Review: AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, Immersive Action, Overly Familiar Storytelling

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, Immersive Action, Overly Familiar Storytelling

It might sound slightly hyperbolic, but filmmaker James Cameron (Titanic, The Abyss, Aliens) contains multitudes.

More than just a writer, director, and producer, he’s the rare filmmaker who not only creates commercial art, but commercial art likely to engage, enthrall, and even enlighten future generations.

Despite his commercial and critical successes, including an Oscar win for Best Director in 1997 (Titanic), Cameron has never been a prolific filmmaker, often spending upwards of a decade between projects he carefully shepherds through every phase of production, from writing to post-production and everything in between, including the elaborate, obsessive, detail-oriented world-building that have become a hallmark of his career.

His latest obsession with Pandora, the alien moon at the center of the Avatar universe, started somewhere after Titanic and will likely see him through to the end of his filmmaking career (three more sequels are planned).

When we last left Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Avatar’s central character and audience surrogate, he had permanently left his broken human body behind, re-skinning himself in the form of a blue-hued, 9-foot-tall feline alien, the Na’vi, native to Pandora. In an act of rebellion against the corporate masters who created the Na’vi clone housing his newly awakened consciousness, Sully not only joined the Na’vi as a full-fledged member and resister, but became the Na'vi's de facto chieftain, leading them to a triumphant win against the human colonizers and environmental despoilers representing a profit-driven multi-world corporation, RDA. Those colonizers arrived on Pandora primarily to exploit its natural resources for off-world use, specifically a rare ore, unobtainium (insert decade-old joke here).

With the humans forced to retreat off-world, Sully settled into blissful domesticity, marrying Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and becoming a father of four, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), his eldest son; Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), his second oldest; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), his adopted daughter; and Tuktirey”Tuk” (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), the youngest. Each offspring has his our her own reductive personality, from Neteyam’s dutiful, responsible son, to Lo’ak’s rebel without a pause, to Kiri’s perpetual unease and discomfort about her place in the family, to Tuk’s “everything is an adventure” go-along attitude. There’s almost enough conflict there to power a primetime soap opera, but it also means Sully and Neytiri are often offscreen for long, sometimes seemingly interminable times.

The re-arrival of the human colonizers, this time with bigger ships, bigger extraction equipment, and even larger numbers, means the fight for Pandora fought in the first film was just a battle in what will be a long, five-film war. As the humans, now eager to colonize Pandora as a second home (Earth is dying for easily explicable reasons), encroach on Sully and his people’s forest home, another, more personal antagonist emerges from Sully’s past, just as eager to exact revenge on Sully, up to and including targeting Sully’s family.

That, in turn, forces Sully to choose between flight or fight. Smartly, Sully chooses metaphorical and literal flight, riding the family’s dedicated, domesticated, dragon-like animals, to seek sanctuary from the Metkayina clan, Na’vi who, presumably over centuries if not millennia, have evolved (e.g., longer, thicker tails, fin-like protuberances on their arms, green skin) to adapt to their ocean-side surroundings.

Where Avatar: The Way of Water goes next isn’t a surprise given Cameron's filmography or the sequel's marketing materials: As Sully and his family adjust to their new neighbors, overcoming suspicions, doubts, and mistrust in the process, Cameron and his thousands of visual effects collaborators go to work on transporting audiences to Pandora’s flora and fauna-rich underwater environments. And in that immersive respect, Avatar: The Way of Water predictably delivers a similar, if not identical, sense of awe and wonder its predecessor did more than a decade ago. From giant whale-hammerhead shark hybrids to the sea dragons the Metkayina ride below and above the water, to sea anemones and all manner of glowing, plant-like life, Avatar: The Way of Water never ceases to amaze.

It’s easy to forget, given his long layoff, but Cameron remains one of the best action filmmakers of his or any other generation. Avatar: The Way of Water only reconfirms that inarguable point: the obligatory action set pieces are cleanly choreographed and just as cleanly edited to connect audiences to the characters onscreen.

Characters repeatedly, almost comically, fall in and out of danger, often trying to save each other (because family) when, in fact, they should have remained where they were. Avatar: The Way of Water culminates in a 40-45-minute set piece above and below the water, unfolding, at least in part, as a greatest hits collection of Cameron’s filmography, and borderline exhausting as Cameron, long a fan of multiple/false climaxes, continues to put Sully and his family in greater and greater peril.

Like its predecessor, though, Avatar: The Way of Water suffers from surface-deep storytelling, banal, occasionally cringe-inducing dialogue, and the inescapable remnants of the “white savior” narrative that propelled Avatar’s central plot. Then too there’s the over-familiar fetishization and appropriation of indigenous people and culture, primarily Native American in the first film, expanded to Maori/Pacific Islanders in the immediate sequel.

With three more sequels promised (or threatened, depending on your perspective), chances are new, different people and cultures will move to the foreground for better or for worse. Until the next sequel arrives in 2024, Avatar: The Way of Water will continue to offer an often frustrating mix of visual marvels and thematic contradictions.

Avatar: The Way of Water opens in movie theaters throughout the known universe, in a choice of 2D and 3D presentations, on Friday, December 16, 2022.

Avatar: The Way of Water

  • James Cameron
  • James Cameron
  • Rick Jaffa
  • Amanda Silver
  • Zoe Saldana
  • Kate Winslet
  • Sam Worthington
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Avatar: The Way of WaterCliff CurtisEdie FalcoJames CameronKate WinsletSam WorthingtonZoe SaldanaRick JaffaAmanda SilverActionAdventureFantasy

More about Avatar: The Way of Water

More about Avatar

Around the Internet