Avatar: The Way of Water is more of Avatar in every way, which is both to its benefit and detriment. The film ticks all the right boxes when it comes to an incredible cinematic experience, but it’s weighed down by an overly simplistic plot and long runtime once again.
It may have been 13 years between movies, but re-entering the world of Pandora feels as easy as if it were yesterday. The floating mountains and bioluminescent forests are quite simply a joy to return to. But time has also passed in Avatar: The Way of Water and things have changed.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have a family of their own, featuring two teenage sons (Neteyam and Lo’ak), a young daughter (Tuk) and an adoptive teenage daughter, Kiri, who is the biological child of Grace Augustine’s avatar (played, in both cases, by Sigourney Weaver). Plus there’s Spider, a human teenage boy desperate to be part of the Sully clan.
Sigourney Weaver isn’t the only one back for the sequel after an apparent demise. Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch is back in avatar form for The Way of Water, and he and his new human-turned-avatar buddies are out to get Jake Sully for ruining their operations. Family comes first for Sully now, so he and Neytiri are forced to move their family for their safety.
This is all explained in a dense and very expository prologue that eats up about an hour of the film. It’s a slow start, but things do pick up once we actually hit the titular ‘water’ section of the film.
Introduced to a new tribe of sea people, the Metkayina, the Sully family become immersed in a world of delightful water creatures, competitive new clanmates and sea-side cultural rituals. It’s this sci-fi worldbuilding that has always been James Cameron’s strength, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The water landscapes of Pandora are rich and dazzlingly beautiful and the 3D effects work to immerse you fully into this new world.
Let’s get the visual talk out of the way. There’s no doubt about it that 3D technology has come a long way in a decade. At times the high frame rate is so smooth it’s actually unnerving. There was more than one occasion I felt like I was watching a video game cutscene.
Regardless, The Way of Water evokes a similar sense of visual awe as the 2009 film and offers a truly cinematic experience that demands to be seen on the big screen.
But the visuals were never the problem in Avatar.
The story of the movie barely gets more complicated than the hunter vs prey dynamic between Quaritch and the Sully faction. It’s a simple premise that suits this type of sci-fi action blockbuster, but it’s a shame that for a film that offers such a large world of visual spectacle and wonder, the story remains pretty surface-level.
The film is also very long at 3 hours and 12-minute runtime, which can be chalked up to introducing us to a huge number of new characters.
This is overwhelming at first. There are so many new faces, names and personalities to learn and, despite that long runtime, not all of them get room to breathe. These introductions slow down the pacing of the first half, but I was surprised to find that after settling in with these characters for a couple of hours, I genuinely did care for them.
There are certainly characters that deserved more. Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri is sidelined, meaning her performance (which remains one of the best) is largely wasted. Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis’ Metkayina leaders also have a lot to offer, but unfortunately, they only appear sparingly.
Some of the film’s most emotional moments actually come from Cameron’s exploration of our connection to nature. Pandora’s living and breathing environments is its greatest strength and The Way of Water provides breathtaking and heartfelt moments between people and the natural world. Be prepared to feel things for a sci-fi whale.
Avatar: The Way of Water really hits its stride in the third act, with an epic action showdown up there with the best of Cameron’s work. It’s at this point that the visual spectacle, sci-fi action and character narratives come together to provide a pure popcorn movie experience. The emotional beats land and there were even a couple of moments that had my theatre cheering and clapping.
It’s moments like this that remind you movies are awesome. And that is perhaps Avatar: The Way of Water’s greatest power; it’s a worthy cinema experience.
So is Avatar: The Way of Water worth the long wait?
The reality is that this movie is everything you could want from a summer blockbuster. The story may be fairly superficial, and its runtime may be long, but the size, scale and scope of the film offer a level of escapism you can only find in a cinema, and that makes it worth watching.
Avatar: The Way of Water Review – The Verdict
Pros: Incredible visuals and action, great final act, worth seeing on the big screen.
Cons: Long runtime, superficial story, slow to get into.
Watch it if you liked: Avatar (2009), Dune, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Avatar: The Way of Water releases in Australian cinemas on December 15.
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