performer.
There is one role I want to single out, as it has consistently been the best part of this franchise – and now may have threatened to overtake Saldaña as the best motion capture performance, as well. I’m talking, of course, about Stephen Lang. Lang was a standout in the first film, understanding exactly what type of villain these films require, and giving him just enough humanity so that we understand his bigoted, malicious motives – therefore making us hate him more.
Now, Lang plays a creature whose memories and mind outright reject the body they’ve been placed within, filling the character with pathos without undercutting the badassery – how can you not love to hate a man who crushes his own dead skull with his bare hands? It is great acting, and a great performance.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a shaggy example of expert spectacle filmmaking. It invests you so deeply in the story that its three-hour runtime flies by – you’ll be too invested in the world surrounding you. Is it flawed? Sure. But to quote Harry Styles, “What I love about the movie is that it feels like a movie.” And after a decade of tie-ins and shared universes and feature-length commercials for toys and theme parks, The Way of Water feels designed to entertain audiences with a fun story, electric action, and groundbreaking effects just for the sake of the cinematic experience. It’s hard not to applaud that.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing exclusively in theaters