It’s been nearly 13 years since director James Cameron changed the game. The first trip to Pandora in 2009’s “Avatar” simultaneously shattered the box office, became a global phenomenon, and revolutionized visual effects on screen.
But over the coming years, inundated with superheroes and cinematic universes, the general public seemed to forget about the wonder of the film – myself included. That won’t be the case with “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
The long-awaited sequel supersedes the first film at every turn, from the jaw-dropping visuals to the compelling, emotional storyline and the performances themselves. “The Way of Water” is an epic spectacle in every sense of the word, and well-worth the wait.
Set over a decade after the events of the first film, “The Way of Water” picks up with Pandora at peace – but not for long. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) remains the leader of the Na’vi forest clan with his mate, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their ever-growing family with five children. But when the Sky People from Earth return with a vengeance, a decade of peace is shattered.
Rather than just mining Pandora for its resources, the humans have become increasingly more desperate as Earth nears extinction, and now they intend to make the Na’vi planet home. In order to do so, though, they must eliminate the natives – which starts with killing Jake Sully. Leading the charge is a reborn Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose consciousness was extracted prior to his death in the first film and uploaded into an Avatar body.
When Jake Sully realizes it is him being hunted rather than his entire tribe, he and his family flee the forest and take refuge with the Metkayina Clan of the reefs, introducing a whole new oceanic ecosystem of Pandora to explore.
One of the many things that makes “The Way of Water” so impressive is its ability to simultaneously serve as a blockbuster action epic, an intimate familial drama, and a stirring environmental commentary. The film so naturally balances all three tones without a single abrupt transition or out of place scene. Cameron’s affinity for the ocean is well known, and it’s abundantly clear through his storytelling without ever feeling preachy. The battle sequences are frequent and intense, juxtaposing the natural beauty of Pandora with the raw brutality of its human invaders, and Cameron doesn’t hold back on the violence. But where “The Way of Water” truly separates itself from its predecessor – beyond the visuals – is in its emotional core.
The first film is critiqued, justifiably so, for lacking a bit of substance behind all its glitz and glamor, but that is certainly not the case here. The cast of characters is expanded greatly thanks to the addition of Jake Sully’s children and the reef tribes, and each character plays a pivotal role in Cameron’s emotional storytelling. Worthington has honed his acting skills significantly over the last decade and carries much of the film’s emotional weight, but Britain Dalton, who plays the younger son, Lo’ak, is equally impressive. The father-son dynamic between the two sets up some of the film’s most moving through lines, and Lo’ak’s struggle to find his own identity allows Dalton to push the character to emotional depths yet to be seen in this franchise. Over the course of three hours, each character grows and develops, making the film’s third act gut punches both teary and earned.
For those skeptical of returning to 3D in 2022, you’re not alone. However, prepare to have your mind blown. I’ve never been a fan of 3D, but was still impressed by the “Avatar” rerelease in September of this year, although I was still hesitant for another go round with the format. “The Way of Water” blows the first film out of the water (literally) with jaw-dropping visuals and immaculate details and beauty. It takes a few minutes to readjust to the high frame rate Cameron uses, which at times can produce a video game-style effect early on, but after your eyes adjust, it’s full immersion into the beauty of Pandora.
The film’s second act loses a bit of steam as far as the plot goes, but that’s because it’s so focused on flexing just how incredible the underwater visual effects look – and when they’re this stunning, it’s easy for the plot to take a backseat. In the action-packed climax, all hell breaks loose in a battle that serves as both a brilliant set piece as well as a disappointing reminder that hardly any other movies look this good. It’s impossible to tell where reality ends and special effects begin, making for one of the most mind blowing theatrical experiences ever.
After spending the last decade-plus forgetting about the first “Avatar,” it’s going to be hard to stop thinking about “The Way of Water.” It’s an upgrade on all fronts and truly worthy of seeing on the biggest screen possible. But beyond the look of the film, it’s the feel that works so well. In a world so alien, “Avatar: The Way of Water” manages to feel oh so human.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” releases in theaters December 15, 2022.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.