One thing is for certain – never doubt James Cameron. Avatar: The Way of Water, an ambitious followup to one of the most technically-groundbreaking films of all time, manages to eclipse everything Avatar accomplished 13 years ago. A true cinematic masterpiece, this sequel follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his growing family as they fight to protect their home when a familiar threat returns to finish the job.
I’ve never been more sure of anything than I am about the fact that Avatar: The Way of Water is undoubtedly the best film of the year. I’d go so far as to say it may even be the best film of the last few years. Could this be a case of recency bias? Sure, but only time and further rewatches will tell. Either way, this is a cinematic masterpiece in every sense of the word. A very naive version of me from early 2022 pre-emptively crowned The Batman as the best film of the year. I still stand by my word that that film is a storytelling masterpiece, but this movie right here is in a league of its own – untouched by almost anything I’ve seen in the last few years.
James Cameron is a master of his craft. He’s dedicated a huge chunk of the last ten (or more) years developing this film (and its sequels) and every single minute spent has been paid off. In the lead-up to this film, he’d spoken very frankly in interviews about how he knew this film would be a groundbreaking achievement in filmmaking. Many people would look at his comments as being vain and arrogant. However, Cameron won’t be eating his words any time soon as he confidently backs up those statements with a final product that is every bit as incredible as he claimed. The man is a visionary, and he’s once again left his mark with a film that pushes the boundaries of what can be possible.
I will mention that if you are yet to experience Avatar: The Way of Water, do your best to see it in IMAX 3D for the best possible experience. This is a cinematic event designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and that extra size does not go to waste. The use of 3D isn’t quite as unique as it was back in 2009, but James Cameron knows how to use the technology to enhance the overall immersion and such you right in to the action. The sheer scope and scale of the story and action is fully represented on an IMAX screen, with the use of a higher frame rate really elevating the visuals. Combining the high frame rate with 3D tech creates these smooth underwater sequences that are so realistic you’ll be forgiven for forgetting Pandora isn’t real.
Now, it’s about damn time we got into the nitty-gritty of the film itself. Firstly, the visual effects throughout the entirety of this film are utterly flawless. I’ve never seen a film with visuals quite as realistic as this one right here. It’s a visual spectacle that left me awestruck constantly and consistently with each passing moment. From the lush forests to the undulating seas, every shot is polished to absolute perfection. I regularly found myself getting lost in the beauty of the underwater seascapes and vast ecosystems that make up Pandora. James Cameron brilliantly ensures that the characters themselves stop to admire the wondrous beauty of their surroundings, giving us as an audience time to soak in that same awe-inspiring grandeur.
In my recent review for Avatar, I commented on how that film’s 13-year old visual effects are beyond most of the films that get released today. Now, when you consider what this film accomplishes with its visuals, it’s clearly years ahead of what any other modern film is able to accomplish. It’s as if this is James Cameron’s future and we’re all just living in it. I really want to double down on the alluring water sequences that make up a good 95% of the movie. James Cameron’s undying love of the ocean is evident not only through the narrative’s themes, but through the attention to detail in ensuring every moment set in or under the water is as real and authentic as possible. The fluidity of the characters’ movements in these sequences is astounding to watch. Coupled with the vibrant marine life and seemingly endless scale, I’m not sure we’ll ever see another otherworldly ocean bought to life quite as well as this one.
Moving on to the story. In terms of the first Avatar, most people directed their complaints towards a lack of originality. Despite agreeing with the sentiment that it’s not the freshest thing out there, it never once bothered me as it remained entertaining the whole way through. In this film, the narrative is a huge step above what the first film offers. I can’t verbalise just how much more intense, emotional, original and gripping this return to Pandora is. James Cameron takes things up a notch and drastically widens the scope of the story, highlighting more characters and even taking the time to set things up for future Avatar instalments. Right from the get-go it locks you in. They say “this is where we’re at and this is where we’re going”, then let the tension and characters take control. As time went on and the story took some pretty big and exciting turns, I found myself more and more enveloped in every character’s journey.
The biggest new addition in this film is the arrival of Jake Sully’s kids, who take centre stage right from the opening act. There is so much of a focus placed on these kids, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers show they have more screen-time than Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They really are equal protagonists of this story when compared to the adults, factoring in to every single arc no matter how big or small. Now, I’m not saying Jake and Neytiri are pushed to the sidelines – the benefit of this being a 3+ hour movie is that there’s more than enough time to ensure Jake, Neytiri and all their kids are fully fleshed out. Their presence plays heavily into the themes of parenthood and nature-preservation that are at the forefront of this story. The bond between parents and their kids is a strong focus here, making way for some beautiful storytelling.
This story is also infinitely more emotional than the first film ever got. Sure, Avatar had its touching moments, but the way this sequel gets you either loving or hating every one of its characters is brilliant. It’s a heartwarming, heartbreaking and intense narrative with emotional layers aplenty. James Cameron introduced us to the basics of this world in Avatar, and in The Way of Water he’s greatly expanded the emotional storytelling and set up what feels like just the beginning of a much more high-stakes narrative to come.
Character-wise, I mentioned how much I loved every single one of the kids, as well as Jake and Neytiri. But I have to commend how James Cameron handles the return of Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as the central villain. It could have felt very forced, and almost like an afterthought, but it really works within the context of the story. I’m glad it worked mainly because Quaritch is an even better villain here than he was in the first film. As well as being “the bad guy”, he’s got his own arc that adds even more depth to the story.
Another area where this sequel surpasses the first film is in the performances. No one really stood out in Avatar, but this time around there’s certainly a few who really shine. Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) may not have a tonne to do early in the film, but boy does she come out swinging going into the latter half. There’s a few key scenes in which she’s riveting, really ramping up the emotional resonance and drawing all eyes to her. Newcomers Kate Winslet (Ronal) and Cliff Curtis (Tonowari) each make their mark on the film by portraying two very interesting and layered characters. Sam Worthington (Jake) is great in here for how he plays off the various relationships with the characters around him. I bought into every one of his interactions and was wholly invested. Then of course Stephen Lang (Quaritch), who creates an interesting character from one that could have easily been very one-note and cliché.
The action across the first film was grand and exciting, but not quite as diverse and thrilling as in here. As soon as it begins, it’s an action-packed thrill ride with no shortage of tension. Yes, it regularly slows down for some character-focused scenes, but it always feels like it’s moving along and building to something. The action is huge and chaotic, but just enough to where you can follow everything that’s going on. The last hour or so is an action blockbuster through and through, with high stakes and riveting tension.
This leads in to Russell Carpenter’s extraordinary cinematography, which will certainly secure him his second Academy Award, with his first being for Titanic (1997). Coupled with the visual effects work, he captures the scope and scale in a way that’ll have you awestruck by the environments of Pandora. Lastly, I want to highlight Simon Franglen’s beautiful score, who took over after the untimely passing of legendary composer James Horner. What I love most is how he has created a score that is unique to this world and this film, while still incorporating notes and components of Horner’s memorable Avatar score. He makes the sombre scenes more emotionally resonant while hyping up the excitement in the action-heavy moments.
In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time. I am yet to head out and rewatch it (which I will certainly do at least once), but I have no doubt my opinions on this film will remain the same. This is what blockbuster cinema is all about – endless entertainment, thrilling action and emotional storytelling. Couple all of that with the breathtaking and groundbreaking visual effects, and you’ve got yourself a modern masterpiece. All this film does is make me want more of Avatar and more of Pandora, seen through the lens of James Cameron’s stroke of genius.