Thirteen years have passed since James Cameron introduced the world to Pandora.
Hollywood is a different beast in 2022 than when Avatar stunned the world in 2009. The landscape is markedly different, and even the Cameron faithful have to raise an eyebrow at the realities. Cinematic universes are the standard, while “death of cinema” arguments rage online. The theatrical audience is scattered across streaming services, and the pandemic has entrenched that as the status quo. And that’s nothing to say of Avatar’s oft-debated cultural impact, or lack thereof. When Netflix and Marvel reign supreme in our minds, is there room for an alien sanctuary with fantastical beasts and giant, blue-skinned aliens?
If you’re James Cameron, you make room.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a re-introduction and expansion of the director’s illustrious planet. Former Marine turned fully-embodied Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have started a family: two sons, Neteyam and Lo’ak, a daughter Tuk, and an adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born of Dr. Augustine’s avatar. They also watch over Spider, the orphaned son of Avatar’s antagonist Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). As the leader of the Omaticaya people, Jake blends his military savvy and spiritual awareness to defend them from returning human invaders. The arrival of Quaritch’s avatar clone with a score to settle makes the attacks very personal, and Jake decides to take his family and leave the Omaticaya for refuge elsewhere.
The Way of Water’s first act mostly rehashes Avatar’s story beats while speed-walking through a new class of characters. While the first act primer feels necessary after such a long time, it also highlights the script as the film’s key weakness. Cameron’s meticulous attention to detail that informs his visuals evades his screenplay, which relies on heavy exposition and nondescript dialogue to establish identities for a new generation. The fascinating dynamics of the Sully clan are buried beneath dense vegetation and paper-thin military clichés. Being awed by the forests and mountains is old hat, but the film’s approach to character lacks wonder and engagement.
That all changes when the Sky People attack.
From there, The Way of Water clicks into its stakes with stunning clarity. Even if the conceit for the Sullys’ voluntary exile is convenient, the emotions behind it ring true. Rattled by his children’s targeting, Jake travels to Pandora’s oceans for sanctuary with the Metkayina reef people. The Sullys must learn the ways of the Metkayina: breathing underwater, bonding with the animals, and dealing with skepticism of their genetics. They also have to deal with the problems they didn’t leave behind in the forests. Lo’ak feels like a disappointment to his father, Kiri struggles to understand how she exists, and Jake can’t reconcile his fear of losing his family with alienating them.
The Way of Water comes to life once it reaches the ocean. The film was always going to be visually stunning, but it somehow exceeds “masterpiece.” He rewrites what immersion means for film, shattering the line between reality and fiction. Recently, Hollywood has been rightly criticized for its increasingly dodgy CGI due to overworked visual effects artists. The Way of Water is the extraordinary exception that shames every other blockbuster. Every frame is carefully and exquisitely detailed, erasing flatness or artifice. The 3D render encourages you to reach out and touch the coral reefs that the Na’vi swim around. Cameron knows precisely when to quietly subsume the audience in the underwater majesty, and when to crank up the tension to dizzying speeds. Both modes achieve the splendid effect of absorbing us so deeply into this world that it hurts to leave.
The Way of Water achieves a taut synergy between its visuals and plot through its new oceanic setting. Above and beneath the sea, the Sully family’s struggles come into sharp, warm focus. Lo’ak’s bond with Payakan, a whale-like creature exiled from its community, builds upon his own feelings of being an outcast within his family. Kiri discovers a natural, spiritual affinity for water living, but the unorthodoxy of her birth leaves her feeling isolated. Jake, the ultimate outsider, has seen his bold decisiveness tempered by fatherhood, with him going out of his way to avoid harmful conflict. (Neytiri, bizarrely, is sidelined.) Their stories form the film’s emotional core of self-discovery and acknowledgment, and Cameron’s beautiful compositions convey the intricacies in a way his words cannot. (In a career defined by evocative frames, the shot of Lo’ak and Payakan swimming together might be his best.)
Another improvement on the original, The Way of Water expands on humanity’s destructive tendencies and their impact. The film deepens the bench of reasons for the callous disregard for nature and how passive acceptance bears responsibility alongside active destruction. There isn’t enough space to dig into each motivation, but the context helps fuel the action-packed third act. The film explodes into a no-holds-barred war at sea, making Avatar’s climactic sky and ground battles look like child’s play. Cameron throws everything he has into these masterful sequences, even referencing past films like Terminator 2 and Titanic. More than just a wildly entertaining adrenaline rush, the final act reaches a emotionally resonant resolution that reinforces the film’s guiding ethos.
Hollywood may be a different environment than it was 13 years ago, but that doesn’t matter to James Cameron. He cares about sitting at the top of blockbuster filmmaking. With The Way of Water, he reaches an unfathomable new peak. It is the most overwhelmingly beautiful cinematic experience of the year, perhaps of the decade. The film’s shortcomings are easy to forgive or forget when swimming in the oceans and communing with whales. Cameron’s extraordinary vision and unwavering commitment set him apart from the industry, leaping where everyone else skips. The Way of Water is a victory for Cameron, even if it fails to become another record-breaking success.
I wouldn’t bet against him, though. If anyone could do it, he could.