Avatar has always had an uphill battle in trying to prove itself. Coming twelve years after James Cameron’s Titanic, which became the highest-grossing film of all time, won 11 Oscars, and became a cultural milestone, Avatar had absurd expectations to meet right out the gate. Despite overtaking Titanic’s box office total (Avatar currently has made $721 million more than Titanic, or to put it another way, a difference that equals the entire domestic box office for Top Gun: Maverick), the conversation around its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, has been one of uncertainty. The last thirteen years have been less focused on what Cameron might do with this long-in-development sequel, and instead, full of questions like “who even wants these sequels anymore?” or “has Avatar even had a lasting legacy? or “can The Way of Water even make a profit?”


Yet the argument countering these questions has often been “never bet against James Cameron,” a director that has proven time and time again that he will defy expectations, surprise audiences, and end up, for lack of a better phrase, king of the world. I personally have leaned towards the more cynical side of the Avatar arguments in the last thirteen years. Avatar was beautiful to look at, yet vapid and obvious in its storytelling—a combination that didn’t necessarily boost interest in four sequels. And yet, The Way of Water is one of the most breathtaking moviegoing experiences of 2022, a master learning from the mistakes of the previous film, and making a spectacle unlike we ever see at the movies anymore. Simply put, we should’ve never bet against Cameron.

Since we last visited the planet of Pandora, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has grown more accustomed to the ways of the Na’vi, now that he’s become one of them. Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have had two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), a daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li), and have adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who was born under unusual circumstances. The Na’vi have lived in peace since the majority of humans left Pandora, leaving a few people behind at their base, including Spider (Jake Champion), a kid born at the base who prefers the land of the Na’vi.


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But when the humans return to Pandora, they come back ready to colonize and once again threaten the lives of the Na’vi. Even worse for Jake Sully and his family is the return of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has had his memories implanted in a Na’vi avatar and is ready to hunt down the Sully family. Jake leads his family away from their people and to a new land as they try to escape the wrath of Quaritch and the constant threats of the “sky people.”

As with the first Avatar, the look of The Way of Water is immediately stunning. The higher frame rate and the 3D technology make this a film unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Considering how frequently Cameron has pushed the limits of these technological advancements in the past, it’s no surprise how remarkable The Way of Water looks, and over the course of its three-hour runtime, the wonder of the visuals never ceases to amaze. Much of The Way of Water, naturally, takes place in the waters of Pandora, and it’s unbelievably gorgeous, teeming with aquatic life and creatures, and it’s almost hard to believe that this isn’t some real world that Cameron has found and is presenting to the world.

But this is a Cameron film, and we know no matter what, his films are going to be visually impressive. The first Avatar also looked magnificent, yet faltered with a clumsy story with stiff dialogue and hackneyed story beats. Yet in the thirteen years since Avatar, Cameron—who also co-wrote the screenplay with the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy’s writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver—has learned from the mistakes of the past, altering elements in the past that didn’t work, and reconfigured other questionable choices into something that really works.

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Image via Disney


For example, the first Avatar had a lack of emotional stakes, often content to just skate by on its gorgeous visuals. This was also partially due to awkward, one-note performances that made it easy for characters to take a backseat in lieu of the wonder of the world around them. But Cameron almost presents The Way of Water as a redo, a reintroduction of these characters that does its damnedest to make its audience invested in this family. From the very beginning, it’s clear that The Way of Water’s primary focus is on family and character dynamics, with an introduction that beautifully sets up what has happened on this planet since the last film, and the individual members of this family who have their own stories to tell. By the time Cameron gets to his incredible third act, it’s hard not to care about the journey of this family.

Also aiding in this character development are some incredible motion-capture performances—particularly Saldaña, who isn’t given as much screen time as in the first film, yet is an absolute force when the spotlight is put on her. Again, in the outstanding third act, Saldaña’s performance easily joins the ranks of the best mo-cap performances ever committed to screen, as every emotion this mother is feeling can be felt, despite the computer that is between performer and audience. Worthington has also grown more comfortable in this role, and he takes on the part of both action star and dedicated father with equal importance, and as a leader who has to reckon with how his past is altering this world he fell in love with.

The Sully family is a strong addition to this sequel, not only building these relationships and our empathy for this story, but also setting up the future of where this universe can go. Weaver is particularly excellent, playing a much younger character this time, but with a spirit that is reminiscent of her work in the first film. Yet this performance never manages to feel like an adult playing a teenager, and that’s a testament to Weaver’s work here. Also a standout is Dalton’s Lo’ak, who as the second son doesn’t quite know how to fit in with the expectations that his family has of him. Dalton has previously worked in mo-cap for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and there’s a naturalistic quality to his performance that comes from an actor who knows the limitations and benefits of this type of filming. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of The Way of Water is that the two other kids in the family don’t get quite as much attention as these two, but of course, there’s plenty of time to tell their stories over the next few sequels.

Sam Worthington in Avatar the Way of Water
Image via Disney


But there are also just more layers and depth to these characters, especially in comparison to the relatively thin characters of the first film. This is no longer a story of just good vs. evil, there is nuance and more than what we see on the surface. This is maybe best exemplified by Colonel Quaritch, who is still the same gung-ho marine out for blood that we knew in the first film, yet by taking on the appearance of a Na’vi, he now lives within this world and starts to see the beauty of it all—even if he uses it for his own gain and power. The Way of Water at least gives him some humanity, especially when paired with Spider, who the captain has kidnapped to help find the Sully family. Before, he was simply a monolith of evil, but now, we start to see that there’s more beneath that harsh surface.

This dedication to fixing what didn’t work the first time goes even further than just character. Considering how flat the human characters were in the first film, The Way of Water almost completely does away with them, rightfully focusing on the inhabitants of Pandora and their way of life. The Way of Water might even be better altogether if it avoided humans and villains and just allowed us to live in this world and explore the beauty inherent in its many lands. But anything that seemed silly in the first film has been removed or altered to improve this story going forward. For example, the desire for unobtanium has been replaced with a new mystery substance that, thankfully, avoids having a ridiculous name. And while the “I see you” moments of the first film were often laughable, here, they provide some of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the film. It really feels like Cameron and his writers took to heart the parts of the first film that people had an issue with and attempted to right the things that were holding people back.

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Image via 20th Century Studios


Yet The Way of Water also reminds us throughout that no director is quite like James Cameron, and that when he’s at his best, his films are tremendous experiences unlike any other. At times, this almost feels like Cameron giving the audience his greatest hits, with scenes of destruction that look like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, human machinery that is reminiscent of Aliens, and a climactic scene that probably wouldn’t be possible without Cameron’s work in Titanic. But speaking to this climax of The Way of Water, Cameron knows exactly how to structure a great action scene, not only in making the sequence exciting, emotionally powerful, and engrossing, but in just the basic mechanics of how the scene functions. Even though this part of the film features one massive action set piece with multiple characters, Cameron makes us aware of not only where each character is in relation to this scene and the stakes for all, but also how the shifting details of said scene will alter the situation for all characters involved. It’s an astounding accomplishment of structuring and planning that Cameron makes look effortless. It’s in moments like this where you realize that Cameron truly is one of the best action directors ever, and how frequently other action films falter in keeping these details in mind.

In three hours, Cameron turned this Avatar nonbeliever into a viewer who can’t wait for a new sequel every two years. Avatar: The Way of Water truly feels like a fresh start for this series, as Cameron and his team address the weaknesses of the first film, improving the script and characters, while also creating one of the most extraordinary experiences one can have at the theaters.

Rating: B+

Avatar: The Way of Water comes to theaters on December 16.

Where to Watch Avatar: The Way of Water — Showtimes

To find when and where you can watch Avatar: The War of Water near you, check the local showtime listing at the links below:

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