I’m going to start off this review the same way that most critics will. It’s been 14 years since Avatar, five years since production started, and now, we finally have Avatar: The Way of Water. Like a lot of other people, the memory of the first film in the series was hazy for me. I remember it being everywhere and it being the first 3D movie I watched in theaters and almost made it all the way through without being motion sick. I can remember the plot fairly well, and of course, the effects work was untouchable for the time. But walking out of Avatar 2, I was reminded about what was important about the first film: the way it made me feel.
Directed by James Cameron and written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno, Avatar 2 transports audiences back to Pandora. At its core, Avatar 2 is an action-adventure film that offers a story of family and belonging, and more. Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, which naturally takes into account the gap between the film’s releases, audiences meet the Sully family. Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are living a happy life with their four children Neteyam, Lo’ak, Kiri, and Tuk. But their happiness is shattered when the humans invade Pandora again and old foes return to exploit Pandora for everything it has to offer. But to do so, the humans must eliminate the Na’vi rebellion, which Jake is leading. To protect their people, the Sully family retreat to water and learn more about themselves through tragedy and the world itself.
Avatar 2 is beautiful in all of its 3D and 48-frames-per-second glory. It’s almost tactile in the rendering of the world and characters. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about an accomplishment that Cameron’s technological advancement does that isn’t as beautiful as generating entire landscapes and those living within them. I want to talk about how I sat through a film with the run time of three hours and 14 minutes all in 3D, and didn’t get sick.
I’m hypersensitive when it comes to visual things. I can’t play VR for more than 30 minutes at a time without getting a splitting headache, vertigo, and nausea. And the last time I watched a 3D film I ended up with a migraine for around 6 hours. In my worst experience, I had to run out of the theater to hurl, and since then, I just can’t get behind 3D and the tech that is used to create the films. It’s always made me feel on the outside of an experience that so many people love. So when I sat for my screening and was handed glasses, my stomach dropped. I didn’t know if I could watch the film in its entirety, and for the first 10 minutes, as my eyes got used to it, I was anxious. However, that anxiety subsided, and I did it. I sat there for over three hours, and despite the dreaded “glasses over glasses” ear tenderness, I was fine.
Avatar 2 is not only a feat when it comes to visual storytelling because of the beauty of it all but because it worked for someone like me. While my experience won’t be the same for everyone (as vertigo and motion sickness triggers are different for everyone), I never thought I would feel the magic of 3D the way it has been described to me by others. And that magic worked because of the tech. Still, it landed because of the beauty of the animation team who brought Cameron’s vision to life and the directorial units blending location with effects from Wētā FX (Chris White and Wayne Stables serving as VFX Supervisors, and Daniel Barrett as the Animation Supervisor). The blend between real and rendered is amazingly blurred in Avatar 2 in a way I didn’t expect and I forgot could be done during a year plagued with bad CGI caused by horrible working conditions for special effects studios.
While the acting beneath the blue of the Na’vi is phenomenal, and the new characters like Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Aonung (Filip Geljo), and Roxto (Duane Evans Jr.) all shine the brightest of anyone in the cast. While Worthington and Saldaña reprise their roles well, there is something about their performances that only comes alive when feeling intense emotion. When they grieve or feel rage, they come to life, but in the calm, they don’t hold up against the way that the younger cast appears on screen. Each and every member of the young cast manages performances that go well beyond that of their more seasoned peers. When they’re calm, when they’re scared, when they care, and when they fight.
The best among them goes to Bailey Bass. Her soft voice and caring nature allows her to stand out in calmness, with small facial cues pushing her character to the focus even when she isn’t speaking. But throughout every character, there is a life animated in their eyes that captures you as a viewer and pulls you in, which thanks to the animation team, makes even the more wooden performances stick.
But the one adult actor who steals the show vocally and in her motion capture is Sigourney Weaver who lends her voice to the curious and empathetic character of Kiri, Sully and Neytiri’s daughter. She is the beating heart of the film and her love resonates throughout the planet’s life and her family, even though she doesn’t share their blood. Kiri presents the film’s most powerful theme: found family. There are other themes of duty and familial responsibility, immigration, colonization, environmentalism, and the effects of war and revenge. That said, with such a wide spread of thematic work in place, the one that feels the most salient is finding your place among people who love and cherish you. Eveyrthing can be traced back to family.
Blockbusters are a finicky kind of movie. They have to thrill, excite, and not be too thinly written to break the story’s immersion. But on top of that, a good blockbuster makes you happy you bought a ticket to see the film on the big screen. That’s Avatar 2. It’s good and it’s a whole theatrical experience that I’m happy I got to see. But truth is, it isn’t a perfect movie, although it is extremely close to being so. There are one too many storylines going on, which keeps the audience from getting to explore characters that could have been dynamic. Emotional moments in the third act ring hollow because the characters involved weren’t fully explored outside small moments that are based in familial tropes.
Where Cameron fails to flesh out the massive amount of characters introduced, he makes up for by creating a stunning world. I want to sink into Pandora in any medium that I can. I want more films, a series, a game—just more that can let me explore the flora and fauna of the world. I want to be in the trees, the sea, but more importantly, I want to see the large implications that colonization and exploitation of resources has on this beautifully crafted world. Cameron goes further than he did in the first film to show audiences the wonder and majesty that lives on Pandora, deep in the sea.
The inventive creature designs showcase the beauty of our own natural world but pulls it outward into unique designs and things only possible on Pandora. Bioluminescence dominates the nighttime shots but instead of feeling like too much salt, it highlights the bodies and characteristics of creatures and the Na’vi in a way that accentuates their beauty in a way we don’t see in the light. The brilliance and care put into creating Pandora and its people is tremendous in every way.
Pandora feels large and alive because we get to see that there are different Na’vi than just the ones we met in the first film. Pandora is a large planet with vibrant and different people that are each connected to their land in different ways. And because of this, their bodies have changed over time so that they can live in their pieces of Pandora in harmony. In particular, the connections each Na’vi has to the fauna of the planet help showcase the ways in which the land is essential to our continued life, and as such, we should be stewards of it, both in the film and in real life.
That said, I’d be remiss not to note the obvious Maori inspiration worked into the new clan of Na’vi, the Metkayina. While Cliff Curtis as Tonwowari, the leader of the clan, was amazing, other casting choices for these Maori-inspired people are odd, primarily Kate Winslet as Ronal, the chief’s wife. Some moments feel more like set dressing, like the use the Hakka which seems just thrown in at a moment instead of actually thought out. But Te Ao Māori News offers up some insight into the choice of using Maori as inspiration with Cliff Curtis and Duane Evans Jr. here.
Avatar 2, even with its faults, manages to showcase exactly why James Cameron has held multiple spots on the list of most profitable films of all time. He understands how to create wonder and magic and respects special effects as a medium in the same way he respects pushing the bounds of underwater filming. Avatar: The Way of Water is gorgeous and is a reminder of exactly why the first film was so beloved: the world. Vast and unique with stunning underwater sequences, I could watch forever with Simon Franglen’s emotive score. Additionally, the action, for as little as I talked about it, is something to absolutely write home about. It’s loud but crafted beautifully in the way a successful blockbuster should be. Better than the first, it’s easy to see how the world of Avatar can continue to grow, as it should. I want more Pandora, and I hope I don’t have to wait 14 more years for it.
Avatar: The Way of Water is playing in theaters nationwide December 16, 2022.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Avatar 2, even with its faults, manages to showcase exactly why James Cameron has held multiple spots on the list of most profitable films of all time. He understands how to create wonder and magic and respects special effects as a medium in the same way he respects pushing the bounds of underwater filming. Avatar: The Way of Water is gorgeous and is a reminder of exactly why the first film was so beloved: the world. Vast and unique with stunning underwater sequences, I could watch forever with Simon Franglen’s emotive score.