A film review by Craig J. Koban December 26, 2022


2022, PG-13, 192 mins.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully  /  Zoe Saldaņa as Neytiri  /  Sigourney Weaver as Kiri  /  Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch  /  Kate Winslet as Ronal  /  Cliff Curtis as Tonowari  /  Joel David Moore as Norm Spellman  /  CCH Pounder as Mo'at  /  Edie Falco as General Frances Ardmore  /  Brendan Cowell as Mick Scoresby  /  Jemaine Clement as Dr. Ian Garvin  /  Jamie Flatters as Neteyam  /  Britain Dalton as Lo'ak  /  Trinity Bliss as Tuktirey  /  Jack Champion as Javier 'Spider' Socorro  /  Bailey Bass as Tsireya  /  Filip Geljo as Aonung  /  Duane Evans Jr. as Rotxo  /  Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge  /  Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel

Directed by James Cameron  /  Written Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver , Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno





Over ten years ago I wrote an article about the most influential films of the past quarter of a century and I put the then relatively new AVATAR on it.  

I remember seeing James Cameron's decade-in-development sci-fi action epic in cinemas way, way back in 2009 and was firm in my belief that it represented the most seismic change in movie making since George Lucas' original STAR WARS.  Marrying state of the art and unheard of performance capture technology with simple storytelling, AVATAR showed that what was once thought impossible was now possible when Cameron pioneered  new camera systems, capture technology, and 3D shooting methods to make his extraterrestrial world of Pandora - and its native inhabitants - feel so tactile and real.  Like STAR WARS - and for better or worse - Cameron's watershed efforts radically and fundamentally altered the cinematic landscape.  Films in its wake were desperately trying to re-capture its lightning in a bottle aesthetic, leading to a crop of inferior copycats that tried - and inevitably failed - to make 3D the killer app for the movies. 

Cameron has been teasing audiences for years about the possibilities of finally returning to the world of Pandora, with many false starts and false promises of production dates and prospective release times.  But shooting on AVATAR 2 (and its sequels) occurred simultaneously in 2017 on a galactic budget approaching half a billion dollars.  Now, 13 years since the release of his trail-blazing and massively popular original, AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER has finally been released, which returns us to the adventures of human turned Na'vi warrior and now chieftain Jake Sully, who - after defeating the "sky people" of Earth in the last film - has settled down to family responsibilities, but is eventually challenged again by the unavoidable threat of more battle hardened humans coming back to Pandora to take the planet by any means necessary.  

The central question with this long gestating AVATAR sequel is a simple one: Was it worth the hype and wait?  

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is an extraordinary achievement of visual effects innovation and most certainly represents a quantum leap forward in terms of what Cameron miraculously accomplished a decade-plus ago.  On a level of visual world building, Cameron's work here is as richly inspiring as anything Lucas drummed up.  It's just too bad, though, that the overall storytelling here hasn't seen the same sort of transcending creativity.  AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is an work of strange contradictions: It undeniably evokes a perpetual state of awe and wonder in its sights, but its scripting is oddly thin for such a long film.  This new installment does many things better than the series introductory chapter, but it also commits some of the same sins as it on top of having its own issues.

Still, do people go to AVATAR movies for sophisticated narratives and compelling dialogue?  Perhaps not.  Again, like STAR WARS before it, these are films that transport us to their far away alien universes that are so credibly rendered and generous with meticulous detail that you feel like you're actively experiencing it alongside the characters.  That's what makes these films - as Roger Ebert once described - great out-of-body experiences.  And upon returning to Pandora - even after some initially sluggish expository opening sections that take some time to generate momentum - I was lost in this planet all over again.  Jake (Sam Worthington, lacking charisma, but not conviction) seems to be living a peaceful domesticated life with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, still the emotional heart and soul of these films) and have produced multiple interspecies kids (remember, Jake isn't full Na'vi, but rather had his essence transferred into his human cloned Na'vi avatar body).  The couple have two sons in Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo-ak (Britain Dalton) as well as daughter Tuk (Jo-Li Bliss).  The entire clan also serves as surrogate guardians for the teenage Kiri (voiced oddly by the much older Sigourney Weaver, making a series return, albeit as a different character), who's revealed to be the offspring of Dr. Grace's avatar, who died in the last film.  Ziri's father remains a mystery.   



As the story settles in we learn that it has been nearly twenty years since the events of AVATAR 1, which saw the Na'vi push out the warring and natural resource rapping human colonies for good...or so they thought.  The "sky people" have tragically returned, with General Frances (Eddie Falco) in charge of ensuring that Pandora becomes the new Earth.  She has an ace up her sleeve in terms of a secret weapon right hand man in - wait a minute!? - Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who, yup, died very clearly in the final battle of the first film.  So, how has this Na'vi despising villain returned?  Through some nifty - and some would say convenient - scripting, his memories and all brain information have been backed up before his death (that must be some flash drive!) and has now been uploaded to an avatar body, meaning that this is a triple threat Quaritch: he's got all of the Na'vi size and strength and has his human predecessor's military skills and also carries the same vendettas.  After an initial skirmish with the avatar fuelled Quaritch nearly led to his family's destruction, Jake decides to uproot and take them as far away from danger as possible.  He leads them all to the turquoise skinned aquatic dwellers known as the Metkayina, led by Tonowair (Cliff Curtis) and his wife, Ronal (Kate Winselt, the same one that worked on TITANIC with Cameron 25 years ago!).  Predictably, the Metkayina are reluctant hosts to their new forest dwelling Na'vi, and attempts by Jake and his family to settle in and learn their oceanic ways proves challenging.  But when Quaritch's armada shows up on their shores the two clans realize that they have to band together. 

Of course, the biggest change this go around is the shift in scenery on Pandora, and Cameron wisely understands that moving Jake and his family to a whole new and unseen environment is what ultimately gives his sequel a jolt of freshness it rightfully needs.  It's during these sections that Cameron really flexes his muscles as a filmmaker and shows how the years of advancements in performance capture technology have paid huge dividends (this is the first film in history to shoot performance capture under water) and the end results are extraordinary.  Cameron is no stranger to films set on water (see THE ABYSS or TITANIC or even some of his documentaries), but the work by the wizards at Weta FX has not only made these lumbering Na'vi and their facial expressions feel as close to photo-realistic as any CG creation I've seen (even dwarfing the astounding achievements of the first film), but they also achieve something truly miraculous when the story takes the Na'vi underwater and shows us the explosion of life forms that exists there (Cameron's understated usage of 3D also comes to the forefront here).  There's a lovely subplot that echoes THE BLACK STALLION - and Cameron's own nature conservationism - that has Lo'ak befriending a massive whale-like creature that's been misunderstood as a killer despite its docile nature.  It's not only a sweet and moving storyline, but a incredible piece of sustained movie fakery.  Consciously, I knew that none of what I was watching - from the Na'vi to the whale to the ocean that spans for miles - was real at all and instead was the product of VFX, but I never doubted the realism of the scenes.  When you start vicariously living in the movie and become less and less conscious of the artifice that goes into making it then that's a special accomplishment in itself. 

The expansion of Pandora's natural world is AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER's major saving grace, and it could be said that the middle sections of the film somewhat drag because Cameron is so infatuated with the new sights that he can now give us after ten-plus years of developing the technology to do so, but the joyous sensory overload of these sequences are ones to behold, for sure.  Beyond the spectacle, however, one of my big misgivings with AVATAR 1 was its villains, which I thought were a bit too blandly one dimensional.  AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER may make many viewers roll their eyes with the re-inclusion of Quaritch, but I found his arc this go around to be much more fully realized and compelling.  It's interesting to see this antagonist cheat death and now being given the power of an avatar Na'vi body to motor around in, which makes him an ever scarier presence this time.  This Na'vi clone also harbors all of his human's memories, including his hatred of the Sullys and Na'vi people as a whole, which means that he's itching for massive payback.  His quest is complicated when he learns of the existence of his human son, Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind on Pandora as a baby (we learn that babies would die in cryo sleep on the long journey back to Earth) and eventually became a feral young man and one of the Na'vi's few human allies.  It's a compelling angle to see this military blunt force instrument take the form of a species that he loathes in order to eradicate said species off the face of Pandora, but then has to process feelings that he has for the child he left behind.  To be fair, most of the humans in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER were a part of the military industrial complex that wanted to ravage Pandora for its resources (this time they've abandoned the hilariously named unobtanium and now want the brain stem juice of the same whale creature that Lo'ak befriends because it seems to stop human aging), but I'll give Cameron points for at least making the chief baddie here have more psychological depth. 

Where I won't give kudos to Cameron is in the lack of storytelling evolution on display in his sequel.  Considering that AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is a gargantuan 192 minutes and the product of nearly a half a dozen writers, most of what transpires in this follow-up entry - like its antecedent - is pretty conventionally plotted as a family drama.  Jake has offspring that rebelliously go against his wishes, get into trouble, require assistance and rescuing, and so forth.  We do get some nifty turns of the plot with the aforementioned arc of Lo'ak and his new marine friend and that of Kiri trying to discover her place in the world (granted, it's odd having a woman that's nearly a senior citizen trying to plausible sound like an adolescent).  When we get to the scenes with Metkayina it's at this point when Cameron retreads much of the last film.  AVATAR dealt with Jake acclimating to his Na'vi body and feeling the bullying shame of the pure blood Na'vi tribe around him and now in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER we have his forest dwelling offspring have to learn to become like the fin-appendaged water surviving clans of the Metkayina while also facing the scorn of their people.  Cameron's dialogue has not improved either over the course of 13 years, and I lost track how many times the Na'vi kids said "bro" throughout the film (one of the questions I had from the AVATAR 1 was whether or not humans in the 2100s would still use modern colloquialisms like "bro" or "dude"). 

The narrative - just like before - builds to a massive battle (this time at sea) between Jake, his new allies, and the evolved technology of Quaritch and the military might that supports his cause of Na'vi genocide.  Does Cameron absolutely deliver in this final act?  Unquestionably, seeing as conjuring up action setpieces has never been the director's weak suit, but for as rollicking and bombastically entertaining as it all is here (and, yes, it's a bravura combination VFX with live action elements) even I would say that it self-indulgently lumbers on for far too long (it even features a capsizing of one of the army's huge freighters that will have many feeling that this echoes sequences of drowning peril in TITANIC).  By the time AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER reached its end I was more exhausted that thrilled, and there's a strong case to be made that this film is too bloated at three-plus hours for its own good.  Not helping matters at all is Cameron's insistence on using HFR shooting methods.  I won't go on ad nauseam about films shot at 60-120fps, other than to say that Cameron keeps it mercifully in check to specific sequences, but I found most of them to be headache inducing and visually distracting.  And paradoxically enough, it made many of the moments on Pandora look artificial instead of photo-real, like an ultra sharp and strobe-free motion infused video game cut scene.   

It's easy to forget the actors buried severely deep under layers upon layers of digital makeup, but a few shined through, like Saladan's always welcoming presence as her prideful and kick-ass warrior that will go full beast mode to protect her kids and species as a whole (granted, there are large chunks of the film when she's delegated to the sidelines for what seems like forever).  I only wished that she was as well matched by Worthington's Jake, who's a serviceably rendered hero here, but is arguably the least interesting character in the whole movie.  Thankfully, he's flanked by the subtle performance nuances of Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslett emerging as their Na'vi couple that carries a deep distrust of the Sullys while also feeling the need to protect the Na'vi way of life.  Aside from the litany of new characters and places to explore, there's an unavoidable sense of storytelling repetition in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, with many of the plot beats from the first getting recycled wholesale here (that, and the themes that are so close to Cameron's heart - environmentalism and pitilessly savage colonialism - aren't really fleshed out more than what came before).  What Cameron and his crew have achieved here is monumentally ambitious and definitely represents yet another technological leap forward for what can be thrown on screen.  I loved being thrust back to the world of Pandora and I felt like I lived within it versus just passively watching it.  It's just too bad that we didn't get more enthralling things happening on Pandora from a story perspective.  

I will say this, though, in closing: AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER needs to be seen on the largest screen possible and is a rallying cry for people to leave their homes and journey back to the cinemas.  In an age when the moviegoing experience is being either laughed at or shunned for being an antiquated manner of consumption versus the convenience of streaming at home or - God forbid - watching movies on tablets and smart phones, convincing people to go back to theaters to watch epics like AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER might be Cameron's most titanic achievement yet.  When he makes a film it's not only a rarity, but evolves into event must-see status.  And getting butts in theater seats is almost an impossible king of the world move these days.

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