THE WAY OF WATER offers technical spectacle but only talking point substance in James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel.

** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language)
Released: December 16, 2022
Runtime: 192 minutes
Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement, Joel David Moore

For all the state-of-the-art digital spectacle on display, if you never see Avatar: The Way of Water you’re not really missing anything. 

More a theme park experience than a movie, this de facto epic-length visual effect offers a lot to gawk at but little to connect with. Sure, director James Cameron stacks multiple threads about family, adoption, and fathers and sons in an attempt to give it some heart, but it’s all rote pablum that we’ve seen before, as if copied and pasted from the Family Relationship Dynamics section of a Screenwriting 101 handbook. The same goes for the familiar-if-well-meaning tropes about environmental activism.

But who cares about that? An Avatar movie is ultimately all about the ride, not the story, right? Well, in this case, it’s certainly all you’re left with. And yes, The Way of Water is as extravagant as modern blockbusters get, but for that very reason it’s also completely mystifying as to why and how (like the original) The Way of Water is so bland, so flat, and so entirely uncompelling. 

Or maybe it’s not so surprising given how one trailer prior to my screening provided the perfect contrast. It was a behind-the-scenes preview of Tom Cruise performing a truly daredevil stunt for the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part I. In less than ten minutes, that on-location sneak peak was way more thrilling and breathtaking than anything that can be experienced in Cameron’s Pandora. There are several reasons for that, mind you, but one is absolutely fundamental: the insane, insurance-busting derring-do performed by Tom Cruise is actually real, whereas nothing in Avatar is.

Granted, credibility isn’t achieved through reality alone. Certainly many animated films have given us some of our most memorable, meaningful cinematic experiences; we’ve felt the dramatic and emotional stakes and felt them deeply (and Avatar: The Way of Water is, technically speaking, almost entirely animated). But Cameron’s intention is for audiences to perceive this experience as photo real, to engage it on that visceral level. 

Unfortunately, that’s too high a bar for this artifice to clear. The fault isn’t with the groundbreaking advancements in digital precision but, rather, in the simplistic, pedestrian “this time it’s personal” action-movie screenplay. You can’t help but be impressed by The Way of Water, but being entertained is another issue.

Set across three-plus hours that are told in three distinct parts, Avatar: The Way of Water kicks off with…more of the same: white military colonizers are invading Pandora again, not for its unique energy resource Unobtanium (which is completely ignored this time around) but to conquer it, and turn Pandora into a new home for the human race (cuz, spoiler alert, they’ve ruined Earth!). In short, hour one is a rehash of Avatar.

A leader in that invasion effort is the old villain, Colonel Quatrich (Stephen Lang), who’s been resurrected into a Na’vi avatar of his own. But quickly, he twists his mission into a personal vendetta against Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the ex-military agent turned Na’vi leader who now has a family of his own with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The Sullys become Quatrich’s target, causing them to flee from the jungle and go into hiding with the oceanic Na’vi clan known as the Metkayina. The Sullys assimilation into that clan and the “way of water” that the they live by make up the film’s second act (which parallels with Quatrich’s hunt). The third hour, unsurprisingly, is an inevitable, climatic — and, er, titanic — battle.

That second hour is where The Way of Water has the greatest chance to distinguish itself and, technically, it does. We’re transported into luminous underwater sequences and introduced to new Pandora creatures, all of which Cameron uses to craft immersive sequences. But with such a thin script and stock characters, it all just becomes uninvolving eye candy, a high frame rate 3D screensaver. The Way of Water is just a hodgepodge of “stuff,” including the mishmash of spirituality that now includes its own versions of Rosary Beads and the Immaculate Conception.

Along with everything else, Cameron’s script and direction reduce the characters to their simplest forms (in spite of some passionate, heartfelt performances). Even Saldaña’s Neytiri falls prey to this, restricted primarily to emotional extremes of wailing anger or wailing grief (with Jake mansplaining the need to be calm, no less).

There is one intriguing exception to all of this, and it comes in the movie’s sole inspired character: Kiri, Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter. Performed by Sigourney Weaver, Kiri is the biological child of Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine from the first Avatar. It’s a part that could’ve been little more than clever stunt casting, yet Kiri has dimensions and an arc that others lack. She seems to be the character that Cameron is most intrigued by, even as his broader ambitions draw him away from her and back to the broader spectacle.

Regardless, Weaver still elevates Kiri above everything else. It feels as if there’s more to explore with her, a virtue that little else in the Avatar universe (and all of its extensive world-building) seems to share.

Avatar: The Way of Water is not a disaster nor an embarrassment (it’s too disciplined for that) and so to watch it once or even again wouldn’t be a trial or an endurance test. It’d just be pointless, which is exactly what this sequel feels like.

6 thoughts on “AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (Movie Review)

  1. I technically wasn’t judging the sentence, since I can’t comment on whether the film warrants the comparison. However, if it pricked your conscience, I can respect that. So…you’re welcome?

    1. Thank you! And yes, felt no judgment in your response, but it did prick my conscience, which I’m grateful for.

  2. Good review. I actually really liked it. I wasn’t expecting a very original or complexed story (especially since how the first film played out), but the narrative is quite expansive. The length of the film is quite superfluous and could’ve been easily cut down 30 or so minutes for a tighter presentation. Still, the visual effects were amazing once again and the performances were good, if a bit broad. Still, a good quality of blockbuster entertainment.

    1. I’m always happy to see when people had a better experience with a movie than I did. And on the whole, reactions to this one seem to be more positive than the first, although I suspect that most people’s feelings for this sequel will be similar to what they felt about the first one.

Leave a Reply