AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER review by Mark Walters – James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel is here

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER review by Mark Walters – James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel is here

When James Cameron’s AVATAR hit theaters in 2009, it became a box office phenomenon and major financial hit. In the years that followed, everyone wondered when we’d get a sequel, and Cameron has been “working on it” pretty much since then. Now here we are, 13 years later, and we’re about to get that follow-up, which is the first of multiple sequels… yes, multiple sequels. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER brings back Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang (who died in the first one), Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao, CCH Pounder, and Matt Gerald, plus Sigourney Weaver playing a different character as like Lang she also died in the first movie. Joining the cast are names like Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco and Jemaine Clement. So is this a bold and satisfying sequel, or just more of the same?

Set (I believe) 15 years after the events of the first AVATAR, Jake Sully (Worthington) is now raising a family with his love Neytiri (Saldana), and has fully integrated himself into the world of the Navi. If you don’t recall, at the end of the first movie, Jake nearly died but his mind was transferred into his Navi avatar, so now he can live as one of them instead of just temporarily occupying one of their bodies. But his military enemy from the first movie, Quaritch (Lang), has been brought back, as we learn he and his soldiers somehow preserved their consciousnesses and memories, which now, all these years later, have also been transferred into Navi bodies grown in laboratories. The new crews from a dying Earth are returning to Pandora as they believe it to be a potential new home. This new iteration of Quaritch catches up with his old body’s fate, and makes it his mission to track down Sully and Neytiri for revenge. Now Jake must take his family to another part of the planet in hopes of hiding, hoping that Quaritch will eventually give up. But his actions have now put multiple Navi cultures at risk, including the water territory he’s moved to, who already weren’t sure about taking his family in anyway.

The screening we saw of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER was in 3D and shown in high frame rate. The 3D was pretty spectacular, but I just can’t get comfortable with the high frame rate look, something that isn’t used often in theaters, and probably for good reason. For those unfamiliar with what high frame rate is, it’s aesthetically akin to the horrible “motion smoothing” filter used on modern HD televisions. It’s supposed to make things look more realistic and lifelike, but to me it just looks speeded up and cheap, taking away the cinematic quality of the production. THE HOBBIT used this as well, and I recall a lot of folks complaining about it. So while I would recommend the 3D, I absolutely do NOT recommend seeing it in high frame rate if possible. The film is visually spectacular, and the CGI has clearly advanced in the past decade, as there are truly shots in here that are eerily convincing, to the point of where I forgot multiple times what I was watching wasn’t actually real. In fact there are very little scenes in this new AVATAR featuring human characters, save for a young boy living among the Navi who we find out is actually Quaritch’s estranged son.

The performances of these characters are strong and remind us how good of an actor’s director James Cameron can be, especially with Zoe Saldana’s impressive readings. Oddly, there’s not as much of Sam Worthington here as one might expect, considering he’s the lead in the first film. Here, Worthington is used sparingly, with the family’s children taking more focus in the story. I realize this is probably done to set up the events in the sequels, but I really wanted to see more of the first film’s characters, and you don’t really get that until the final act. Some of the new characters, like those played by Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis, are interesting, but also seem underdeveloped compared to the “kids” here. There’s an inspired choice of using Sigourney Weaver to play a young Navi girl adopted by the Sully clan, but the end result is kind of awkward, hearing the voice of a clearly older woman coming out of a visually young girl. I found it more strange than effective, though I do love knowing Cameron is still pushing to have Weaver play lead characters. Edie Falco and Jemaine Clement play new human characters, but are sadly given little to do. And then there’s Stephen Lang, playing this new version of Quaritch, and clearly making the most of it… but the plot device used to enable this feels a bit silly and almost lazy, like something a high school kid would come up with.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is over three hours long, and it feels it. There are definitely parts of the film that could have been shortened or played tighter, and the experience suffers a bit for it. Again, it’s a visual feast, but this is yet another movie from modern Hollywood that reinforces why movie theaters should bring back intermissions. And it doesn’t help that after 13 years of waiting for a sequel, the end result is basically a thinly-veiled remake of the first movie, using a lot of similar beats and plot tropes. It’s still an amazing spectacle, and every penny of the film’s enormous budget is clearly on screen, so there’s no denying the technical achievement aspects. There’s also a lot of nods to some of Cameron’s other work, such as TITANIC and THE ABYSS, which I assume was intentional. I just wished the story felt more original, instead of a rehash of what we’ve already seen.

I enjoyed the first AVATAR, despite its familiar script and heavy run time, but AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER doesn’t make as strong of an impression, and sadly feels like just more of the same, only glossier and more polished. It also feels very obviously like the first part of a bigger story rather than its own cohesive narrative. It’s not a bad movie, just fairly predictable and a bit hollow. A visual feast to be sure, but one that overstays its welcome and leaves us feeling overstuffed.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER opens December 16, 2022

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.