The acclaimed director delivers again in this 13-year follow-up that rules with a raised fist.
If there’s anyone in Hollywood who should be given the benefit of the doubt, it’s director James Cameron, who has made two of the three biggest films of all-time (Avatar and Titanic) and two of the best-ever sci-fi sequels (Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Giving moviegoers the ultimate theatrical experience, or as some people like to say, “bang for their buck,” it’s difficult to believe doubters exist. And now without question, all doubts or reservations about the titan director should come to a screeching halt after this weekend’s release of Avatar: The Way of Water, another masterstroke of sci-fi awe. Focusing on the aqua-filled side of Pandora, the jaw-dropping technical aspects combined with a story that swims past its predecessor’s make for the best theatrical experience of the year. Anyone who stated their doubts about James Cameron making a sequel to the “film about blue people” should apologize.
Taking place years after the original, The Way of Water follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) as they raise their four children in the forest. But when the humans (or “sky people”) return to Pandora, Jake and his family must leave their home and find sanctuary. Finding themselves amongst an ocean tribe of Na’vi, they must learn to adapt and survive everything beneath the surface while being hunted by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has returned in a new form.
Back in 2009, it was easy to identify Avatar’s story beats similar to those we’ve seen in films like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and Fern Gully. Thankfully, the story in The Way of Water has evolved, and family drives the narrative. Sure, the film retreads some areas from the original film in the first half. But it is necessary in order to move present day Pandora forward while also reminding the viewer of how Pandora captivated us all over a decade ago. And while this story might make you think Jake and Neytiri are not the best of parents throughout most of the film, in hindsight none of that matters, especially in the film’s final hour. Without spoiling anything, it puts most other spectacles to shame while also giving audiences an emotional stake in the story.
Whether it’s the main focus on screen or the background showing the new areas of Pandora, every frame of The Way of Water is a feast for the eyes. Everything from the landscapes and underwater terrains to the uniquely designed sea creatures, action sequences, and the high-tech military weapons and machinery looks pristine. The further world-building of Pandora in The Way of Water is second to none, with a universe mostly created by visual effects that looks more realistic and believable than everything we’ve seen from Marvel Studios over the past few years combined. Like Avatar, The Way of Water once again revolutionizes 3D, with this sequel being the first film with a wide release to show extensive sequences in a high frame rate. While it may take audiences a minute to adjust (and you’ll know when these moments occur), these moments immerse the audiences as if they’re in the film itself.
While most of the performances from actors in The Way of Water were done via extensive motion capture technology, the cast from top to bottom is excellent. But the performances that stand out the most are newcomers Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, and Sigourney Weaver (yes, you read that right, and there’s a good explanation in the film for that plot point) who star as the children of Jake and Neytiri. Other newcomers to the franchise who are great include veteran actor Cliff Curtis and James Cameron alum Kate Winslet as leaders of the Na’vi ocean tribe. But one surprisingly great performance here is Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch, which I won’t spoil here but, rest assured, it adds a new layer to his character.
Like with Avatar, James Cameron doesn’t need to trick audiences or have an elaborate twist to captivate them or keep the conversation going long after the credits roll. By delivering on the spectacle while evolving the story of the franchise, The Way of Water is better than its predecessor in every facet. Even though this movie clocks in at three hours and 10 minutes, not a frame is wasted, and the film flies. Cameron manages to have his cake and then some, and he certainly earned it by delivering the can’t-miss event of the holiday season (a must-see in IMAX 3D) and arguably the year. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long for the follow-up to The Way of Water, and I can’t wait to see how he tires to tops this film.