Never bet against filmmaker James Cameron, or yes, it was well worth the wait for Avatar: The Way of Water.
Some like to rant about the visionary director and his reported massive ego, as well as his previous film Avatar. Others openly derided the long wait for its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, with claims that the sequel was unwanted or that it would not be on par with Cameron’s earlier works. But James Cameron demonstrated again with Avatar: The Way of Water why he is one of our best filmmakers.
Avatar: The Way of Water takes place about a decade and a half after the events of the first Avatar film. Former human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has fully integrated into his second life as a chief of a Na’vi tribe on the habitable moon Pandora. He lives a quiet life with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four children until the humans that he helped drive off the moon in the last film have returned.
Instead of coming to mine the moon for minerals, humans have arrived en masse to turn Pandora into a new home for humans fleeing a dying Earth. Among the returning humans is Quaritch (Stephan Lang), who was actually killed in the last film, but his DNA was used to clone a new hybrid Avatar body, which was also imprinted with his memories. This was done so he could blend in with the Na’vi people and move freely on Pandora. His mission is to hunt down Sully, who is leading a successful guerilla campaign against the human colonists.
Sully soon realizes that his family is imperiled so he steps down as chief of his tribe and leaves his forest home with his family. Their travels lead them to an island tribe of Na’vi along the seashore, who grant them shelter under the provision the Sullys adapt to their aquatic lifestyle. The film’s narrative shifts to the Sully children as they struggle to learn the culture of their new home, particularly Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who suffers from middle-child syndrome, and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the Sullys’ adopted daughter, who has a mystical connection with Eywa, Pandora’s life force that is connected to all of Pandora’s living creatures.
Meanwhile, as Jake and his family adapt to their new home, Quaritch becomes obsessed with hunting down his foe with the unwilling help of his prisoner Spider (Jack Champion), a teenage human who has adopted the Na’vi way of life.
As these stories go, the paths of Jake and Quaritch soon collide with an epic Cameron-style flourish. Certainly, James Cameron is in his watery element when it comes to framing the film’s spectacular confrontations in the final act. Combine the action scenes on the sea with awe-inspiring underwater cinematography, and it becomes clear that the director was born for aquatic filming!
To say that Avatar: The Way of Water is epic or breathtaking is a serious understatement. The film’s visuals simply overwhelm our visual senses as Pandora comes to crystalline life. At times it is so easy to get so involved and engrossed with what the big screen unfurls. It was like watching a National Geographic nature special, but with alien flora and fauna. The film’s visual effects were so revolutionary that I had to remind myself at times that these were imaginary animals and characters. Clearly, the effects set a new bar that will be impossible to overcome for a long time and help explain why it took so long for this film to be made. Seriously, just give the film the Oscar for best visual effects at this point without bothering to list other! On a final note, yes, Avatar: The Way of Water must be seen on a big screen, in 3D if possible, as a home viewing will lessen the visual experience.
As breathtaking as the return to Pandora was, the experience would have felt empty if not for the film’s story. There are some themes and story beats that are familiar like the adaptation to new cultures, or its pro-environmental messages. However, there are interesting twists and turns that keep the overall story fresh. Admittedly, some plot developments are predictable, yet the characters are much more engaging than in the previous film. For example, Quaritch has more depth than the two-dimensional villain he was in the first Avatar, being that he is in a unique situation that he is no longer human. Meanwhile, Jake Sully struggles between his roles as a warrior and a father to his children, while dealing with the human threat. But there are some characters that do get lost in the vast story and wind up in the background without leaving much of an impression.
The film also sets up intriguing arcs that will be resolved in future films such as with Kiri and her spiritual connection to Eywa. Then there are many questions about how the Na’vi will survive, let along be able to stop human colonization. The outcome may be dire for the Pandora natives given our own real-life history of when indigenous people first encountered invading forces with superior technology.
These questions alone made me enthusiastic for James Cameron’s upcoming sequels: Avatar: The Seed Bearer, Avatar: The Tulkin Rider, and Avatar: The Quest for Eywa. Some reports have it that the fifth film will take place on Earth, as the Na’vi will visit the planet. Hopefully, all planned films won’t take so long to be released. Remember that Avatar: The Way of Water was delayed many times, so with some luck, the sequels will be released during this decade as planned, and they will deliver the same jaw-dropping experience as Avatar: The Way of Water.