Review: “Avatar: The Way of Water” Is a Marvel to Behold and a Chore to Endure

The follow-up is all about family, and it’s worth the decade-plus wait to return to Pandora…despite its epic length
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It’s not exactly a hot take but Avatar: The Way of Water is too damn long. There’s your criticism, right up front. Put it on the poster. “Too damn long!” Despite there being five writers with a story credit, there’s simply not enough story to merit the film’s indulgent 190-minute runtime.

Now, having said that…James Cameron’s first Avatar sequel is yet another jaw-dropping visual spectacle that is on par with its Oscar-winning predecessor, which I thought was pretty damn good back in 2009. It doesn’t quite have the same overall sense of wonder, as a simple result of the fact that we’ve met the Na’vi before and already traveled to Pandora, but it makes up for that with deeper characterizations, given that it doesn’t need to spend time introducing characters and setting up the world. There’s something I missed about the human element from the original Avatar, but the sequel ups the ante on the action front, so I’m hard-pressed to choose which one I like more, which is why I went with “on par” above. Pardon my cop-out.

The Way of Water finds Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) taking their family to another part of Pandora, where they are considered outsiders by the reef people clan of Metkayina, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet). Jake is also being hunted across the planet by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his goons. You may be wondering, didn’t he die in the first film? Well yes, that’s technically true, but he was resurrected by the RDA (the human organization colonizing Pandora) as a Recombinant, which is an avatar that’s embedded with a human’s memories— hence Quaritch’s grudge.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Avatar: The Way of Water image via 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water

The motion-capture performances are about what you’d expect, though Jake and Neytiri kind of take a backseat to their offspring here, as it’s Pandora’s youth that has captured Cameron’s imagination this time around. You may even say that his sequel takes a page from the Fast and Furious playbook, in that it’s all about family this time around. And wisely so, as this effectively deepens our connection to the characters.

Relative newcomer Britain Dalton, in particular, is excellent as Jake and Neytiri’s youngest son, Lo’ak, though others will prefer Jack Champion as Spider, who was born in Hell’s Gate (Pandora’s human base) and adopted by Jake and Neytiri, who raised him as one of their own. Much has been made of Winslet’s casting as well as Sigourney Weaver’s return as a new character (Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter, Kiri). While both actors are fine, it’s Lang whose voice work really gives The Way of Water an edge. He deserves kudos for making Quaritch feel like a genuine menace, as you really believe it when he vows to kill Sully’s entire family — it doesn’t just feel like an empty threat or false bravado.

But are you sitting in a theater watching an Avatar movie for its acting?  This isn’t a performance-driven movie—it’s about the kind of emotionally-infused spectacle that drives people to movie theaters and what The Way of Water proves is that Cameron remains a technical wizard, and if not a genius then a man who has once again surrounded himself with genius—a fitting word to describe some of the work here, which also offers genuine pathos alongside its impressive visuals.

But there’s no denying that Cameron’s sequel is a true joy to view. Aided by the work of cinematographer Russell Carpenter, the flawless visual effects are basically unparalleled, if not in terms of their imagination than in purely technical terms, and you can see every dollar up on the screen, as you should when almost no expense was spared. Likewise, the sound is also impressive, as you’ll feel your seat rattle during some of the explosions. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a 3D screening, if only because 3-plus hours is a long time to wear those glasses, which can give me a headache, but having sacrificed for my readers, I must conclude that the 3D work here is stunning, particularly during scenes involving rainfall, which made me feel like I was caught in a storm right there in the theater.

The action scenes are relentless. Though they threaten to become a bit repetitive and even numbing at times, you also have to hand it to Cameron and his fight choreographers and stunt coordinators for filling the considerable running time with enough fights, battles, and explosions to satisfy even the most imaginative young boy.

Avatar: The Way of Water may not become the same cultural phenomenon that the first film became, if only because the film landscape has changed so drastically, but it is a deeper film than its predecessor. Its runtime poses a serious challenge, especially when you tack on an additional 25 minutes for trailers and such. The sequel would have benefitted from a more disciplined edit, but I suspect few are willing to stand up to “King of the World” Cameron, who surely believes he has earned this film’s epic length over the course of his career and how much money he has made for his financiers.

At this point, you’d have to be a fool to doubt him, though I’m still not certain we need more than three of these films. This doesn’t really feel like the kind of story that Cameron should feel pressured to stretch beyond a trilogy, but then again, I’m not privy to his master plan. All I know is that he is 2-for-2 by my rather high standards. The Way of Water is worth a trip to the local multiplex this holiday season—just make sure you use the bathroom beforehand. Grade: B+

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