Principal Cast : Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, James Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Filip Gelko, Duane Evans Jr, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, Matt Gerald.
Synopsis: Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their home.
Following the blockbuster release of 2009’s Avatar, a film I had significant issues with outside of its obvious technical leap forward for both VFX and the use of 3D as a storytelling medium, James Cameron announced that he planned to produce and direct not just one sequel, but a half-dozen of them over the course of a decade. I scoffed, for despite Avatar’s all-time box-office haul I considered it pretty much a zeitgeist film, a film that polarised audiences in just the right way, at the just the right time, and delivered a rousing action spectacle that I figured would never be repeated. Hell, I even went so far as to question Avatar’s cultural and populist appeal against other tentpole franchise properties – the Star Wars universe, Marvel’s MCU, et al – and figured that a distinct lack of people clamouring for whatever the sequel might be would put pause to a studio financing it as a viable venture considering the likely cost. Yes, I was an Avatar naysayer, loud and proud, although my bias leaned more to Cameron continuing to create new and fresh film properties to explore, rather than retreading old ground.
Thankfully, Cameron and 20th Century Studios didn’t listen to me: James Cameron’s long-delayed Avatar: The Way of Water is an astounding sequel that bests the original in every possible way, most notably with a vast improvement in plot and characters, whilst again revelling in breath-taking digital environments that feel as real as any documentary or live experience could produce. The film is an astonishing piece of populist entertainment, a popcorn-ready action adventure that parlays the subtle thematics from the previous film into full-throated exultation and, minute-for-minute, is as exciting and awe-inspiring a cinematic experience as any other film of 2022, if not the decade. I do not say that lightly, because I was quite ready to pooh-pooh Cameron’s undertaking as simply filmmaking hubris writ large, and yet upon re-entering the world of Pandora found my arrogant assertion that Avatar was a one-and-done lightning strike to be completely ignorant of one, single, indisputable fact.
You never, ever, doubt James Cameron.
Returning the Pandora some years after the events of the first film, The Way of Water sees Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now fully embracing his new life as a Na’vi, with mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their growing brood of children, Neteyam (James Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and young refugee from the previous human occupation, Spider (Jack Champion), who also happens to be the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch, who has returned to Pandora in the body of a Na’vi avatar, is hell-bent on retribution against Jake, and pursues him across the jungle and out into the subtropical reef world, in which Jake and his family take refuge amidst the Metkayina Tribe, led by chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), as outsiders yet again. As Jake and Neytiri’s children clash with the waterborne tribe’s offspring, and Quaritch’s zealous stop-at-nothing assault against the native of Pandora threatens to reach a crescendo, it falls once again to the bond between Sully and Neytiri to save their family and protect their homeworld.
With a reported budget noted as being anywhere between $300m and $460m – making it easily one of the most expensive films ever produced – The Way of Water has a lot of… er, ground to make up to turn a profit. Part of that success would obviously come down to story and characters, two elements I thought were the weakest of the original film. Thankfully, James Cameron has worked to ensure his Pandoran reprise is far more graceful with its emotional beats, and a lot deeper in thematic resonance for the audience. Co-writing the script with duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (The Relic, Jurassic World, the recent Planet of The Apes trilogy and its upcoming 2024 reboot), Cameron tackles a wider theme of family in his sequel, shunting in a number of offspring for Jake Sully and Neytiri to corral as they try to keep each other safe from the approaching human hunters, which not only raises the stakes for all involved but elicits deeper feelings of embittered rage to the enemy combatants for using children as pawns in Quaritch’s revenge plot. The Sully family is immediately engaging and, almost without exception, completely believable. To the point that despite Sully giving his two sons a half-dozen pep talks and “stay here and don’t do anything” they refuse to listen and immediately don’t stay here and go off and do things, all of which propels the narrative along quite nicely. Whereas usually a sequel involving a young family reduces a plot to contrivances to keep the kids out of harms way, Cameron puts them well and truly in harms way, which jettisons security for the audience because you’re constantly on edge as to which of them, if any, may not make it to the end credits.
The script is also superior to the original film for its use of believable dialogue, something I found surprising since Cameron isn’t known for his flexibility with jingoism and expositional wordplay. Sure, there’s the occasional “hoo-rah” militaristic moment whenever Quaritch and his ballbusting team of avatar Na’vi assholes are on screen, but the cringe is very few and very far between in The Way of Water, something I pinpoint as being the co-writers’ influence. The movie’s pointed messages of family bonds, of isolation from home, of industrialisation at the expense of the natural world, feel more layered into the narrative and less up-front and confrontational; if nothing else, Cameron’s Avatar films serve as lessons for humanity to stop bulldozing our natural world lest we end up like the assholes here intent on plundering Pandora, only the dullards to whom the loudest words need to be spoken will never hear the director’s subtlety until it’s too late. The dynamic between Quaritch and his Tarzan-like progeny, played with insouciant skill by relative newcomer Jack Champion, is perhaps the weakest element to The Way of Water’s familial subtext, although given there are two further films to come before this arc plays out I suspect it’s largely setup for a wider payoff to come. Bless him, however, James Cameron doesn’t turn this movie into a “middle film” in an ongoing franchise, although he does set things up for his next instalment; The Way of Water has a resolution and stands alone as a singular film – you could even watch it without seeing the first film, although a lot of the delicate and indelicate notes landed in this movie prove far more accessible having experienced the first film at least. But Cameron doesn’t allow you to ever think “oh I’ll just wait for the next film to come out and that’ll finish the story”, because he’s too clever a filmmaker for that.
Where I found a lot of the Na’vi chatacters in the original Avatar to be a pastiche of generic tribespeople rooted in human history, and treated with a cliched sense of propriety, in The Way Of Water the native peoples of Pandora feel far more nuanced and developed than before. I love the idea that different tribes of Na’vi, different subspecies of their cultures, have evolved different physical characteristics endemic to their scenarios – the jungle Na’vi, for example, are a darker blue and have different musculature than the reef tribes, all of which are paler and have augmented themselves to a waterworld lifestyle – which is something other directors may not take into consideration. It’s the equivalent of different tribes of humans – from Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia, for example – all belonging to the same homo sapiens species, and yet exhibiting different skin pigments and skeletal structures and physical attributes, and it’s one of the more skillful creative choices Cameron and his team embark upon. The reef tribe Jake and his family ensconce themselves with have a completely different social structure and worldview than the Na’vi we saw in the first film, and this adjustment to life is a mirrored reflection of the similar adjustment Jake had to make when he first arrived in Pandora. It’s a crucial improvement on the first film, by my estimation. There are a number of nice callbacks to the first film, not just thematically but literally – at one point, the resurrected Quaritch gets to stare down the skeletal remains of his body from the first film, in what is quite a creepy Freudian moment of introspection.
In terms of performance, it’s hard to gauge just how much of the actors captured volume work has translated across to the digital environments at play here. The actors’ virtual avatars, the blue-hued Na’vi, certainly have a delicate touch and truthful physicality to them, and thanks to state of the art VFX by New Zealand-based Weta Digital, every pixel of love, rage, fear and resolve plays out perfectly across the faces of our central characters, be they human or otherwise. Worthington, whose Jake Sully was to my mind a blank slate character to whom things happened in the first film, has far more depth of field to his performance here, having to be a paternalistic warrior and husband, as well as fearful of what his involvement might bring upon the people around him who might be innocent. Worthington’s work as Jake Sully is remarkable, and easily a step up from that of the first movie; I’d wager better writing certainly helps. Zoe Saldana, as Neytiri, proves once again just how committed and believable an actress she is even in a digital environment, utterly mesmerising in a haunted and terrifyingly fearsome role that delivers more than several moments of badassery audiences will whoop for.
Newcomers to the Avatar franchise, Cliff Curtis and Titanic star Kate Winslet have great supporting roles as tribal leaders who take the Sully family in at their darkest ebb, whilst Stephen Lang once more chews the scenery as the now-augmented Quaritch with a teeth-clenching militaristic hard-ass trope that serves as the perfect foil for the gentler, earthbound Na’vi. A smattering of reprisals – Giovani Ribisi, Dileep Rao, Joel David Moore in particular – link The Way of Water to the previous film, while the younger supporting cast playing Jake and Neytiri’s offspring are all really, really good. Not in a cardboard “child actor” kind of good, but as legitimate powerhouse players in this sprawling family uber-drama. Sigourney Weaver’s character, young Kiri, is obviously going to have a pivotal role in further sequels and is set up almost as “the One” here, showcasing weird symbiotic powers with Pandora’s enigmatic deity Eywa, and the actress is surprisingly good at de-aging herself for a role that’s as enigmatic as it is foreboding. Again, with Kiri James Cameron not only sets up her arc for future films but places an end point to her arc here that’s just as satisfying.
Given the improvement in terms of story and characters for The Way Of Water, it would feel simplistic to describe the film’s visual effects as in keeping with what has come before: The Way Of Water is a masterpiece of VFX world-building and arguably the most detailed, beautiful, fully realised artificial environment ever captured by a filmmaker. As you sit there watching, you continually have to remind yourself that almost every exterior environment in the movie was created inside a computer, from the tiniest leaf and dollop of water to the largest of Pandora’s aquatic creatures, all of which feel just as believable (if not moreso) than all the fauna and flora noted in the original film. The Way of Water is absolutely stunning, a flawless fictional creation to rival any previous effort at artificial world creation and arguably the densest, most freeze-frame worthy example of artifice yet put to the big screen. The film’s technical prowess is near perfection, from the opening shot flying over Pandora to the final facial cutaway, to the superb and thunderous sound design (every whomp of machinery and rat-a-tat of artillery will sit deep in your soul), Russell Carpenter’s cinematography (replacing Mauro Fiori) and Simon Franglen’s repurposing of the late James Horner’s original musical themes are absolute aces. The Way of Water is nothing if not a showcase for the best creative work from people at the pinnacle of their art, and the below the line talent behind the camera on this film will deserve any award season success coming their way. Hell, even at bladder-testing three hours, the film’s pacing – thanks to a gaggle of editors led by Cameron himself – never feels slow or meandering, interspersing widescreen action and set-pieces with enough wonder and awe at its new environments the audience will be swept up in it. Not a single time did I look at my watch: this is a film that I found not wanting to leave, which is rare as hell these days.
Whereas I felt Avatar has some problematic story structure and iffy characterisation in spite of sublime visuals (and Avatar’s visuals are still a benchmark for VFX even to this day), The Way of Water is a sequel that succeeds in every single respect as only James Cameron – the master of sequels – can deliver. Rousing spectacle popcorn entertainment with solid writing, decent forward-looking plot and well developed lead and supporting characters (comparative to the previous film, at least, although your mileage may vary on Stephen Lang’s scene-chewing work), The Way of Water is one of 2022’s very best crowd-pleasing films and easily relitigates the argument that “nobody is interested in Avatar” with a thunderous, brilliantly executed win. See it.