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Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

December 15, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

It’s been thirteen years since director James Cameron first took us to Pandora in his 2009 sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, a film that some have erroneously claimed had no cultural impact, but won a trio of Oscars, lit the box office on fire, and ushered in a new 3D craze.

Now we have Cameron’s long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, a film that took over a decade to arrive due to the filmmaker waiting for technology to catch up with his grandiose underwater vision. There is a lot riding on The Way of Water, both in terms of audience expectations, and due to the reported $350 million price tag that makes it one of the most expensive movies ever made.

But this sequel manages to deliver another transporting cinematic experience that takes us back to Pandora, this time exploring more of the alien planet, including introducing us to a tribe of sea people who share a special bond with the planet’s whales. The result is a long movie at over three hours (a whopping 192 minutes, to be precise), but I was invested throughout, with the running time and spectacular visuals helping to fully immerse us in this world. The underwater stuff in particular is visually stunning.

The film is set some years after the first one, with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) having settled on Pandora with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their two sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and young daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). The Sully kids become the main focus here, including surrogate siblings Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a curious teen girl, and Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy born on the base camp who hangs around with them and has adopted the Na’vi culture.

While continuing on from the first film, the plot is very much centred on this younger generation, with Saldana’s character in particular having a more diminished role this time around. The villain is once again Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has returned in an Avatar body seeking revenge on Jake Sully, and to finish his mission of colonizing Pandora and exploiting its resources. The plot itself is still pretty thin, and the characters aren’t always that well developed. The overarching themes can feel a bit heavy-handed, and it’s backed up by some cheesy dialogue, all things that slightly marred the first one as well.

But Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual experience first and foremost, and it fully delivers as such, at times spectacularly so. As he did with motion-capture technology in the first one, Cameron once again utilizes cutting edge technology to bring his vision to the screen, including messing around with Higher Frame Rates and once again revitalizing the 3D format (I saw it in IMAX 3D, which really is the way to go if you can). The over three hour running time might seem daunting at first, but partway through we realize it’s purpose; by allowing us to simply spend several hours on this planet, Cameron’s goal is full immersion.

Are there ways that Cameron could have tightened the film or told this story in a shorter amount of time? Sure. But this would take away from the film’s feel of just letting us live on Pandora for a few hours. A good portion of the movie’s midsection focuses on the Sully family learning the customs of the Metkayina, the tribe of reef people led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), and it’s surprisingly engaging stuff. This also means that, by the time the action does fully kick in in the unrelenting final third, we are invested, and the emotional stakes haves been raised considerably.

Cameron is already widely credited with creating two of the best sequels of all time with Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Avatar: The Way of Water finds the filmmaker simply flexing his muscles. Cameron revisits themes from the first Avatar, as well as staging set-pieces that recall his earlier films Titanic and The Abyss, only setting the action against the backdrop of Pandora. But, instead of feeling like a retread, this is Cameron reminding us what he is capable of in terms of crafting massive scale escapist entertainment.

It offers a straight-forward but effective revenge story, one that weaves in themes about ancestry, fathers and sons, and trying to live up to parental expectations, while also planting the seeds of what will likely be further explored in the already planned future instalments. This is experiential cinema, a film that is made to be watched and experienced on the biggest screen possible, taking us to another world for a few hours that we are supposed to get lost in. And, for that, James Cameron has once again delivered.

Avatar: The Way of Water is opening exclusively in theatres on December 16th.

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