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Avatar: The Way of Water ★★★★



Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Jemaine Clement, Edie Falco, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo & Duane Evans Jr.

Release: 16th December 2022

It’s incredible to think it has been thirteen years since James Cameron immersed us into the world of Pandora with Avatar. In a day and age where brand IP franchises have dominated the box office, Avatar’s success should not be underestimated. Cameron – forever the visual innovator – crafted a film that pushed the boundaries of technology that ushered in a new wave of 3D films on the market. While the craze eventually died down (the industry unable to replicate the standards that Cameron and his crew devised throughout its production), the proof was in the pudding. Avatar, since its recent re-release, has reclaimed its title as the highest-grossing box office film, dethroning Avengers: Endgame.

It speaks volumes at Cameron’s belief in Avatar’s scope and magnitude, concocting a multi-saga adventure spread across five planned films whilst sidestepping scepticism and doubts. More recently, Cameron received ‘no notes’ from studio executives after completing the script for Avatar 4. But from an audience perspective, what galvanises this sentiment is the simple fact that the legendary director is no stranger to sequels, with Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day under his critically acclaimed belt. If anything, the fascination and curiosity with Avatar: The Way of Water (its long-awaited sequel) is driven by whether the film could replicate the same magic. How easily could we fall back in love with Pandora? To answer that question, it does, but nothing quite prepares you for the journey you’ll experience.

Since we last saw Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the first film (having transferred his consciousness from his human form to his Na’vi body, thanks to the divine deity of Eywa), a lot has changed on Pandora. The former marine is now a family man, raising his children alongside his partner for life (and absolute badass) Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). For a brief time, they live in blissful happiness, but nothing lasts forever. With Earth dying, the colonisers (led by Nurse Jackie’s Edie Falco) have returned, declaring war on Pandora once again, and Jake must do what is necessary to protect his family and his home. 

Like its predecessor, The Way of Water is an imperfect film. At three hours, Cameron’s epic film occasionally buckles under an uneven script and underdeveloped character beats (with as many as five writers contributing to the story). With an abundance of on-screen characters to keep track of, screentime casualties are a given (such as Neytiri). And while there are periods of incredible feats in filmmaking with action and technology blending together in immersive 3D harmony, it does take a while to find its feet. However, the appealing element surrounding this entry is its move away from its ‘white saviour’ narrative from the first film (with Jake integrating into the Na’vi culture) to a coming-of-age story, with Jake and Neytiri’s children taking centre stage.

Without divulging into spoilers, Cameron envisions a different type of sequel, which, in my opinion, edges out the original. Through the eyes of Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and Jack Champion’s Spider (a human boy taken in by the Sully clan), the children’s carefree innocence and naivety play at odds with the realisation that they are the children of war, taught to fight, survive and obey commands from their parents. Since the children share Jake’s human DNA and traits (except for Kiri, who was born from Grace Augustine’s avatar (also played by Sigourney Weaver)), they’re viewed as outsiders and not pure Na’vi. Inevitably, this leads to tensions and conflict when Jake’s family seeks refuge from Pandora’s sea clan (led by Cliff Davis’ Tonowari and Kate Winslet’s Ronal) when they’re hunted by a resurrected Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Whilst the idea is not original, that familiarity (an often criticised hot take from the original film) opens the door for the feature to dive into its legacy themes of colonisation, environmental destruction and the cruelty of humanity who find new means to even the playing field in their fight for Pandora. Or, in the case of Quaritch, if you can’t beat your enemy as a human, you might as well join them as a bio-engineered cloned Na’vi – a failsafe measure executed upon his character’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri in the first film. 

To no surprise, its best performers are Britain Dalton’s Lo’ak and Sigourney Weaver’s Kiri, who feel the weight of being outsiders yet grow to understand their place and value within Pandora’s labyrinth of a world. And this is where the technology enhances their journey with its visual brilliance. 

As the sequel expands, the worldbuilding becomes immense, moving from the forests of Pandora to the environmental ecosystem of its sea life, culture and customs. In doing so, elements in The Way of Water feels like a culmination of Cameron’s filmography, with The Abyss being a notable example. The long gap between the films factors in the technological advancement of visual effects, and while some aspects of its 3D application and high frame rate (HFR) make some scenes look like a PS5 action game (an innovation which I’m not totally sold on), the results are undeniable. The underwater scenes, filmed and framed with a loving affection of a nature documentary that David Attenborough would be proud of, and the lush cinematography provided by Russell Carpenter are pitch-perfect in their design and realisation.  
It’s the combination between thrills and profound beauty that Cameron brilliantly knows how to execute, which sets Avatar: The Way of Water apart from the competition. As a cinematic experience, it’s another groundbreaking, technological achievement by the director. The curiosity is, where does James Cameron’s Avatar go from here? Whatever its next adventure entails, you wouldn’t bet against him.

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