Over a decade in the making, Avatar: The Way of Water has finally arrived in theaters and delivers a scale of visual splendor and action the likes of which we have rarely, if ever, seen before.
Picking up over a decade from the previous Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have a family of four children, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), Neteyam (James Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) along with Spider (Jack Champion), who was a baby when the “Sky People” were initially forced off of Pandora and has been raised by the remaining human science team and Jake and Neytiri. Humanity returns to Pandora in force, with an ace up their sleeve in the form of “recombinants”, avatars with the memories of their genetic host downloaded into their minds. One of the recombinants is a resurrected Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who leads a squad to hunt down and kill Jake. With their tribal family in danger, the Sullys flee across the ocean to the Metkayina tribe, who live among the islands and reefs of Pandora. The Sullys are given shelter and begin to learn the new ways of the Metkayina but Quaritch and his human/avatar forces are still hunting them. Much like the first Avatar, the story of The Way of Water is pretty simplistic and nothing you haven’t really seen before. It is also not subtle, with very blatant forces of good and evil. Even with a three-hour-plus run time, there are also still threads that are introduced in this movie that are clearly being set up for future installments, but that leaves them left incomplete and unsatisfying in this movie. The run time is definitely felt at times, at least by me. Everything on-screen is stunningly gorgeous at all times but it definitely feels overly indulgent at times, especially in the middle section of the movie, where the blockbuster action takes a backseat to almost Planet Earthesque footage of the Sully kids exploring their new aquatic home and it led to some watch checking a bit. The Sully kids are also probably going to be a divisive part of the movie as well, as they are the main focus of the film, which puts Jake and Neytiri in the background. I was pretty disappointed with how little Jake and Neytiri had to do, especially in the middle section of the movie, and I got some bad vibes right away from the kids, who constantly call each other “bro” and have some kind of terrible banter. Eventually, as the movie went on, I did grow to tolerate and/or enjoy some of them but hopefully, we get a better balance between all the Sullys in Avatar 3 and beyond.
It cannot be expressed enough how absolutely stunning, jaw-dropping, or whatever other adjectives you want to use, for the visual of Avatar: The Way of Water. Every cent of the hundreds of millions that James Cameron spent on the movie is on-screen starting from the first frame to the last frame and the motion capture and CG technology he created for the first movie in 2009 has only gotten better and more impressive. Everything in this movie is essentially photo-realistic and you forget at times that you are watching 12-foot blue aliens because the amount of emotion and expression you get from the characters makes them all feel like real, living characters. The new aquatic world also has plenty of new creatures to highlight, like the whale-like Tulkan and new aquatic mounts to ride, and the underwater sequences are some of the best-looking visuals I’ve ever seen in a theater. There is also a ton of awesome, cool new human tech, including submarines that turn into giant mechanical crabs, exosuits, futuristic whale-hunting boats, and more. Cameron and his team seemingly have a never-ending fountain of ideas for both sides of Pandora, Na’vi, and humans, and I can’t wait to see even more of what he has in store in future movies. The visuals also help make the action sequences truly stunning and Cameron’s sense of place and eye for set pieces are on full display. As much as Jake and Neytiri are sidelined in the middle chunk of the movie, they take command of the screen in some opening and climactic action sequences and Cameron even goes back to his Titanic roots for the massive climax where a gigantic futuristic ship is sinking but the battle takes place on and inside of it as it does so. All of it is also done in what is some of the best 3D visuals I’ve ever seen, even topping the original Avatar, where everything pops and feels at times like you are not watching a movie but looking through a window into another world.
There are some nitpicks or issues with the story or characters of Avatar: The Way of Water but it’s not enough to not recommend seeking it out in the biggest theater possible with the best 3D available. It is a stunning visual extravaganza that deserves to be seen in theaters and it’s the kind of spectacle that shows what theaters are still capable of and you can’t replicate at home.