When Avatar came out in 2009, there was no question that it was a technical marvel. Director James Cameron agonized over the special effects to realize the alien planet to a painstaking degree. His panache for action scenes wowed everyone that saw the film.
Over time, audiences moved on from Avatar. The film was a basic story that everyone had seen before and lacked substance. There have been many kinds of films before Avatar that followed the same story beats and this led to the movie becoming forgettable.
Most people would agree that it left no cultural impact like other big tentpole movies. A lot of this has to do with the lack of tie-in media during the 13-year gap between Avatar and its sequel. Can Avatar’s sequel build upon the foundation of its predecessor? Is there more to the characters than being basic archetypes? Find out in the Avatar: The Way of Water review!
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Production Lightstorm Entertainment, TSG Entertainment II
Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Director: James Cameron
Release Date: December 16, 2022
Avatar: The Way of Water is a much better movie than the first one. That is not saying a lot since Avatar is a very pedestrian eco-movie with a brow-beating white guilt message, though this does also apply to The Way of Water too. Both movies have almost the same plot structure where a protagonist has to fit in, learn the ways of a tribe, and stop the antagonists from harvesting a resource.
What sets the sequel apart from the first movie is that the ending has a more satisfying conclusion and the characters are more complex now. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) from the first movie has grown up a bit. He is a family man with kids and has taken responsibility for the Navi tree tribe. He has more defined character flaws now like how he is hard on his second son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton).
The entire Sully family becomes a liability to their tribe when the Resources Development Administration (RDA) target them for the damages caused by the raids led by Jake. The plot begins because Jake is the aggressor and the RDA is left with their only option; to send in a wetwork crew of avatar recombinants to assassinate him.
The avatar recombinants don’t have human drivers- they are implanted with the memories and personalities of the soldiers who died fighting the Navi in the first movie.
This concept is a very fascinating premise because the commander of this unit is led by an avatar clone of Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang); the main villain from the first film.
Being reborn as a Navi is like a punishment to Quartich because he is forced to become his enemy- but he turns out to be incredibly capable and more dangerous than ever. His motivations are defined and he gets more development when interacting with his son.
Stephen Lang is clearly having a ton of fun playing Quartich. He is more than a generic evil military man that shouts like a drill sergeant in The Way of Water.
You may find yourself rooting for him to win because he’s passionate, motivated, and cares about his men. The general he answers to is a woman, so there is a layer of emasculation to him on top of losing his old body which makes him sympathetic.
Unfortunately, Avatar: The Way of Water is not the Colonel’s movie- it is mostly about Lo’ak and his growth. Lo’ak is the middle child in the family and struggles to live up to his father’s standards.
When the Sully family exile themselves, they end up living with a Navi sea tribe and the film focuses on the kids trying to fit in for what feels like an hour.
Avatar: The Way of Water becomes like a young adult fantasy story during this act. It comes off as believable and the kids deliver convincing performances to carry the scenes.
Lo’ak ends up befriending a whale-like creature known as a Tulkun and in Pandora, these creatures are highly intelligent sapient entities. The imagery in these sequences is vivid and beautifully shot- you can see $250,000,000 burning on the screen.
The Tulkuns become a crucial plot point and this is where Avatar: The Way of Water beats the audience in the face with its confusingly out-of-date anti-whaling message.
James Cameron must have written this screenplay in the 90s because whaling has been outlawed in every country except for Japan, Iceland, and Norway.
The eco-message about the ocean and marine life is also a very obvious position to have and Avatar: The Way of Water does not offer anything interesting to say about it.
Whaling bad, ocean good is something everyone in the world would agree with. If this was a movie written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the message would’ve been more complex and would make a point about how brutal and nasty nature can be (which it is).
James Cameron’s eco-message also is hypocritical when considering how much waste is produced from the piles of unsold Avatar merchandise that end up in a landfill.
The irony does not end there; these films are rotten with white guilt subtext. Avatar: The Way of Water and its predecessor are staunchly anti-colonialism, which is rich coming from a writer/director who was born and raised in Kapuskasing, Canada.
Despite the misgivings of Avatar: The Way of Water‘s intent, it is a highly entertaining experience. The visuals spellbinding and the world feels real and lived in. There are some utterly jaw-dropping vistas in this world and Cameron knows how to shoot it in a mesmerizing way.
The man understands visuals and how to depict action. The camera work during action scenes is always like a fluid steady cam and shot choices are always interesting. The lighting is impeccable; there are no murky scenes and there are always strong contrasts and depth in every shot.
Color is also very carefully considered. James Cameron is a talented illustrator, and for the visual style of the Avatar movies, he invokes the lurid and surreal designs of Roger Dean. The alien wildlife in The Way of Water is brilliantly colored and the flora is like a kaleidoscope of strange shapes and fluorescent hues.
There is a lot of attention to detail in the creature designs. Just by looking at them, you can determine how these things evolved and the purpose of various appendages, grooves, bone structures, or fins.
The same level of care was put into the costume designs and the cool-as-hell RDA industrial and military equipment. It all makes the experience feel immersive and engrossing.
Avatar: The Way of Water is like a greatest-hits of James Cameron’s past films. There are some sequences that homage to Titanic (1997), The Abyss (1989), and a couple of sly nods to Aliens (1986) too. It isn’t a deep film, but it does do the legwork to earn its emotional pay-offs and it has a lot of heart where it counts. The awesome action scenes are rewatchable and tense- there is no denying it.
The tree-hugging themes do feel like they are at odds with some of the plot points because Jake is the aggressor in this movie. At the very least, Avatar: The Way of Water is a pro-father movie; even the bad guy aspires to be a good father, which is rare to see in a major Hollywood film.
Avatar: The Way of Water was reviewed via video-on-demand purchase by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Avatar: The Way of Water is now available via streaming on Vudu Fandango.