James Cameron | 3hr 12min
When James Cameron finished crafting his spectacular immersion into the world of Pandora in 2009, he decided along with so many sufferers of post-Avatar depression syndrome (a real thing back then) that he never wanted to leave. The thirteen years spent further developing the film technology to realise his dream subsequently delayed the sequel for much longer than anticipated, but for those who admire the charm, artistry, and imagination of Avatar, the wait is well worth it.
After a first hour which mostly feels like a rehash of what we have already seen in the jungles of Pandora, Avatar: The Way of Water dazzles us all over again with Cameron’s monumentally creative ambition, refocusing Jake Sully’s spiritual journey through the lens of a marine adventure, family drama, and survival story. Even for audiences who previously lamented the lack of compelling character dynamics, Cameron gives reason to keep watching – the relationships between parents and children are at the heart of this breathtaking follow-up, testing the strength of both generations with the pressures of their intimate yet precarious bonds.
Of course, this would not be an Avatar film if it didn’t expand these family connections into a broader statement on the unity of all life, painting out island-dwelling civilisations, sentient reefs, and underwater environments as interconnected, ecological marvels. Cameron holds back on these spectacular aquatic visuals in the film’s first act, instead spending time laying out its new characters alongside the stakes of humanity’s blazing return to Pandora. A few pacing issues here can be forgiven once Jake and his family leave their forest home, flying through violent tempests, over turquoise waters, and finally arriving at the Metkayina clan’s coastal village, stretched out across alien mangrove trees where they build their huts. Here, The Way of Water finallytakes the time to step beyond the urgency of its plot for a while, and instead languish in its mesmerising worldbuilding.
The first time we join Jake and his family diving beneath the waves, it feels like discovering Pandora all over again. Though some of Earth’s real sea animals may actually look like alien lifeforms, Cameron’s bioluminescent creatures take that to the next level with prehistoric anatomies and fairylike designs, drifting in graceful movements through Pandora’s vibrant marine plant life. No detail is wasted in his creation, with even the local sea Na’vi being visually set apart from their forest counterparts, possessing slightly greener skin, larger eyes, and fins along their forearms.
In one especially thrilling scene, a sharklike creature with a mouth that splits open in three directions poses a threat to Jake’s son, Lo’ak, when he disobediently ventures into the depths of the reef, but even this terror is shortly diminished by a significant encounter with perhaps the ocean’s most extraordinary wonder. The ‘tulkun’ he befriends has the appearance of great, lumpy whale with a few extra appendages, eyes, and blowholes, and inside its gaping mouth is a breathtaking, kaleidoscopic starscape that seems to look to the heavens.
It is Kiri though who we see undergo the greatest spiritual journey of all here, finding her desired connection to her deceased mother, Dr Grace Augustine, through the ocean’s neural network. Sigourney Weaver returns in this de-aged and motion-captured role as a beacon of awestruck wonder, bonding with the marine life and the aquatic ‘Spirit Tree’ in such a way that stands out from even the locals. Meanwhile, Jake’s children bear the brunt of their father’s celebrated legacy, uncertain of how they can live up to it while being simultaneously threatened by the danger it attracts. Among them lives Jake’s adopted human child, Spider, whose separation from the others early on in The Way of Water sets him on an entirely different trajectory, wrestling with the identity of his biological father – Colonel Miles Quatrich.
Stephen Lang’s once-flat villain is resurrected here into a far more fascinatingly complex figure than he was before, incorporating traces of John Wayne’s hypocritical prejudice from The Searchers in his vengeful search for his old nemesis. Colonel Quaritch’s adoption of Na’vi culture as a means to survive this world is deftly intercut with Jake’s own discovery of the Metkayina’s aquatic culture, drawing a formal comparison between these enemies. Extending this even further is the unexpectedly softer edge we find in this craggy military man, brought about by his renewed yet troubled relationship with his son. Even beneath the motion-capture, the subtle breaks in Lang’s face are clear, setting his performance up as one of the strongest in the film against Jack Champion’s disappointingly weak portrayal of Spider.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Colonel Quaritch redeemed entirely at some point in this series given where Cameron leaves him here, opening further opportunities to explore different angles of The Way of Water’s parent-child relationships. Perhaps it is these nuanced sensitivities which makes the threat he poses even more impactful, seeing him adopt pieces of Na’vi culture to fulfil the goal of ending Jake’s insurgency and subsequently colonising their world for human habitation. Cameron returns to ingrained, mythological archetypes here too, as where the first film pitted the earthbound natives against the ‘Sky People’, this sequel covers the remaining elements by introducing a water centric Na’vi clan, and defining humans in opposition with scorching, fiery destruction.
The epic action set piece that Cameron builds The Way of Water towards brings both into vicious conflict, evoking the apocalyptic final act of Titanic with another boat simultaneously burning and flooding on the open ocean. The scale matches the enormous final conflict of Avatar, though it is also more purposefully character-driven, dextrously balancing the parallel editing between Jake, his family, and their adversaries.
There are few working filmmakers who exert such precise control over these immense, cinematic visions, placing Cameron in the same prestigious air as classical directors like David Lean or D.W. Griffith, who instead of giving the moviegoing masses what they expected, enchanted with them with sights they had never seen before. In the case of The Way of Water, its sentimental heart is not lost in Cameron’s ingenious, visual invention, but rather melds with it to sweep us away on waves of awe, riding a transcendent wonder at the remarkable abnormality of life.
Avatar: The Way of Water is currently playing in theatres.