Review: James Cameron Takes Digital Cinema to New Heights in a Visually Impressive Avatar: The Way of Water

Aside from the small contingent of moviegoers who believe 2009’s Avatar is the greatest affront to movie making in the history of film, the film connected with most people in the world on a level that led to its becoming the greatest money-making movie of all time. And no, box office doesn’t equal quality on any level. However, one should examine the response viewers had to Avatar because it clearly led to them going back to the theater over and over again to watch it. Maybe it was something as simple as the vivid, mind-blowing visuals; perhaps it was the time taken to actually make a 3D movie that wasn’t dark and unwatchable. Or perhaps director James Cameron actually created characters, situations and action sequences that people simply loved. Any combination of these things is possible. 

I know I saw Avatar at least two or three times in theaters, simply because I felt like the screen was so filled with details that I needed to see it multiple times just to catch everything and fully appreciate the artistry involved. My going back had little to do with the quality of the story or character development; I was responding to it as an almost purely visual event, and since film is a visual medium, I have no issues with anyone falling for any movie only on that level. So there.

That being said, the current sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, is a better movie on multiple levels than its predecessor, if for no other reason than it clearly tries to up the emotional resonance (with mixed results), while also making sure the visuals are even more spectacular. It also makes progress by deepening and growing the world-building, letting us see other parts of the moon known as Pandora and the race known as the Na’vi, who are once again defending their home world against alien invaders (meaning humans). At the end of the first film, the Na’vi had defeated the people of Earth, who were looking to both steal the moon’s natural resources and wipe out the Na’vi so they could colonize Pandora, since humans had effectively killed their own planet. In the film’s final scenes, the Na’vi were putting humans back on their spacecrafts and shipping them off-world. Now, years later, at the beginning of The Way of Water, the humans are returning as less of a scientific mission and more of a military-style invasion, led by General Ardmore (Edie Falco).

Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), both giving motion-capture performances as avatars, now have children of their own, as well as an adopted daughter (of sorts), Kiri, who is somehow the offspring of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), largely due to Grace’s consciousness being absorbed into the roots of Pandora. It’s mildly strange and also cool seeing Weaver’s face and slightly altered voice in the body of what is essentially a teenage girl, but it’s only the beginning of Cameron not wanting to let go of dead characters from the first film. Even though he got a spear in the chest and is clearly dead in Avatar, Stephen Lang (and many of his henchmen soldiers) also is back as Quaritch, who apparently had a copy of his brain and personality made in case he died in battle. The data was then put into an avatar, so now we have even fewer human characters in this story, which is fine, since their shitty personalities are still alive and well.

Once we establish the new norm of Pandora, Cameron takes it all away from us and the Na’vi by having this new generation of invaders come in and destroy the particular forest and jungle they live in. But it turns out there are different tribes of Na’vi all over Pandora, so Jake and his tribe find refuge with a water-dwelling tribe elsewhere on the moon, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), who take in their brethren with some reservation and teach them…the way of water (holding your breath for long periods, swimming faster, and making connections to various water creatures). The change of location gives Cameron the opportunity to world build an entire undersea ecosystem, and knowing his lifelong fascination with deep-sea exploration, he clearly has a passion for this level and brand of creativity.

Since Quaritch has nothing better to do than get revenge for his body’s death, he makes it his personal mission to go after Jake and his tribe, no matter how many innocent Na’vi have to suffer in his search. And while the final hour or so of The Way of Water is this confrontation, that still leaves more than two hours for us to simply exist in this new water-centric territory, which I found fascinating and utterly beautiful. The color and textures are rich and vivid, and while I was concerned that having so much of the film take place underwater would make this a darker film, the images actually seem to pop, and not just because of the 3D. I love the small but noticeable design changes in the bodies of the new Na’vi characters, whose bodies have evolved to better exist in the water.

What I didn’t like were the kids, like all of the kids. In so many movies, having children in the story seems to serve no purpose that that the kids can disobey their parents, thus giving the parents something to do and setting the film in motion. Except I find nothing interesting about spending any amount of time with shitty, emo children who react on an emotional level as if they have no self-control. And despite years of rigorous and disciplined training by their warrior parents, Jake and Neytiri’s kids are the most disobedient ones I’ve ever seen, to the point where it doesn’t seem at all realistic. And the worst of the worst is the sole human kid, Spider (Jack Champion), who somehow ends up being cared for by Jake’s kids (and has interesting parentage of his own that motivates him in ways that would be considered full-on betrayal by most). He’s an obnoxious little wild child, who turns on Jake’s family when it suits him and still expects them to protect and take him in when the time comes. His character could have easily been cut from the film, and no one would have missed him or noticed.

Worthington is still a bit of a dud in this movie, but at least he’s surrounded by far more interesting performers, especially Saldaña, who continues to give one of the finest motion-capture performances in the history of the practice. She is how we learned about Na’vi behavior and movement in Avatar, and she continues to deepen our knowledge of their ways here. She’s also the one who exhibits her people’s collective trauma, after watching their home be attacked and now destroyed by outsiders. It’s a remarkable acting achievement that is one of the reasons I get invested in any way in these films.

Lang coming back as an avatar version of Quaritch is silly and doesn’t entirely work, especially because there are moments when it seems that occupying the body of his enemy is going to change his perspective on this fight the way it did Jake, and there are flashes where I thought that’s where things were going, but it never pans out. As a result, the character continues to feel two-dimensional and petty in a film where a more fully realized villain could be useful in the bettering of this series. A welcome addition to the cast is the Dr. Garvin character, played by Jemaine Clement, who actually views the destruction of Pandoran life as the travesty that it is. His team essentially hunts down the moon’s equivalent of whales for a chemical in their body that drastically stops or slows aging, but he’s having his doubts about the whole operation, especially when the military wants to use the hunting to draw out Jake and his people.

Those criticisms are not small things, and perhaps some of those elements will be adjusted in upcoming sequels (I believe three more are coming over the next few years—yikes!), but as it stands, the Avatar movies continue to be groundbreaking, world-class exercises in cinematic digital artistry, and The Way of Water is a much-needed improvement on the first film. For some, that might not be saying much, but for me, it’s a reason to stay invested and be curious what comes next.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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