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Avatar: The Way of Water Review

December 14, 2022 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER Image Credit: 20th Century Studios
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Avatar: The Way of Water Review  

Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Runtime: 190 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity, and some strong language.

Sam Worthington – Jake Sully
Zoe Saldaña – Neytiri
Stephen Lang – Colonel Miles Quaritch
Sigourney Weaver – Kiri/Grace Augustine
Jamie Flatters – Neteyam
Britain Dalton – Lo’ak
Jack Champion – Spider
Trinity Bliss – Tuktirey
Kate Winslet – Ronal
Cliff Curtis – Tonowari
CCH Pounder – Mo’at
Brendan Cowell – Scoresby
Jemaine Clement – Dr. Ian Garvin
Edie Falco – General Frances Ardmore
Joel David Moore – Norm Spellman
Giovanni Ribisi – Parker Selfridge

James Cameron finally returns to the spiritual world of Pandora in the long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water. The long wait is over, and fans are in store for an epic, emotional sci-fi experience. Avatar: The Way of Water is not without its issues, but it certainly delivers on big-budget theatrical spectacle. The Sully family endures vast hardship as they seek peace in a new homeland.

Since the events of the first film, former Earthling soldier Jake Sully (Worthington) has adapted to the world of Pandora and the Omaticaya clan of Pandora’s indigenous people, the Na’vi. Jake and his mate Neytiri (Saldaña), started a family, and they have two sons, Neteyam (Flatters) and Lo’ak (Dalton); and a younger daughter, Tuktirey (Bliss). They also adopted the mysterious Kiri (Weaver), a child somehow immaculately born of the late Dr. Gace Augustine’s Avatar (Weaver). How this happened is never explained. Jake even hilariously calls it a “mystery” in the film’s exposition dump prologue. Jake and Neytiri adopted a human war orphan from the first film’s conflict, Spider (Champion), who has been accepted by the tribe.

Unfortunately, the Sully family’s harmonious bliss gets torn asunder as the Earthbound humans of the Resource Development Administration are back to bring Pandora to its knees. One year passes after the RDA reasserts itself on Pandora, with a new ruthless general, Frances Ardmore (Falco), in charge of the operation. The parameters have changed. Unobtainium is never mentioned once throughout the film. Instead, the RDA is out to bring Pandora to heel and make the planet humanity’s new permanent home.

The grander conflict is quickly introduced and subsequently put on the back burner as General Ardmore has a specific solution to the Jake Sully problem. By using super science, the RDA has successfully cloned Colonel Miles Quaritch (Lang) and his other dastardly marine cohorts into Na’vi Avatar bodies. These recombinant clones, or recom clones, possess all of their original body’s memories, personality traits, and consciousnesses up until they were last backed up on genetic hard drives. With his new Na’vi body, Quaritch is ready to reap some payback on Jake Sully, and he will stop at nothing to accomplish it.

Realizing that Quaritch has returned and is targeting his family, Jake relocates his family from forest lands to the reef Na’vi tribe called the Metkayina, led by Chief Tonowari (Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Winslet). The Sully family now has to adapt to a whole new way of life among the Metkayina, which is like a world of its own. However, it’s only a matter of time before Quaritch finds their whereabouts, and his moral compass is not as centered as Jake’s.

The main frustration with The Way of Water is the introduction of the idea of the whole planet of Pandora being at stake, which is promptly put on the back burner. General Ardmore and the rest of the RDA disappear into the background through most of the film, as the film favors Quaritch’s quest for revenge. There is at least a bit of dimension to Quaritch this time through his relationship with Spider. Spider’s main purpose within the plot is to humanize the recom Quaritch and perhaps seed a potential character arc for later down the line.

As a character, not enough is done to set up Spider and his dynamic within the Sully clan. He appears to love the Sully family and his adopted siblings, but the movie does not sufficiently examine and set up his relationship with Neytiri and Jake. After Spider is taken by the RDA, very little thought is given to him by the Sullys, other than the fear that he will expose them to the RDA. Jake makes no move or thought to rescue or liberate Spider. Even Jake’s plan to relocate the family to the Metkayina is little more than a temporary stopgap, considering the RDA is back for more than just unobtainium this time around.

The strength of The Way of Water comes through the Sully children Lo’ak and Kiri, as they attempt to adapt to island life. They have the most involved subplots as Kiri struggles to rectify her origins along with her unique connection to Pandora’s spiritual network, Eywa. Lo’ak forms a unique friendship with a species of gentle whale-like creatures who inhabit the oceans of Pandora called the Tulkun. The Tulkun are sacred companions of the Metkayina, but Lo’ak befriends one who was exiled from the tribe and wrongly accused of murder.

While the grander conflict of The Way of Water is underdeveloped, the world-building and immersion of this previously unexplored region of Pandora are lovely. The underwater scenes and ecosystem are just as beautiful and majestic as the discovery and exploration of Pandora in the first film.

Secondarily, the action in the film is incredibly intense. Cameron once again proves why he is a master at creating unique, suspenseful action scenes. And with the presence of a water-based region, The Way of Water is a much better sandbox for Cameron to unleash his vision where action and suspense are concerned. Fans of Cameron’s past filmography will have fun with the throwback sequences he puts together here.

The other strengths of Avatar: The Way of Water are the personal journeys, emotions, and stakes. The Sully family experiences great emotional hardship, and their personal struggles are the highlight of the film. Cameron and his cast find that genuine truth with the characters, despite layers of motion captured CG-animation. The actors’ performances still shine through, and there is remarkable verisimilitude when the movie has very little in the way of practical, in-camera real characters interacting with one another. There are emotionally devastating, heartbreaking scenes that hit harder and deeper than in the first film. Jake Sully has a family, and he sees their protection as his main purpose in life.

The most difficult aspect of the movie is the 3D 48FPS format. Visually, the film is a mixed bag. Some of the 3D sequences look beautiful, magical, and downright regal. However, the movie seems to frequently switch between high and low framerates. There are multiple sequences where it appears the framerate drops. As a result, the image takes on a somewhat choppy look, reminiscent of cutscenes loading in a PlayStation 4 game. Certain scenes have a fluidity that almost looks too smooth or too crisp. As a result, some scenes look unnaturally weird with visual movements that look too quick and artificial. Other sequences find that sweet spot of looking near perfectly cinematic with stunning photorealism.

However, the framerate switches are jarring to look at and reek of visual inconsistency. A film such as Top Gun: Maverick looks far more consistent from a visual standpoint. However, as impressive as Avatar: The Way of Water, it leaves an impression that this technology still has many kinks to work out. It’s a little disappointing to think that all these years later, with all the money and R&D spent, the film looks like it’s taking so many shortcuts by forcing the constant switches in the visual format. The scenes that look choppy need more visual clarity.

Ultimately, the mileage may vary with how the 3D 48FPS format might work for select audiences. Regardless, the 48FPS format has not conquered the flaws that appeared when Peter Jackson introduced the 48FPS presentation to the mass market with The Hobbit film trilogy.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a cinematic spectacle that should be seen on the big screen at least once. It does raise many questions about where the story is ultimately going for future films, but The Way of Water was still a deeply emotional, spiritual, and rousing event.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Avatar: The Way of Water does well with its personal journeys, emotions, and stakes of the Sully family. The world-building is stunning, and there is a lot of beauty and fun in seeing this new region of Pandora. There is a bit of frustration with the central conflict on the back burner, as it has grave consequences for the rest of Pandora. Many ideas are left for later films down the line. While parts of the film look majestic and striking, the 3D 4K 48FPS format stumbles more than it soars. There is too much visual inconsistency through many sequences to label this format "perfect."