Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022) Review – visually even more glorious than the first film but not much improvement narratively

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My first experience with the first AVATAR movie started with a free 15-minute sneak peek at the Rosedale IMAX on AVATAR DAY 13 years ago., four months before the movie actually opens on December 2009. It was the first time I saw a movie in 3D and I was in awe of the world of Pandora, ooh-aah-ing with wide-eyed wonder over the floating mountains. It was unlike anything I’d seen before up to that point, so I was looking forward to a similar experience like that again.

Being a perfectionist, James Cameron took his time to perfect the underwater filming technology that would make the underwater scenes look realistic. With a title like The Way of Water and Cameron’s self-proclaimed love of the water, I have high expectations for the visuals and on that front, the movie does not disappoint! If only we get to the water sooner though, it took a whole hour before we see the ocean promised in all the promos!

It’s not that I no longer appreciate the beauty of Pandora’s forest, it’s still lush and colorful during the day and even more spectacular at night as everything glows with neon-color vibrancy. Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldanã) have built a blissful life together in Pandora’s forest for 14 years, and they’re now parents of four children: Neteyam, Lo’ak, Tuk, and Kiri. The last one is a 14-year-old adopted child of their friend Dr. Grace Augustine so Sigourney Weaver also plays the character. 

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Kiri is one of the film’s biggest mysteries. I was left scratching my head as to when Grace actually conceived and who Kiri’s father is, but the film never answered those questions. That’s one of the film’s biggest mysteries, but I kind of just shrug it off as I was more impressed with the fact that the 73-year-old ably portrays an angsty teenager seamlessly. Sometimes I forget that it’s Weaver playing the character amongst other actual teens! The kids did a pretty good job here even against Avatar veterans Worthington and Saldanã who have fully embraced their characters. I just love Trinity Jo-Li Bliss as the cute-as-a-button Tuk and Bailey Bass as Tsireya.

In many ways, the Sullys are like an ordinary family–the first hour shows Jake and Neytiri playing and teaching their kids, and occasionally they get to have a date night but instead of going to the movies, they fly around on their mountain banshees (Ikran) and sleep together under the glowing Pandora moon. But of course, their happiness is cut short when the Sky People (Na’vi’s term for humans native to Earth) return. 

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There’s a line in the newer Star Wars film that ‘no one’s ever really gone,’ well the same could be said here as Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is back with a vengeance despite having been killed by Neytiri in the first movie. “You can kill us but we’ll just regroup in hell’ Quatrich quips, now ‘reborn’ as his enemy via his Na’vi avatar. Naturally, he’s got a score to settle with Jake, but he’s also got a new mission under General Ardmore (Edie Falco) to drive the ‘hostile’ Na’vis away from their planet for humans to occupy. By the year 2154, the earth is becoming increasingly uninhabitable, so their mission is to make Pandora their future new home. It’s nothing new that bad humans always resort to colonialism to solve their climate change problems.

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The environmental theme is carried over from the first movie, but in The Way of Water, there’s a timely theme of migration as the Sullys choose to migrate to Pandora’s reefs to save their people in the forest. I’m once again in awe of the oceanic beauty of Pandora as the Sullys fly over the water on their Ikrans. The Sullys are met with the Metkayinas upon arrival, an oceanic Na’vi clan located on Pandora’s reefs, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet). It’s clear right away who’s in charge in this family dynamic as Tonowari pretty much just defers to his powerful wife. The reef people have turquoise-colored skin, have only four digits on each hand and foot and can swim like a fish. But for the most part, they’re similar to the forest natives, even their Ikrans behave similarly and bond using the Na’vi’s neural tendril braids.

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The second arc of the movie pretty much centers on the Sullys becoming refugees and learning new ways and adapting to the new oceanic environment. One of the Sullys boys, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) even befriends a whale-like Tulkun that’s supposed to be an outcast, designed to be a MacGuffin involving another rare mineral. I suppose Cameron is allowed to get self-indulgent with the underwater scenes, given they’ve spent a lot of money (reportedly over $350 million) perfecting the underwater filming technology. I’ve always been a huge fan of underwater visuals and the ones in this movie put Aquaman to shame as Cameron goes beyond simply merely using CG technology. He even took the water jet propulsion technology used for Flyboarding and modified it to design the oceanic creatures seen in the film. Some of the scenes feel like those IMAX films playing at the museum, thin on plot but heavy on visual spectacle. 

The underwater action is impressive as well, there’s a chase between a large shark-like creature that parallels the one where Jake was chased by a six-legged panther in the first movie. It’s exhilarating to watch as Cameron showcases his underwater filmmaking prowess. The expressions and movements are so realistic and lifelike, it’s as if those creatures actually existed instead of being created with CGI. Unfortunately, the all-out battle in the third act lacks real suspense, largely because the threat is a familiar one led once again by the relentless Quaritch. I have to say some of the fight sequences are quite comical, thanks to the buffoonery of the greedy Tulkun hunters led by Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) and marine biologist Gavin (Jemaine Clement) on their quest for their anti-aging serum.

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Cameron sure loves the water and sinking vessels, well, there is an obvious nod to Titanic in the final scene here. I even whispered to my husband during the battle scenes that they might’ve recycled the sound design from that movie! Winslet seems to enjoy returning to water-heavy filming, even beating Tom Cruise’s record as she’s able to hold her breath underwater for over seven minutes long. Cameron is no stranger to having strong-willed, courageous women in his movies, and here we’ve got Winslet’s character Ronal and Weaver’s Kiri as formidable heroines along with Saldanã’s Neytiri.

Unfortunately, the sequel is also plagued with clunky dialog, cloying moments, and clichéd stock characters. Spider (Jack Champion), the Tarzan-like human kid who wants to be a Na’vi in particular, delivers a lot of the movie’s most cringe-worthy moments, which isn’t really the actor’s fault but more in the way his character is written. They also give away his identity too early in the movie, which I think is a disservice to his character arc.

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Though Cameron has said in interviews that this sequel’s emphasis is “…more on character, more on story, more on relationships, more on emotion” I still think it’s more style than substance, though perhaps less so than the first film as he’s already established the world building. That said, with visuals THIS immersive and glorious, it’s worth extra points to compensate for the less-than-stellar writing. Cameron is able to match the first movie in delivering something we’ve never seen before with the epic-scale underwater scenes, it’s worth putting up with those pesky 3D glasses once again. I’m up for seeing more of the Pandora world in future Avatar films, but I hope they’d be more inventive with the plot as they have been with the visuals.

4/5 stars


Have you seen AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER? Well, what did you think?

12 thoughts on “Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022) Review – visually even more glorious than the first film but not much improvement narratively

  1. I might see this later this month as I’m just trying to be tranquilo and celebrate the fact that Argentina won the World Cup and Messi has finally achieved that dream. One reason I might see this film is the hilarious rant Mark Kermode made on the film itself that he did with funny voices that made me laugh throughout.

    1. Yeah, so awesome to see Argentina winning World Cup and Messi can retire on such a high note!

      Oh I gotta see Mark Kermode’s review of this. I suppose not everyone is gonna be impressed w/ Cameron’s visuals but I had a fun time watching this, the underwater scenes are too darn pretty!

  2. Yeah, the visuals and 3D were great but sadly nothing really changed from the first movie. Although, I didn’t roll my eyes as much as the first one. Probably because I dosed off a few times during the movie. Lol!

    I’m bummed that Cameron decides to dedicated the rest of his movie making career to make these films. I understand that it’s his passion and Disney will give him all the money that he asks for. But he’s so talented and I wanted see some other type of movies from him before he retires.

    1. Yeah I think Avatar has become his passion project and I agree, it’d be cool for him to hand over the reign maybe on the 3rd or 4th film and find another more innovative project to tackle before he retires.

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