REVIEWED: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

in Avatar, Movies

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 'Avatar: The Way of Water' (2022). Credit: Disney

Credit: Disney

In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar blew cinemagoing audiences away with cutting edge VFX and astonishing 3D transporting viewers to world of Pandora. Now, 13 years later, we return to the verdant world and the blue-skinned Na’vi with The Way of Water (2022). But can lightning strike twice?

A tulkun crests the water. Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

The story follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) years after the first film, now the heads of a large family and forced to flee when humanity returns to plunder their world once again. There’s eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), most like his father and holding the responsibility for keeping his rebellious, free-spirited brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) in check.

The youngest is Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), who embraces exploring the new lands with her siblings. And then there’s Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the orphaned child of Dr Grace Augustine in the first movie, and Spider (Jack Champion), who was too young when the humans fled the planet at the end of the first movie to be placed in cryo, so remained behind and adapted to the Na’vi customs while remaining 100% human.

As for the villains? That’s perhaps best left for the movie to reveal, but suffice to say Stephen Lang, who played the menacing, brutal Miles Quatrich in the first movie, returns with a twist. There’s also Edie Falco stepping in as General Ardmore, leading the humans’ new colonial initiative.

Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) explores the underwater world. Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

If that sounds like a lot of characters to keep track of, it is. But you have more than three hours to do so. And while people love to bang the ‘can you even remember the names of the characters from the first movie?’ drum, there’s something to be said for how emotive the performance capture is and the way these siblings’ distinctive personalities are enhanced by the brilliant digital effects.

The movie is stunning to look at. The first film primarily took place in Pandora’s exotic, bioluminescent jungles, and while an initial prologue remains there, things move to the glistening oceans soon enough. It’s there the Sully clan meet the Metkayina, a people who live on Pandora’s large reefs, and who are well-adapted to life living in symbiosis with the seas. Their skin is aquamarine, they have fin-like tails and their arms are thicker, better to swim with.

Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

They’re led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), and their children Tsireya (Bailey Bass) and Aonung (Filip Geljo) show them — yep you guessed it — the way of the water. And that journey is captured in some spectacular underwater photography.

Cameron’s love of oceanic exploration and the creatures and wonders of the deep is clearest when he gets to showcase this underwater fantasy. Watching the Na’vi dive and interact with the wildlife, including the tulkun, huge whale-like sea beasts that have a close partnership with the Metkayina, high intelligence — and a high value to the humans, who slaughter them for their valuable organic matter.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) faces off against the humans. Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

If the first movie represented the destruction of the Amazons through the ravaging of the Pandoran rainforests, this film uses the hunting of the tulkun to show how barbaric the practise of whale-hunting is. These creatures may be digitally conjured but if you can throw yourself into Cameron’s world, it isn’t difficult to feel emotion watching them be murdered. But it doesn’t quite hit the emotional peak of the destruction of Home Tree in the first movie; and that’s an issue it struggles with throughout.

Cameron’s a victim of his own success. The nature of the first movie taking you on that journey with Jake as he arrives on the planet can’t quite be hit here, and couldn’t be. Instead of first contact, you have further exploration, and how satisfying that is depends on how invested you are in the world that has been established.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. ©2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: Disney

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It’s expansive, meticulously detailed, and gloriously depicted, but enjoying being immersed in it takes up a large part of the runtime. The plot is essentially a chase, with a large chunk dedicated to exploring the new world of the Metkayina’s reef. The human-Na’vi conflict inevitably leads to some spectacular set pieces, with crunchy action and plenty of opportunities to see the inventive mechs and human tech face off against the creatures and weaponry of the natives.

A large part of the character journeys revolve around the theme of family, responsibility and heritage, and how much that determines your future. There’s an interesting wrinkle in how their blended human-Na’vi heritage makes the children outcasts among the Metkayina, but also how those biological factors impact within the family unit too.

Jack Champion as Spider in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: Disney

Spider, as the only human of the family, is regarded with suspicion and held at arm’s length by Neytiri. And he grapples with his own issues with his family tree when it comes to discovering who his father is. In a film packed with spectacular visuals, this is perhaps the most interesting of the story strands, especially when placed alongside some elements which feel a little like re-treads (or in some cases, literal reskins) of characters from the first.

The Na'vi take flight. Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

Much has been made of how Avatar is set to receive multiple sequels after this one, but Cameron has been clear that depends very much on how this is received. It certainly has the visual splendor, but this does feel like it could potentially be the start of your investment in this wider cast of characters, rather than an instant recipe for success. Much depends on how keen people are to be immersed in the world and drink in a richly depicted, if narratively weaker, story on Pandora.

4/5

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