For almost 13 years, people have been wondering when Avatar 2 is coming and if the first film was worthy of its record-breaking box office. As someone who still thinks highly of the 2009 blockbuster, I’m happy to say that Avatar: The Way of Water is not only real, but it once again proves never to doubt James Cameron. The long-awaited sequel is another masterstroke of visuals, world-building, and action. Like its predecessor, the story isn’t without issues. Funnily enough, where everybody compared the first film to FernGully, The Way of Water has a subplot reminiscent of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue. We’re not here for the writing, though. We’re here for the experience, and The Way of Water is one you’ll want to have on the big screen at least twice. For a three-hour-plus epic, that’s no easy feat.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) now have four children. This includes an adopted daughter named Kiri, the biological offspring of Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine. Weaver returns to play Kiri, although at first, I thought maybe it was her real-life daughter Charlotte in the role. While the motion capture allows her to play a teenage Na’vi, Weaver brings a youthful angst to Kiri, disappearing into the character. Britain Dalton delivers a star-making turn as their rebellious son Lo’ak and Trinity Jo-Li Bliss is adorable as youngest daughter Tuktirey. The only one who feels short-changed is Jamie Flatters as eldest son Neteyam. I sense there’s a reason for this, but to discuss why would mean going into spoilers.
On a character level, The Way of Water is an improvement over the previous film. While Kiri and Lo’ak are the most compelling additions, you come to care about the whole Sully family. Jake and Neytiri also emerge as more interesting protagonists now that they’re parents, giving them even more to lose when trouble inevitably falls from the sky. Stephen Lang is back as Colonel Miles Quaritch. Well, kind of. It turns out that the military had Lang’s personality and memories uploaded to a thumb drive, which they transfer to a Na’vi Avatar. Yeah, it sounds forced, but it’s better than, “Somehow Palpatine returned.”
Although Quaritch still isn’t the most complex villain, his new blue body brings something fresh to the equation. Quaritch also has more depth this time, as it’s revealed he left a young son on Pandora. Jack Champion plays Quaritch’s now teenage son Spider, who was raised on Pandora with the Sullys serving as a surrogate family. With Quaritch seeking revenge, the Sullys flee from the forest to seek refuge with the water clan of Metkayina. Cliff Curtis, who ironically played the Fire Lord in the live-action Last Airbender, portrays the leader of this water tribe. It’s an unrecognizable Kate Winslet who steals the show, though, as his fierce wife Ronal.
Just as the Sullys must adapt to the water, so did the cast. Among the various reasons for The Way of Water’s lengthy production was the time needed to perfect the revolutionary technology. The first film was groundbreaking, but the sequel goes a step further by taking the motion capture underwater. Learning to free dive is one thing, but having to act underwater while donning a mo-cap suit is commitment. The water sequences are where the film shines the most, relying more on visual storytelling. There’s an especially poignant dynamic between Lo’ak and a whale-like creature that’s primarily executed through body language, calling a nature documentary to mind.
The world Cameron expands upon blends the inventive production design of the first film with the watery depths of Titanic. Like Titanic, The Way of Water’s third act is essentially an hour-long climax. The action is so intense and the emotional stakes are so high, though, that the climax never feels overstuffed. If anything, The Way of Water could’ve afforded to be another hour with certain characters disappearing for chunks of the run time. For all the ground and sea that the film covers, the film leaves several plot points unresolved. With Avatar 3 inevitable and two more sequels likely, The Way of Water didn’t need to resolve everything, but the self-contained charm of the first film is lost. However, what matters most is that you want to see more of these characters and Pandora. Avatar was a phenomenon. Lightning strikes twice with The Way of Water, proving what was always clear: Avatar has all the makings of a franchise.