With over a decade passing between the release of Avatar and its sequel, it was hard to tell if The Way of Water would live up to the hype. The first film in the series was such a monumental feat for cinema of its time, but with 3D movies falling out of popularity and CGI technology improving over the course of the last decade, many were left to wonder if the new entry into the Avatar franchise would live up to the spectacle the first created. The good news is: it most certainly did.
Avatar: The Way of Water benefits greatly from being a sequel; the setting needs little explanation and the viewer is familiar with the main characters and their motives from the opening. This allows the film to spend time building out the world of Pandora as well as introducing new characters and elements to the franchise’s vast and already highly developed world. The level and attention to detail is what you’d expect from James Cameron.
The plot of the film is a very simple continuation of the first film, allowing for characters that didn’t make it through Avatar to come back. Most notably is Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the film’s main antagonist who has reached insane supervillain status. Quaritch finds his memories implanted into an avatar body, something that was done before his death as a fail-safe for the mission’s success. Now an avatar, he seeks revenge on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family for his murder, while aiding General Ardmore (Edie Falco) and the humans on their quest to make Pandora the new home for humanity.
Like the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water is very heavy on its overarching message about humanity’s recklessness. Humans have no qualms about invading every inch of Pandora and killing as many of the Na’vi as they need to in order to fulfill their goals. Scenes with Falco likely set up more tension between the humans and the Na’vi to come in future installments; there were many tech advancements made by humans in this film, but they ultimately did not go anywhere in this film, especially after Quaritch leaves the forest lands in search of Sully and his family, who have fled to the Metkayina reef and are adapting to life among a new tribe.
The Way of Water also introduces a new sect of human villains to the mix: Tulkun (whale) hunters. The intelligent, peaceful Tulkun are a whale-like species with their own language, communities, and, most importantly, bonds with the Na’vi. Quaritch commands a whaling vessel in his attempts to draw out Sully and his family, and it is revealed that the Tulkun hunters are after amrita — Tulkun brain enzymes that stop the aging process. By the end of the film’s over three hour runtime, the introduced Tulkun hunters have been dealt with — but I doubt that this is the last time we will explore this concept in the Avatar universe.
As one would expect from a sequel so long in the making, Avatar has impressive visuals that stand out just as much today as the first film’s visuals did in 2009. Moving the film’s setting from a forest land to an open sea environment allowed Cameron and the visual team to explore new creatures and species, all breathtakingly executed. The Na’vi race, with their extreme height and lanky proportions are all well-executed throughout, with early scenes showing the epic scale of the Na’vi next to humans seamlessly. There are very few scenes where the Na’vi’s long limbs look odd or disjointed — but that will likely only be noticeable to the overly discerning eye.
As for the film’s 3D presentation, it is as fantastic as can be. Great care was put into the film’s 3D aspects, making sure that the film offers depth and reality to Pandora at all times, while never feeling cheesy or gimmicky, like many 3D films will do. The three-dimensional aspect really comes to life with the way Pandora’s environment is presented to the viewer; particles of fire and water really pop out of the screen to great effect, without looking ridiculous when viewed in 2D. My only criticism of the 3D presentation was how ridiculous most of the film’s fight scenes looked — it was as if when any scene with high action occurred, things switched over to a 60 FPS video game with a heavy soap opera effect. Granted, this may have been something to do in the IMAX theatre I was watching the film in, because it certainly didn’t seem like the shift in 3D quality was intended. Hopefully this won’t plague The Way of the Water in its inevitable 3D home theatre release.
The world of Avatar is known for its visual feast, so it’s no surprise that the performances take a backseat in this CGI-driven world. That’s not to say that the entire cast doesn’t perform well, but rather that the acting just really can’t take center stage with the film’s visual spectacle. Worthington and Lang both offer strong performances as the film’s lead opposing forces, with Zoe Saldana as Neytiri joining them to lead the cast well throughout the film.
With that said, there aren’t really any impactful moments for the acting to shine; even moments when a character’s life may feel endangered tend to underwhelm because of plot armor protecting them. Even the eventual death of one of the film’s core members doesn’t hit as hard as it should because the film did its best to relegate the character to the backseat. They were included throughout the film, of course, but never given the chance for the viewer to bond or attach to them in ways that other new characters were afforded.
In fact, the most rewarding character arc of the film doesn’t even come from a human-led performance but is found in that of a Tulkun named Payakan. The outcast Tulkun saves one of Sully’s kids, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and the two quickly form a bond of friendship. Payakan has been outcast from the rest of the Tulkun species and branded a ruthless killer, but as the film heads to its climax, Payakan’s backstory is explained and he is then given redemption, acting selflessly to once again save Lo’ak and the rest of the Na’vi, as well as his Tulkun brothers and sisters who are being hunted, in the Na’vi’s ultimate fight with Quaritch.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a satisfying sequel, and it’s surely one that doesn’t disappoint even after ten years have passed since the original. Visually, the world of Pandora is more exquisite and beautiful than ever, and The Way of Water works hard to ensure that future films in the Avatar franchise will have a well-developed world to explore. The film also introduces new sources of conflict that are surely there to bring tension in future films. Even with the amount of setup for the rest of the franchise, The Way of Water does not feel like it is merely a vehicle for the future of the Avatar universe, but instead is a wonderful film on its own. Even with just a base understanding of what happened in the first film, viewers could enjoy The Way of Water on its own. The fact that it builds upon the first film and sets up the third is just the icing on the cake.