It’s been over a decade since the last “Avatar” movie came out, yet director James Cameron has said multiple times that he’s committed to making multiple sequels. This talk of later sequels before 2022’s “The Way of Water” premiered drew much ire online, with a lot of the criticisms noting how simple the original film’s story was, as well as the fact that it failed to draw a sprawling fandom. For many, it was a movie people liked, then forgot about.
But here’s the thing: Cameron is not to be underestimated. While talks of “Avatar” 2, 3, 4 and 5 might seem far-fetched, Cameron is responsible for making the highest grossing movie of all time — twice (“Titanic” once held that spot and arguably the first “Avatar” still holds that spot). He’s earned the right to put the cart before the horse. Not all of his films are high art, but he knows how to make a blockbuster perhaps better than anyone.
“The Way of Water” takes place over a decade after the first film. Protagonists Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have formed a family comprised of their biological children Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss); as well as Spider (Jack Champion), who is the biological son of the first film’s antagonist, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang); and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of the Avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine (also Weaver), who died in the first film.
Jake has been chief of the jungle-dwelling Omaticaya clan for years now. When humans again return to Pandora, he leads intense guerilla warfare against them, making full use of his military training in his former life as a human marine before he switched his consciousness for good into an Avatar body (grown bodies of the Na’vi indigenous people of Pandora that humans can inhabit that were established in the first film).
The film takes off when it’s revealed that Quaritch uploaded a copy of his consciousness into a sci-fi flash drive, which was then implanted into an Avatar body, essentially bringing him back from the dead. He leads an offensive against the Na’vi in an attempt to get revenge against Jake for killing him in the first movie, which gets complicated when he learns that he had been raising his son, Spider.
The specific effects look great, but don’t have the same “wow” factor the first film had except for select scenes when the Sullys depart the Omaticaya to seek refuge with the seafaring Metkayina people after Quaritch kidnaps Spider, potentially compromising their entire operation. A new chief is appointed to the Omaticaya, and Jake and company live their lives in exile for most of the movie.
The Metkayina’s home is full of wonderous sea creatures not so different form what can be found in Earth’s oceans, but it fits in as part of Pandora. The Sullys must adapt to their customs and ways of life, much like Jake had to do in the first film with the Omaticaya, and they all form deep bonds with some of the people there, like its chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his daughter, Tsireya (Bailey Bass).
Quaritch eventually comes bringing destruction by teaming up with a wailing operation that hunt the sentient wail-like creatures called Tulkuns that the Metkayina treat like family members. The Tulkuns are said to be smarter than both humans and Na’vi, but are hunted for an ambergris-like substance that comes from a part of their brains that stops humans from aging. Like the poorly-named unobtanium substance in the first film, it’s the reason for humans to exploit Pandora’s resources in this film.
The action scenes are well-done for the most part — with the film’s final, Titanic-like scenes showcasing exactly what Cameron is capable of as an action director — but the film could have done with a lot less of them, as most of them serve as incomprehensible noise. I think its story is much more compelling than the first film because of how personal Quaritch’s feud with the Sullys is — this is not as much a story about greedy humans destroying yet another frontier of nature as it is about the unfinished business between him and Jake, as well as the familial bonds that now tie their fates together.
I think a redemption arc is in Quaritch’s future — this version of him is essentially a clone of the guy we met in the last film, imprisoned by the actions of somebody else. There are also several moments where Quaritch is close to realizing that the invading humans have been in the wrong, as the Na’vi have always sought to protect their home, and that he has little reason to fight Jake especially given the fact that he is the adoptive father to his biological son. Revenge is his only motivation — and it’s not even his own.
The film’s weakest points come from how its human antagonists are written; their dialogue is almost Michael Bay-like in how juvenile and underdeveloped they are. It’s a shame, as Quaritch is a wonderful villain and foil to Jake, and I really liked how his journey mirrored Jake’s in the first film in many ways — I think once he plugs into a spirit tree and connects with Eywa (the planet’s sentient organism that connects everything) he will change sides. However, all other antagonists fall flat, with Brendan Cowell’s poacher character being perhaps the most unbearable.
While “The Way of Water” is more complex in many ways than the first film, it is more uneven in quality. Still, it’s a worthy chapter in this epic that Cameron is building, one that I’m intrigued to see the rest of. Cameron is one of the most accomplished directors of all time — I say let him cook; I think viewers will like what he’s preparing for us.
I anticipate that appreciation for this film will grow over time as his overall vision for this series is slowly revealed, though so far, it seems to be one of the most under-the-radar billion dollar movies we’ve seen in a while. It’s not dominating online discourse, which suggests that its stunning visuals and lack of competition at the box office might be the biggest factors in its success.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (2022) gets an 8/10