It’s no secret that I’m an Avatar fan. I’ve been waiting for Avatar: The Way of Water for 13 years– almost half my life. I speak the Na’vi language fluently, I own a fair amount of Avatar merchandise that has been all but lost to time, and I run one of the largest fan communities for Avatar on the internet. I’m “that” Avatar fan. With that said, I purposefully set my expectations lower for Avatar: The Way of Water than I usually would for a film, and I believe that to have been a wise choice for several reasons. Overall, the film is without a doubt better than its predecessor, while still leaving room for improvement in future installments.
Avatar: The Way of Water is nothing short of absolute spectacle. When the lights dimmed and the footage began to roll, within seconds I could confidently say that I have never seen anything like this film. The visual effects have taken a decade’s leap forward, and even by the modern standards of the craft they are a cut above the rest of the competition with ease. The high frame rate was also present in my Dolby showing, and while it was admittedly jarring at first, like a fair amount of the film it became natural once my eyes adjusted to it.
The plot of Avatar: The Way of Water feels very familiar, especially in the first act (possibly two). An exposition heavy intro with an exposition heavy action sequence serves to recap the first film, the time between the first film and the second, and set up the conflict of the second film. Even for Cameron, there is an overwhelming amount of information that has to be unloaded on the audience in a relatively short amount of time– one of the drawbacks to a thirteen year gap between films. The second act follows a similar pattern to the first film as well, introducing us to a new culture to learn while slowly advancing the plot further with the occasional breadcrumb.
When act three starts, however, the chess board that Cameron has spent the entire film setting up gets flipped immediately, to heartbreaking effect. Rather than saving the emotional gut punch for the end of the movie, Avatar: The Way of Water delivers it early in the third act– and then spends the remainder of the act grappling with it in a captivating way– with both stakes and consequences. By the falling action, though the immediate conflict of the film is resolved, there is still a fair amount of interpersonal conflict that remains– one of the most exciting prospects the franchise has had to date.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the film and believe it to be a worthy successor to Avatar, it is not without its imperfections. Simon Franglen’s score was almost nonexistent. Themes from James Horner’s score of the first film were inserted, beat for beat, into the film at similar plot points in an attempt to carry the same emotional weight. In some cases, it worked. In others, it was incredibly distracting.
The film also spends its focus in unusual places, which at times can make its three hour runtime feel unearned or under-utilized. Character development suffers at the expense of a lengthy anti-whaling sequence that serves next to no purpose to the plot besides being a personal message from Cameron to theatergoers about the horrors of the whaling industry. Several major character beats are handwaved to make time for the (important) mantra, but mantra nonetheless.
And finally, for better or for worse, the film spends nearly a third of its runtime catching up audiences who can’t remember the first film. While this may prove beneficial for casual audiences, fans of the first film who have a moderate understanding of the plot may find themselves waiting for the film to get to the point. For that reason, I found myself leaving the theater far more excited for Avatar 3 than I was for Avatar: The Way of Water– where synopsis is not required to advance the overall story of the franchise.
The highlights for me, however, were the character dynamics and climax. Where Avatar’s characters all exist in service of plot, Avatar: The Way of Water takes time to deepen existing or develop new character motivations. Jake, Neytiri, Quaritch and the kids all have complex relationships that both pay off and set up future conflict in the same film– no small feat. An additional high point was Zoe Saldaña’s performance of “The Song Cord”, which was strikingly beautiful and haunting, especially given its ultimate meaning to the film. And yes, it is entirely in the Na’vi language.
Similarly, the climax is the definition of a Cameron finale. Tightly paced, explosive and immense, but this time it also carried a deeply personal undercurrent. Cameron borrows from some of his other action setpieces to great effect, ramping up the tension until the final moment. And though the protagonists may prevail in the end, it’s certainly not without a sense of loss. In fact, I wouldn’t necessarily say this film ends on a triumphant note either– more bittersweet than anything else.
All in all, Avatar: The Way of Water does exactly what it is supposed to do as a sequel– especially a legacy sequel thirteen years in the making. It reintroduces audiences, reinvests them, and goes from there. Despite feeling “safe” at times, the end result is a worthy sequel to Avatar– neatly surpassing it in all areas while still leaving room for improvement as the franchise progresses. Put simply, if you liked Avatar, you will enjoy The Way of Water, and that’s the best thing we could hope for.
See Avatar: The Way of Water in theaters this Friday, December 16th.