Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) Review

Avatar: The Way of Water marks the fourth time Cameron directed a sequel. With the exception of 1982’s notoriously troubled Piranha II: The Spawning, he has done a great job with two sequels in Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) even to the point of surpassing the respective original films. Both aforementioned sequels are a testament that Cameron had a knack for expanding and taking the original films’ storylines into a fresh perspective while raising the stakes higher without turning them into a rehash.

Excluding his documentaries (2003’s Ghosts of the Abyss and 2005’s Aliens of the Deep), Avatar was the last time Cameron made a feature film. It took him over a decade to finally see him return to the world of Pandora in Avatar: The Way of Water. A 13-year wait, to be exact and between this gap, the movie landscape has changed a lot ever since. The emergence of superhero movies and franchise revivals took off, for better or worse, over the next few years. Avatar may have revolutionised the 3D cinema to the next level and sure, we have some good ones like Gravity (2013) and The Walk (2015). But the overall 3D cinema was more of a fad, thanks to a slew of inferior 3D movies ranging from The Final Destination (2009) to Clash of the Titans (2010) and the god-awful Transformers: The Last Knight (2017).

Frankly, I was initially sceptical about Cameron wanting to do another Avatar movie, let alone spread across multiple sequels. I would prefer him to take on a new challenge that involves an original or fresh IP-based feature film or direct Alita: Battle Angel sequel instead. But it wasn’t until I revisited the Avatar 3D re-release in a remastered 4K HDR version a few months ago. It was an immersive big-screen experience, reminding me that even a decades-old Avatar still holds up well both visually and cinematically speaking.

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in "Avatar: The Way of Water" (2022)

But first, the plot: The last time we saw Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) at the end of the first movie, his consciousness was permanently transferred into his avatar with the help of Tree of Souls, leaving his human body behind to live as a Na’vi. In Avatar: The Way of Water, which is now picked up decades later after the 2009 movie, we learn that Sully and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have their own family including Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and two adopted children: eldest teenage daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and human son Miles “Spider” Socorro (Jack Champion).

The sequel also introduced a new Na’vi clan called Metkayina led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his mate Ronal (Kate Winslet), who live on the islands of the Pandoran oceans. They have a family of their own including two children, Tsireya (Bailey Bass) and Aonung (Filip Geljo). They cross paths with the Sully family, where the latter seeks refuge after facing a recurring threat from the Resource Development Administration (RDA), their human enemy a.k.a. “sky people” who previously attempted to colonise Pandora in the first movie.

Well, the good news is, the 13-year wait for Avatar: The Way of Water is worth it but only to a certain extent (more on this later). Kudos go to Cameron and his special effects team for painstakingly creating photorealistic 3D visuals like no other, with Russell Carpenter’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) cinematography that makes everything look vibrant and stunning.

Watching this on IMAX 3D is truly a spectacular big-screen experience, particularly the underwater sequences. Cameron knows well how to immerse his audiences in the incredible sight of aquatic plants and sea animals including the giant whale-like creature called tulkun and the reptilian ilu as well as the large, combat-ready flying fish skimwing. I just love the fluidity of his camerawork that he wants us to bask in every moment of awe and wonder. It’s almost like I’m watching a nature documentary straight out of National Geographic.

A scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water" (2022)

The motion-capture animation of the characters from the facial expressions to the body movements is better than ever. Cameron also shows us he’s the master of his craft when comes to staging action sequences. As evidently seen during the final action-packed third hour, he goes all out with lots of gunfire, explosions, arrows and whatnot from aerial to water/underwater attack and at one point, a sinking ship that evokes Cameron’s own Titanic-like moments.

As much as I enjoy its visual spectacle, I can’t help but feel the story and even the character development are stretched too thin for a movie that runs a whopping 3 hours and 12 minutes. Despite enlisting Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver of Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy fame, Cameron — who also co-wrote the screenplay — surprisingly almost devoid of emotional stakes. It’s not like Cameron doesn’t try to expand his story in a new direction — the family theme. I can see he wants us to root for the Sully family, specifically his children. I was expecting a heartfelt coming-of-age type of story but the journey they are facing — from surviving in a hostile environment to adapting their newfound life in the oceanic world of Pandora with the Metkayina clan — barely delves deeper beyond its surface-level storytelling. The predominantly stilted dialogue doesn’t help too, making me feel as if Cameron trying to emulate George Lucas’ style of writing dialogue in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Perhaps it has to do with Cameron’s decision of introducing too many new characters at once and none of them made much of a lasting impression. Except for Kiri and Lo’ak’s respective character-driven moments in their subplots, where the former sees her dealing with both personal and spiritual dilemmas. The latter is reminiscent of a Free Willy-like story of an unexpected friendship between Lo’ak and a castaway tulkun.

Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis in "Avatar: The Way of Water" (2022)

The introduction of the Metkayina clan should have been a welcome addition to the ever-growing new tribes in the deeper world of Pandora. But despite some decent supporting turns from Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet as Tonowari and Ronal, their characters somehow lack sufficient screen time to justify their existence.

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, reprising their voice performances as Jake Sully and Neytiri are strangely relegated to the stereotypical father-and-mother roles. Sully and Neytiri have their moments but only a few and far between. Avatar: The Way of Water also focuses on the perspective of the “sky people”, especially the return of the supposedly dead Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). While the story includes a nice touch of how his character is revived, Stephen Lang’s otherwise memorable antagonist voice role gets hampered by a basic revenge plot.

All of these made me wonder about Cameron’s inability to juggle multiple characters and subplots into a coherent whole. In the past, Cameron’s films always work best if he focuses primarily on the confines of the central character(s). Look at how he builds a strong character arc for Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens or the unlikely relationship between Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Edward Furlong’s John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Even the otherwise less-popular The Abyss has excellent character moments in the form of an estranged relationship between Bud (Ed Harris) and Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).

Personally, I prefer the otherwise Dances with Wolves/FernGully/Pocahontas-like story in the first movie. At least it’s more narratively cohesive rather than the sequel’s sprawling storytelling approach that Cameron tried and largely squandered the potential.

Avatar: The Way of Water is far from a total disappointment. The flaws may have been as large as the tulkun but it’s hard to deny the sheer spectacle that makes it worth watching on IMAX 3D just for the visuals alone. Putting that aside, given the way the story is told in this sequel, I begin to wonder if Cameron is better off wrapping up the franchise with Avatar 3, which is currently set for December 2024 release date. Maybe a trilogy would do him and the franchise a favour rather than a planned multiple-film series right up to the recently announced sixth and seventh instalments, especially if an overstretched thin story seen in Avatar: The Way of Water continues to dominate for the rest of the sequels.