Review: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ (be like water, my friend)

“You know this isn’t over.”

With the help of scientists sympathetic to their plight, the empowered forces of the Na’vi defeated the Sky People and the mercenary forces of the RDA corporation, expelling them from the world of Pandora back to their dying Earth. In the years afterward, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) assumed leadership of the forest Na’vi with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and settled down to begin a family. After a time and as promised, the Sky People returned with a vengeance and in greater numbers. They still don’t understand Pandora, seeing it only as a resource ripe for the taking, but they’re wise enough to realize Jake Sully remains a threat to whatever they intend… and they have a plan.

When James Cameron unleashed Avatar in 2009, it was ahead of its time in terms of scope and filmmaking — not to mention (as of this review) the highest grossing film ever. In a tale as old as time, colonizers from a distant place arrive in their ships to claim a land already occupied by local natives — dismissing them as superstitious tree-huggers too ignorant to understand the monetary value of their world — but in this case, the invaders are blissfully unaware that a deeper biological connection is a part of all living things on Pandora. It took a colonial marine remotely piloting an avatar form to understand the ways of the Na’vi, enough to connect with the natives, earn their trust, and realize the evil being done to them. While the battle was won, the war was just beginning. With the Sky People seeking conquest with a side of payback and more desperate than ever, what hope do the Na’vi still have in saving their world and themselves?

Few can disagree that T2 was an incredible sequel to Cameron’s The Terminator or that Aliens stepped-up as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, but neither of those films could exist without building off the framework established in the original. Whether audiences enjoyed or even remember the story of the first Avatar, this direct sequel picks up in predictable ways and rapidly expands the world of Pandora, but it’s the filmmaking technology viewers will be moved by. Viewed on an IMAX screen with unique 3D tech, it’s an experience unavailable at home unless you live in a multiplex. James Cameron knows how to elevate simple story structure into an intense action spectacle, and The Way of Water is everything he promised back in 2014… and very worth the wait.

Spoilers are already out there for the taking, but suffice it to say Cameron found some clever ways to get the band back together, including roles for Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang; saying more spoils the story, so don’t look for that here. New roles include Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, and Jemaine Clement, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Concerns regarding the trailer showing “too much about the kids” and not enough about returning heroes needn’t worry; what they should be worrying about is who’ll survive to the end with so much attitude and destruction going on. The plot is far less complicated than the elements introduced in the original film, but the story and details infused into it are there for the taking.

When Sully first threw in with the Na’vi, he took a leap of faith; in having children with Neytiri, he made an investment. Keeping loved ones safe from harm vs. teaching them to fight is something any parent can relate to, as well as the consequences of both. How could any father set an example of resistance to invaders yet ask his offspring to ignore it? Cameron asks every named character — no matter their significance — to make similar decisions, questioning their beliefs and life choices, tempting them to act. Similar to when Cameron developed face-revealing SCUBA gear to film The Abyss, this is where the superior CGI comes in. While explosions and destruction look impressive, every character expression elevates the dialogue, especially for non-human characters, even underwater. It isn’t enough to listen; viewers can see the emotion whether it’s spoken or not.

There are some story nitpicks, like the newest McGuffin or the obvious ecological parallels Cameron is drawing into his work of fiction. It’d even be easy to rattle off a dozen action/adventure films that bear similarities to some sequences of The Way of Water, but that would be like saying any film with a dragon in it is a Tolkien ripoff. What’s important is that no one has ever seen these elements combined in this way, so vivid and realistic that a movie theater is the only effective way to experience it and the best use of 3D tech to date. The three-hour cut goes by in the blink of an eye, but this sequel doesn’t pretend this is the end; it will be up to audiences and box office receipts to determine if Avatar ends in a trilogy (already shot and ready to go) or goes the full five the director has planned.

Avatar: The Way of Water is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity, some strong language, and revenge being a dish best served soaking wet.

Four skull recommendation out of four


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