In 2009, James Cameron set the gold standard for 3D films with his visually stunning epic Avatar. Thirteen years later he returns with Avatar: The Way of Water, another lush looking and action-packed tale that expands on the world built in the original film.
Taking the action out of the forest and into the wide-open seas of Pandora, Cameron’s latest film finds the lives of the Na’vi people disrupted once again by the colonizer they dubbed “The Sky People.” A decade after helping to send his fellow humans back to their home planet, ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has fully become one of the Na’vi. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have been living a peaceful life with their children – eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their rebellious son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and their youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) — and a few remaining humans including Spider (Jack Champion), a boy who was left behind on Pandora and has grown up with Sully’s children.
This happy family unit is challenged when humans return to the planet on another colonizing mission, this time under the leadership of General Ardmore (Edie Falco). Backed with even more artillery and technology, they build up a society, complete with railway systems, within the span of a year. While Sully and the Na’vi organize calculated assaults on the humans, weakening trade routes and stealing weapons that will help them in battle, they are not prepared for the re-emergence of an old foe in new body.
Prior to his death, Colonel Miles Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) memories were saved and embedded in an avatar body. Possessing the strength of the Na’vi, Quaritch and his special team of clone soldiers will stop at nothing to get revenge on Sully. Fearing for his loved ones, Sully convinces Neytiri that their family should flee and seek refuge with the Metkayina, a water tribe, rather than stay and fight. Of course, adapting to a new way of life comes with its challenges for the family. Furthermore, as Sully will learn the hard way, one cannot outrun their problems forever, sooner or later the past will catch up to you.
From a technical standpoint, Avatar: The Way of Water is a breathtaking work. The visuals manage to improve on a predecessor that was sensational in its own right. The underwater world that the Metkayina have become one with is absolutely stunning to behold. As the Na’vi children, whose arcs guide much of the film’s plot, navigate the various sections of the ocean, Cameron’s Pandora comes vividly to life.
The Way of Water especially pops in 3D as one feels immersed in every aspect of the film. Whether placing audiences in the middle of thrilling underwater chase scene or the illuminated insides of a massive whale, the level of detail in every frame is astounding.
While the visual splendor was never in question with the 2009’s Avatar, the film struggled when it came to its approach to the history of colonization. Cameron clearly wanted to get people thinking about the plight of indigenous communities and the impact on the environment, while simultaneously turning their tragedy into popcorn entertainment. The path Cameron paved may have been made with good intentions, but the original film lacked the connection with the communities whose story it was telling.
The Way of Water has the same problem as its predecessor, but the messaging is even more blunt this time around. On top of the commentary about colonizers constantly pillaging from the land for their own financial gain, there is the threads of children trying to find their own voice while standing in the overpowering shadow of their parents.
Cameron tries to soften some of the politics of colonization by focusing more on the importance of family and the character’s connections with nature, but the inclusion of Spider complicates things on several levels. An outsider like Sully once was, the character is clearly meant to be a well-meaning individual who wants nothing more to be Na’vi. However, circumstances and lineage cause him to bear witness to several atrocities, many of which clearly leaves a mark on him. Despite the horrors observed, he still makes several questionable decisions without having to pay any real consequence.
The character is one of the many reminders of how narrow the worldview of Cameron’s Pandora is. It is an idealistic world where the same individual who caused many of the problems for the Na’vi, can be viewed as the only one who can truly save them.
It is telling that some of the most impactful moments come from the connections that Lo’ak makes with an outcast whale rather than Sully’s bond with his family. While the plot rarely hits the emotional beats it strives for, there is still plenty to enjoy from a visual standpoint. Cameron packs the film with many thrilling set pieces that more than make up for the thin plot and characters.
An improvement on the original, Avatar: The Way of Water is a visually stunning film that entertains despite its flaws.