How do you follow up one of the most expensive, successful, and technologically advanced films ever made? It’s a question that James Cameron has already answered once with an emphatic ‘well, just do it again’, using the 12 years between Titanic and Avatar to build one of the most transportive worlds in cinema and make almost $3 billion at the global box office. Now, with Avatar sequel The Way of Water finally here after a 13 year wait, Cameron has to pull the trick off again and, incredibly, he just about does it. The Way of Water makes pretty much every other VFX-led blockbuster of the last decade look like absolute amateur hour, once again using pure technical prowess to brute-force immerse you in its simple but stirring story.
During the wait for The Way of Water, time has passed on the lush world of Pandora at pretty much the same rate it has back here on earth. When we reunite with soldier-gone-native Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his fearsome Na’vi warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), they’ve been together for over a decade and have four Na’vi kids, as well as one adopted human. Cameron sets up this family unit with a lean efficiency that is seldom found elsewhere in this mammoth 190+ minute movie, quickly establishing the bonds and dynamics that will define the rest of the story.
Their familial bliss in the jungles of Pandora is not to last – after Jake’s defection allowed for their humiliating defeat, the humans of Earth have returned for a mission of both industrial-scale colonialism and personal revenge for Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch hasn’t let a little thing like ‘being dead’ stop him, his memories and skills implanted into a Na’vi Avatar body to lead an elite Avatar unit to hunt Jake and his family down. Their attacks force the Sully clan into retreat, leaving the forests behind for distant sanctuary amongst the seafaring variants of Na’vi.
It’s in the transition from land to water that Cameron really flexes his technical muscles. Pandora’s oceans look, simply, incredible. The joins between CG and reality are utterly seamless – you’re never given any reason to believe that what you’re seeing on screen isn’t, somehow, real. The visuals are gorgeous, raising the bar for CG-heavy blockbusters (looking at you, murky underwater scenes from Wakanda Forever) whilst also providing a stronger emotional link to Pandora – it’s very easy to become genuinely invested in Pandora’s environments and creatures whilst the humans tear it all down. The motion-smoothed HFR stuff is less successful – when used in water it’s great, but on dry land and in the air it just looks floaty.
Cameron doubles down on his assessment of the US military being a bunch of spiteful, psychotic goons and gives us some brilliantly hateful villains – the worst of the bunch being a ship full of whalers whose hunts make for some profoundly upsetting moments. The massive runtime allows for a lot of time dedicated to hating these despicable figures, before the colossally entertaining final hour sees them dispatched in ways as cathartic and violent as a 12a rating can possibly allow. The large scale action sequences are pulled off amazingly well, weighty and visceral even when flying swordfish are doing battle with crab-shaped mech suits.
If the latter stages of The Way of Water are pure war movie, the middle segment is, somewhat surprisingly, much more subdued as the Sully clan adapt to life amongst the ocean Na’vi (more teal coloured compared to the deep blue forest variety), whose specific biological adaptations allow for extended periods of swimming underwater. Cameron and his veritable army of writers here go for much more of a teen movie vibe, Jake and Neytiri’s kids getting into scrapes with the local youths whilst bonding with the local wildlife. The worst of the film’s tin-eared dialogue is found here, but the kids (one of whom is played by Sigourney Weaver in an audaciously daft move) are mostly charming and compelling.
Outside of the junior Sullys, though, not a lot of the new characters make much of an impression. Cliff Curtis is fun as the ocean Na’vi’s chief Tonowari but Kate Winslet is entirely wasted as distrustful healer Ronal – you really wouldn’t even know it was her unless you had looked it up – while Jemaine Clement pops up to do the worst American accent ever recorded on film as an otherwise pointless and forgettable new, morally-conflicted human.
There is some sequel-baiting (Edie Falco pops up as an amoral military bigwig who will surely feature more heavily in the mooted third, fourth, and fifth films), but The Way of Water is refreshing as a modern blockbuster in how much it is focused on just itself, not trying to advertise the next three entries into its universe. Deeply sincere and a genuine technological leap forward, Cameron’s long-in-the-making epic surpasses the original with sensational world-building and an indefatigable energy that makes the over-three-hour runtime breeze by.