It’s been over a decade since director James Cameron released Avatar, and the fear of a sequel diminishing, or being inferior to the original film is certainly not the case with Avatar: The Way of Water. Cameron, who co-wrote the script with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, returns to Pandora, offering viewers even more stunning visuals, a personal, more emotional story, and incredible underwater sequences that put every other film’s technical achievements to shame. The Way of Water is overlong and stretched thin on story, but the Avatar sequel is beautiful, with lush world-building and characters that add depth.
Set nearly two decades after the events of the first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are thriving. Jake has fully settled into Na’vi life and over the years the pair has welcomed four children — their eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their second-oldest son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and their youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) — along with Miles (Jack Champion), better known as Spider, a human boy who was left behind on Pandora and who grew up alongside Jake and Neytiri’s family. However, Jake and Neytiri’s happiness abruptly ends when they are faced with another threat, this time in the form of Colonel Miles Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) avatar, who is embedded with his clone’s memories. Quaritch wants his revenge on Jake, and is relentless in hunting down his family, forcing him and Neytiri to seek shelter with the Metkayina, a water tribe.
One can’t say enough good things about the film’s visuals — each frame is more breathtaking and magical than the last. The underwater scenes are especially immersive and magnificent to behold. Visually, Avatar: The Way of Water didn’t cut corners, and there was clearly a lot of work put into creating such spectacular, colorful, and unique vistas; the effort shows and the film’s technical achievements are one of the core strengths of the sequel. As Jake and Neytiri’s kids explore the ocean, and the gorgeously rendered creatures within it, The Way of Water brings audiences in with them, and the 3D pops in ways that make the adventure all the more visceral.
Rather than staying put in the forest, Cameron takes the opportunity to explore a new part of Pandora and its diverse people. This benefits the Avatar sequel and keeps it from becoming stagnant. The film’s primary focus is the younger Na’vi generation, which allows the film to further explore Pandora and the Na’vi without needing to spend so much time on Jake’s perspective or introduction to the customs. Rather, the Metkayina’s inclusion brings a fresh angle to the story and gives Neytiri and Jake’s family a lot to work with, including a few obstacles they must overcome. This also gives the story a genuine push-pull dynamic between the adults and the teens, who are head-strong and stubborn in their own ways. The threat by way of Colonel Miles Quaritch gives the sequel a sense of familiarity without retreading the same ground.
The Way of Water introduces an abundance of new characters, including Jake and Neytiri’s children and the water tribe that gives their family refuge. While the new characters are welcome and their personalities and relationships well-established, there are enough of them that it’s easy for others to be sidelined — like Neytiri, who gets very little to do here compared to the first film and, unlike Jake, rarely shares moments with her children — and the screenwriters struggle to balance all of their storylines despite the lengthy runtime.
To that end, the sequel’s story is spread a bit thin, though there is certainly more depth than the first film, and some of the scenes are obviously working to set up Avatar 3 than acting in service of The Way of Water’s story. This doesn’t distract too much from the film’s narrative, but given that the film’s ending leaves a few things unresolved, it would have made the film stronger had Cameron wrapped up certain storylines before forging ahead.
Despite this, Avatar: The Way of Water explores enough new story beats, and raises the stakes for its characters through tension to justify the continuation of the first film’s narrative. Engaging, enjoyable, and one of the most beautiful films of the year, The Way of the Water is a transformative movie experience that energizes and captivates the senses through its visual storytelling, making the return to Pandora well worth the wait.
Avatar: The Way of Water is flawed, yes, but at length, it’s a force to be reckoned with. The film meets nearly every expectation set before it. A wild ride full of heart and astonishment, which sets a high bar for the next films to follow. Its inconsistencies are so few and far between that they’re often lost to the overall grandiosity of the cinematic experience. Truthfully, it’s hard to comprehend the idea of watching it on anything other than the biggest, loudest screen a person can find. $250 million went into the production of this sequel and every penny can be seen in the details. If there was a lack of hype for the Avatar franchise before The Way of Water, there absolutely will not be once it’s available to the public. Again, and this is important to remember, never bet against Cameron.
Avatar: The Way of Water releases in theaters Friday, December 16. The film is 192 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language.
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