Review – Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar 2 poster

Overview

Synopsis When humans return to the moon Pandora, Jake’s family find themselves as targets and require the assistance of another Na’vi tribe to remain safe.

Length 3 hours, 12 minutes

Release Date December 16, 2022

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directing James Cameron

Writing James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Composition Simon Franglen

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis

Released back in 2009, Avatar surged to the top of the list of the highest-grossing films of all time. An extremely popular movie as it offered an awe-inspiring cinematic experience, many were keen to hear what director James Cameron was planning next. It shocked some to hear that he had six sequels planned (cinematic universes weren’t a thing back then), and he surprised even more by how long he would take to make them. Essentially he was committing a large chunk of his life to this project. As the years passed by and the cinematic landscape changed, the attitude towards Avatar soured and the fun memories of the experience dwindled. Now thirteen years later, the sequel Avatar: The Way of Water has finally arrived, though many are questioning whether they’re even interested in seeing such a movie any more. Is it worth revisiting the moon Pandora?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: There are several battle sequences between humans and a native sentient alien race on the fantasy moon Pandora. Corpses with gunshot/weapon wounds or blunt force trauma are seen, along with drowned bodies. A few characters die on screen, with one being more emotional than others. Most gruesome death involves amputation, where a body part is seen flying through the air—blood and gore is used minimally throughout this film, but this scene in particular is what would make this movie unsuitable for young children. Sentient creatures are hunted down and slaughtered in callous fashion. There are several hostage sequences. There are multiple underwater sequences that are claustrophobic, where characters struggle to hold their breath. Aggressive animal chase sequences. Explosions and crash sequences.  

Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent coarse language including one f-bomb. The s-word and its varieties are said, along with lesser swears. Jesus’ name is used in vain in one instance. There are a lot of racial slurs used between one group of Na’vi (the alien native species of Pandora) to another. Humans also use degrading language towards the Na’vi.

Drug/Alcohol References: One character falls ill and requires assistance from a shaman-type doctor, who proceeds to perform a ritual with some unknown substances in the background.

Sexual Content: A nude Na’vi (humanoid alien) is seen briefly in a non-sexual context (breasts can be seen). Teens have crushes on one another, occasionally giving each other the googly-eyes. A married couple kiss. There are several conversations about parentage; one discussion gets crude as characters theorise which man impregnated a woman.

Spiritual Content: Similar to the first movie, wildlife and the moon itself are connected through neural pathways, which inhabitants can link into to communicate or upload/download memories. Pandora, or rather this deity, Eywa, is a pantheistic force that therefore connects all things—linking into Eywa is a spiritual experience, and characters frequently ask for advice, wisdom, or pray for assistance which may or may not be answered by the natural forces on the moon.

Other Negative Content: An escalating tit-for-tat game of revenge is seen throughout the film; sometimes the parties resolve their differences while it gets more severe for others. Some hazing and bullying. Creatures are killed unethically and wastefully.

Positive Content: The film does an exceptional job in taking viewers on a journey underwater, appreciating its beauty, the importance and role of all lifeforms, and the need to protect our oceans. Characters are strong on the idea of protecting the family unit, beliefs, and standing up for what is right, and accepting one another despite one’s background or racial features.

Review

I unabashedly adored Avatar when it came out in 2009. I still absolutely love it now. Suffice to say, when the opening few images of this film contained the stunning landscape from the movie’s fictional moon, I felt myself breathe deeply in satisfaction. It felt good to be back in Pandora. All the old memories of my first visit came flooding back, and I watched on with bated breath as to how this next journey would unfold. It directly follows on from the events of the first movie, so I strongly advise watching the original beforehand otherwise you’re cheating yourself from fully enjoying the narrative.

Admittedly the first act was underwhelming. Watching the high frame rate 3D version, other critics had hyped this up to be some spectacular viewing experience the likes of which the world has never seen, and yet it all looked very similar to every other film done in that format over the past decade. The 3D seemed ordinary, whilst the higher frame rate featured some of the same flaws other movies experienced when they experimented with the technology: hyperrealism, unnatural speed, and a jarring quality for the eyes. Granted, out of the few films I’ve seen use it (the Hobbit trilogy and Gemini Man), Avatar: The Way of Water does it best, possibly because it’s predominantly CGI.

Then we breach into the second act and finally head underwater. Wow. The hype is real! It’s stunning. What Top Gun: Maverick did for aerial combat, is what Avatar: The Way of Water does for underwater sequences and ocean battles. This type of filmmaking is mind-blowing, to the extent that I firmly believe you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t watch this film in its full glory—high frame rate, 3D, on the biggest screen you can find. Don’t think you can wait to see this in your own home theatre as you will merely be cheating yourself out of one of the greatest cinematic experiences in the history of this art form. It’s designed to be a visual spectacle.

The only thing that would even come close to being on par with the visual splendour of this film would be an IMAX 3D documentary set amongst a pristine reef. Yet this is more. This is James Cameron’s imagination unhindered and on display. It’s crisp and full of wonder. It reminded me of all the times I’ve visited an aquarium where the largest, most impressive tank is right at the end, and you can’t help but stare at its cultivated beauty while time happily sinks away. It embraces that feeling of awe which is always worthwhile in stopping to enjoy. As a scuba diver, I’ve spent countless hours getting licenses and learning all the procedures surrounding this dangerous activity, all to listlessly float while whimsically watching a sea creature. This is what James Cameron has done with his film; he revolutionised underwater optics and put his actors through vigorous training, all so we could appreciate this underwater dreamland. Is it self-indulgent at times? Absolutely! Did I care? Nope.

While floating in Pandora’s ocean, a thought did wriggle free as I wondered whether some people might get bored, as the action sequences in the second act are fairly spaced apart. There are rather long scenes of exploration, exposition, and character development. Those that aren’t used to heavier character-based plots, slower pacing, or have smaller bladders, may find themselves at times wriggling in their seat, although there is plenty going on within the film (even though some are always keen to overly simplify the storylines of this franchise).

The first film had a reasonably condensed and linear plot, but in this sequel Cameron has introduced a number of characters, each with their own struggles and motivations. Jake Sully takes more of a supporting role this time around, although there are parts where he is at the forefront of the story as he worries about how he can serve and fulfil his role within his family. It’s interesting—the young adult male viewers that may have watched Jake’s journey in Avatar and how he lives a carefree life full of vigour, may now be actually in the same life stage of parenthood as this character in the sequel, as Jake navigates the perils of being a father and that pressure to be the provider, no matter what that entails. Jake’s character has changed, and that’s because with age our priorities shift, and those that have waited alongside the release of this sequel may reflect on how they have also changed over the past thirteen years as well.

Neytiri is sadly in the background as a character once again, although her children take up most of the screen time. It steps into a coming-of-age tale as the teens in this film begin to find their footing in the world, grappling with their own sense of self-identity and the labels others give. One struggles with responsibility, another with being an outcast. Another two characters have their stories wonderfully dovetail into Jake’s, as they ponder their parentage and what it means for their sense of self. Then there are the wider messages: there’s a refugee thematic slant, an anti-whaling reminder, and a general sharing of a love and deep appreciation of our oceans. As a Christian, I personally liked a spiritual element this film started to explore, and it’s one storyline I’m keen to keep following should further sequels eventuate.

Considering James Cameron directed Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, both of which are praised to be some of the best movie sequels in cinema history, I was going to say that Avatar: The Way of Water is probably his worst… and then I looked up his filmography and saw his name stuck as the director of Piranha II: The Spawning. Avatar: The Way of Water is great in that it expands the universe, introduces new characters, and revisits what was loved in the original in that viewers get to learn about another whole fascinating facet of Na’vi culture. However, unlike his other film sequels, this isn’t a self-contained piece, and there are a number of unfinished threads (mostly character arcs) that remain by the end that are no doubt planned to be addressed in a future film. It’s understandable but still a minor annoyance.

If the plot had a weakness, then it’s in the villain department. Xenomorphs and terminators are both brilliant and iconic concepts, though the notion of an unstoppable killing force can only work in so many contexts, and in Avatar: The Way of Water the notion feels forced as vengeance and tenacity can only go so far before further depth is required from the villain. The energy this antagonist expends far outweighs their perceived motivation. There is some subtle layering to the character, but everything still feels rather one-dimensional, and it’s troublesome as to how Cameron plans to keep this character’s momentum going in future films when everything already seems to be fizzling.

A more irritating plot element in this movie involves the multiple catalysts for action. It shares the same problem as another film in 2022, Beast, where teenagers are told to stay out of trouble. And what do they do? They get into trouble. Multiple times. It very quickly becomes frustrating. At least it’s not the case as seen in Army of the Dead where a character makes a decision so horrible that they single-handedly create all the chaos in the third act, garnering all of the audience’s hatred. Thankfully Avatar: The Way of the Water is written well enough to instil the idea that a clash between the antagonists and protagonists was unavoidable, where the actions of the younger members of the cast merely sped up the inevitable, saving the audience from waiting around too long. Their actions are forgivable from a storytelling perspective, though the tactic is overused.

Yet all of its narrative flaws aren’t enough to drag down the movie’s strengths. After coming across a Screencraft article that detailed James Cameron’s approach to storytelling, it helped shed light as to what really makes this franchise special. Some films are intellectually engaging, others pull on the heartstrings, but some stories, very rarely, will tap into and connect with a person’s soul. It’s hard to articulate, but it’s like the camera manages to capture an indescribable feeling that could only ever be represented in the film medium, and those emotions tend to dig into a latent human desire for unburdened innocent freedom, connection, or an appreciation of a fleeting perfect moment. It cannot be manufactured, so you don’t typically see it happen in big studio films, rather I tend to find it in smaller flicks where the creators are given more freedom, and the film ends up punching above its weight as a result. I found it in portions of the Pete’s Dragon remake, in indie animations like Wolfwalkers, The Tree of Life tries its best to speak to viewers only through a soulful way, The Beach features a story that’s in pursuit of it, The Shawshank Redemption is the perfect blend of mind, body, and soul entertainment, which might be why it’s frequently ranked the best film in existence, while it can even be found in brief moments, such as this scene from Paper Towns (read through the comments as they are very revealing and are a great example of what I mean). Not everyone will experience Avatar: The Way of Water in this way, and it’s genuinely sad in situations such as this that art does elicit different reactions in different people.

Like the first film, audiences learn to love the world that’s on display before the story gets to work in gutting those emotions. There’s an extended period of time spent with the villains as they explain an in-depth procedure, where with each passing minute, the viewer’s stomach sinks a little more uncomfortably in the gut, and the feeling of nausea increases. All of this emotional build up culminates into an enormous pay off in the third act, so if you were bored floating in the ocean, don’t worry, it’s wall to wall action from that moment onwards with actual stakes.

Just remember that James Cameron was the guy that directed Titanic. I know, people will sneer at that, but it was an enormous undertaking where he built a massive floating set before then sinking it and recording its destruction in spectacular fashion. Remember that? Imagine Titanic but now with a more experienced director, over a decade of planning, and ten times the effects, stunts, and dangerous camerawork. This is the guy that builds his own submersibles and views filmmaking as merely his day job as his real passion is exploring the Mariana Trench. As a scuba diver, there were shots that were chilling in their level of risk, some of which literally caused my jaw to drop in shock. It’s insane.

I cannot give enough praise to everyone who worked hard for the cast and crew’s safety on that set, the stunt crew, and the brave actors who performed what they could in mocap suits no less. Jack Champion in particular, who plays the role of Spider in the film, didn’t get the added level of forgiveness the CGI rendering could have offered, meaning all of his movements are bare for all to see. His role could have easily come across as cheesy, but the actor manages to pull it off. It’s a shame the Oscars will likely not recognise any of the cast’s enormous efforts, but they are all due their credit.

How this film was even made is a marvel in itself.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a phenomenal film mainly because of its high level of technical achievement which offers a unique spectacle at the cinema. I fear that it will follow the same route as its predecessor whereby it’s currently presented in its best form on the silver screen, and once it’s phased out of theatres, it’ll never be experienced in its full glory again. The story is still decent without the help of its high-grade graphics, but it won’t be enough to endure the downfall of the hype that’s currently about due to people praising its current format in the cinema. Despite everything, if you wish to see it, then obviously you need to see it now. For years people have been wishing for more original content, so go out and support it—I want to see more sequels!

Positives

+ Use of 3D
+ Gorgeous CGI
+ Unbelievable stunts and cinematography
+ Wide number of themes
+ Soulful storytelling
+ Mind-boggling action
+ Unique cinematic experience

Negatives

- Weak villain
- Typical flaws of High Frame Rate usage
- Self-indulgent
- Not a self-contained narrative

The Bottom Line

Avatar: The Way of Water is a gorgeous film that tells a multi-themed story, but it’s the movie’s mind-blowing technical achievements which make it a must-see at the cinema.

 

9.2

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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