James Cameron is a cinematic master. That’s a statement that would elicit argument or debate from very few. He has two of the highest grossing films of all time with Avatar and Titanic, and two of the greatest sequels ever made with Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Needless to say that fans have been buzzing with excitement as the highly anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water inches closer and closer to release this holiday season. So, does it live up to the hype and anticipation of a thirteen year build up? That’s a loaded question worthy of discussion.
Not many story points or plot details have been revealed through trailers or promotional materials. So, I’ll follow suit and keep my review as vague and detail free as I can in order to preserve the mystery. A return to Pandora, the earth like habitable moon that the Na’vi call home, brings with it all of the beauty and splendor you’d expect; however, beyond that beauty, there isn’t much here. Like a gorgeously giftwrapped present that feels weightless and empty in your hands. It’s pretty to look at, but when you really dig inside, you find yourself wanting more.
There have been magnificent strides in the world of visual effects over the thirteen years since the original film dazzled audiences. Those advancements are on full display here, creating a world that is as immersive as it is spectacular. As the title would suggest, much of the story revolves around the open waters of Pandora, exploring the ocean depths and the unique creatures that inhabit them. This is when the film is at its most awe inspiring, truly showcasing the best of its visual effects and cinematography. It’s the characters within those gorgeously framed images that lack depth.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is back, yet this time around, he seems less equipped to lead the film, let alone the sprawling franchise planned for the years to come. Everything that previously made him interesting has been stripped away. In the original Avatar he was a wheelchair bound man given the chance to run once again. He was a twin dealing with the loss of his brother while being thrown into a world he knew nothing about, forced to adapt to survive and having his loyalties tested along the way. An outsider trying to find where he fits in. In The Way of Water he’s reduced to little more than a Na’Vi with an extra finger.
One significant change the sequel makes is with the addition of Jake and Neytiri’s children. The family dynamic adds another layer to the growing conflict between the warring species, even if we don’t see that dynamic properly explored. In fact, it’s the film’s new characters who end up taking the Banshee by the reigns and elevating the story. A young human boy who goes by Spider is especially interesting. Spider works so well because he takes on the role that Jake Sully played in the original. He doesn’t quite belong on either side of the conflict. A human boy raised among the Na’Vi.
It’s these small moments of character exploration that the film needed more of in order to make us truly understand its protagonists. Those moments are present, but with a runtime of over three hours, they’re too few and far between. While it’s not necessarily an action film, Avatar: The Way of Water thrives when it leans into its action elements, including its explosive and heart pounding climax. Yet another area of improvement over its predecessor.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a spectacle. A visually stunning feature that would have benefitted from a stronger narrative and better characters. While the story undoubtedly could have been trimmed to achieve a tighter, more concise flow, I was never bored or losing interested. James Cameron knows how to entertain, and he does so better than most. True Cameron fans will likely pick up on nods and homage to the filmmaker’s previous hits. At the end of the day The Way of Water is a welcomed return to a beloved film. Despite its flaws I have no doubt that it will be a smashing success and amass a diehard fanbase.