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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is a Three-Dimensional Work of Heart and Wonder

With dynamic characters working in tandem with astonishing technical wizardry, James Cameron’s latest opus is also his most personal

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

He might have an ego the size of Pandora, but James Cameron is fully aware that Avatar has spent years as the butt of several jokes over its perceived lack of a cultural footprint. As the filmmaker explained to The Hollywood Reporter, he believes the reason Avatar doesn’t have the clout of a massive franchise like Star Wars is because the universe is still in its infancy. In Cameron’s defense, it’s unfair to judge a franchise on the merits of a single movie—at the same time, Titanic’s legacy remains intact because its central love story resonated with audiences from the jump. (There’s a reason people still like to argue about whether there was enough room for Jack to fit on the floating debris.)

With all due respect to Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, the former Marine turned Na’vi warrior wasn’t exactly the part of Avatar you’d write home about. Rather, the film relied on its transportive visuals to make box office history in spite of its thinly developed characters. In that sense, Avatar was the ultimate empty calorie spectacle: an all-consuming theatrical experience that didn’t take long to digest after the fact. Take nothing away from Avatar’s success—it was still a Best Picture front-runner in 2010—but the very best Cameron movies combine technical wizardry with genuine emotional depth. (Ripley confronting the Xenomorph Queen in Aliens wouldn’t slap nearly as hard if we didn’t care about Newt.) The greatest challenge for Avatar: The Way of Water, then, had less to do with re-creating its reliably immersive special effects, and more to do with whether it could keep moviegoers invested in the latest adventures of the Sully clan.

While the biggest skeptics have plenty of reasons to doubt the film, from its enormous price tag to the 13-year layover between entries in the franchise, they’re forgetting the cardinal rule of blockbusters: When Cameron makes one, he never misses. For those of us who have been loyal Cameron-ologists over the decades (see: me), the question wasn’t if the director would exceed expectations with The Way of Water, but how. As it turns out, the solution for adding a new dimension to the sequel is right there in the title. After exploring the lush forests of Pandora in the first film, The Way of Water moves the action to Cameron’s natural habitat: the ocean.

The real-life deep-sea explorer has to lay plenty of groundwork before The Way of Water can get wet, which goes a long way toward explaining the movie’s meaty 192-minute running time. Picking up after the events of the first film, in which the Na’vi expelled the vast majority of human inhabitants from Pandora, Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) settle down and start a family. They end up raising five children in the ensuing years of peace: two teenage boys, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), their baby sister Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and the adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the offspring of Weaver’s Grace Augustine from the first film whose conception via the character’s deceased avatar body remains a mystery. (Somehow, the 73-year-old Weaver playing a teenager is the least weird part of that description.) Rounding out the Sully clan is Spider (Jack Champion), who was too young to join the departing humans on their interstellar journey back to Earth and must make do as a Pandora Tarzan.

Naturally, harmony on Pandora is disrupted when humans, driven by capitalist greed, return to finish what they started. But there are intriguing new wrinkles to the human-Na’vi conflict: For starters, it’s implied that things back on Earth are so dire that colonizing Pandora may be the only way to prevent our own extinction. (It’s hard to feel too sympathetic when humanity is at fault for decimating its home planet, and would do the same to Pandora if given the opportunity.) Then there’s the bizarre matter of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the cigar-chomping antagonist of the original film who returns for the sequel in an avatar body that was created as an insurance policy in the event of his death. Essentially, this version of Quaritch has been implanted with all the memories of his former self, which makes him hellbent on getting revenge against Jake and Neytiri; that he can do so in a Na’vi body only levels the playing field.

It doesn’t take long for Jake to realize that his family is being targeted by the enemy, which spurs them to leave Pandora’s forests behind to live among the Metkayina: a reef-based Na’vi clan that relies on the ocean to survive. The Sullys are welcomed, with some trepidation, by the tribe’s leaders, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), who inform the forest dwellers that they must learn—and you might want to sit down for this—the way of water to live among them. For the Sully clan, that’s easier said than done: The Metkayina’s physiology has evolved to suit their oceanic surroundings, including fin-like arms and wider tails reminiscent of a paddle.

The basic setup for The Way of Water is in many ways a rehash of the first film: Once again, Jake has been thrust into a new environment and must adapt to it, only this time he’s got a family along for the ride. (Just as Neytiri likened Jake to a “baby” oblivious to what it takes to survive in the forests of Pandora, Tonowari makes the same comparison about the Sullys adjusting to #OceanLife.) But whereas Avatar was almost entirely wedded to Jake’s fish-out-of-water experience, the sequel branches out to explore the challenges of assimilation for his children, as well as villainous Quaritch. Juggling all these subplots is one way that The Way of Water is a more sophisticated film, especially as it juxtaposes how the Sully family approaches the Metkayina’s culture with humility and openmindedness with Quaritch’s learning how to be a Na’vi as an entitled, destructive colonizer. (There is also a fascinating undercurrent of self-loathing for Quaritch, who can exist only as one of the very aliens he seeks to destroy.)

Writing has never been Cameron’s strong suit, but The Way of Water does an admirable job fleshing out its ensemble. With the exception of little Tuk, whose only notable characteristic is being the youngest child, the Sully kids have their own motivations that are clearly laid out. Neteyam is the dutiful eldest son always looking to impress his father; Lo’ak has a rebellious spirit that causes plenty of headaches for his parents; Kiri is treated as an outcast because she claims to have a deep, almost psychic connection to Eywa, the all-powerful deity in Na’vi culture. Even Quaritch 2.0 is afforded some nuance: In one of the most existential moments of the movie, he finds his own human remains and holds his predecessor’s skull like he’s auditioning for a Pandoran production of Hamlet. Throw in the early reveal that Spider is his long-lost son, and Quaritch has transcended his origins as a one-dimensional military brute.

The expanded purview is a necessary step for the evolution of the Avatar franchise beyond being a visual effects extravaganza. By giving viewers a reason to be emotionally invested in the characters in addition to drooling over the stunning CGI scenery, The Way of Water successfully follows in the grand tradition of Cameron’s finest blockbusters. While it’s certainly not a guarantee that everyone who watches the movie will share this sentiment, I can honestly say that I entered my screening feeling agnostic about Jake and his family—three hours later, their mantra of “Sullys stick together” might as well be Pandora’s answer to Dominic Toretto’s continual preaching about the importance of family.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never expected to compare the Na’vi to America’s preeminent Corona ambassadors, but Fast & Furious is perhaps the only modern franchise that reaches the same cornball sincerity as Cameron’s otherworldly opus. It’s also inherent to the appeal of Cameron’s worldbuilding: There isn’t an ounce of cynicism or detached irony to the proceedings, the kind of qualities that undermine so many superhero movies. The filmmaker is expressing a genuine and unapologetic love for the Na’vi family he’s created, and invites the audience to do the same.

This sentimentality extends to the broader world of Pandora, and especially to the newly introduced Tulkun: a colossal, whale-like species capable of communicating and bonding with the Na’vi. (The Tulkun’s dialogue is subtitled in the franchise’s beloved Papyrus font.) The Tulkun are legitimately breathtaking—the benevolence of the animals is matched only by their intelligence—and the threat posed to them by humans explicitly nods to destructive 19th-century whaling practices. It should come as no surprise that Cameron is most in his element below the surface, where Pandora’s flora and fauna are gorgeously rendered as if part of a wildlife documentary. Still, the fact that Giant Space Whales are arguably the breakout stars of The Way of Water speaks to the underlying message of Cameron’s endearingly silly franchise: We must treasure the natural wonders of the world and the majestic creatures that inhabit it before it’s too late.

The environmentalist spirit of the first Avatar hinged almost entirely on the film’s jaw-dropping visuals, which made Pandora seem so vibrant and real. (The movie was so effective that some fans said they experienced depression knowing that Pandora doesn’t exist.) But now that The Way of Water has added three-dimensional characters to the equation, the sky’s the limit for the franchise as both a crowd-pleaser and a compelling indictment of the ongoing destruction of our planet. In any event, don’t expect Cameron to leave his beloved Pandora anytime soon: A third Avatar movie is slated to come out in 2024, and if the franchise holds up well at the box office, more sequels will be on the way. (Cameron claims the script for the fourth movie is so good that a studio executive said “holy fuck” after reading it and gave zero notes, and I really want to believe him.)

Assuming he doesn’t hand over the reins to another director at some point, Big Jim could be working on the Avatar franchise well into his 70s. Even as a self-professed Cameron obsessive, I’ve had my own misgivings about one of the greatest blockbuster auteurs on the planet potentially spending the remainder of his career on Pandora. But with The Way of Water marking the third time that Cameron’s made a highly anticipated sequel that more than lived up to the hype, perhaps it’s time we all reserve judgment and just let the man cook. Even after he stepped away from filmmaking for over a decade, the Way of Cameron is still putting all other blockbusters on notice.