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The ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Exit Survey

Because the sea is dope once again, my Pandoran friends

20th Century Studios/Ringer illustration

After more than a decade, it’s finally here. James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water hit theaters on Friday boasting unprecedented 3D technology, an Avatar-sized running time, and a whale-like species that experiences generational trauma. Nobody does it quite like Jim, but did The Way of Water meet the expectations built up over so many years and a months-long, braggadocious press run? Let’s see what The Ringer staff had to say …

1. What is your tweet-length review of Avatar: The Way of Water?

Aric Jenkins: Titanic meets Mission: Impossible meets BBC Planet Earth. The latter in particular was so, so crucial to my enjoyment of this movie.

Miles Surrey: Big Jim has done it again!

Alison Herman: We all laughed at the Avatar fan club from that one episode of How to With John Wilson. Who’s laughing now? Also, where do I sign up?

Andrew Gruttadaro: The Way of Water is so immersive that, for long stretches of this very long movie, you forget you’re wearing extremely uncomfortable glasses.

Ben Lindbergh: Tsireya said it best when she summed up its slow start and extended running time: “The Way of Water has no beginning and no end.” Even though this is easily one of the wettest movies ever made, I made it through without a bathroom break—but as much as I respect the spectacle, Avatar’s ecosystem is still more imaginative than its story.

Jomi Adeniran:

Julianna Ress: Has James Cameron played The Legend of Zelda?

2. What was the best moment of the movie?

Jenkins: Lo’ak’s whale bro saying “It’s too painful” in Papyrus-ish font subtitles when recounting his past.

Gruttadaro: When the evil tulkun poacher gets his arm clean ripped off and it floats through the Pandoran air like a migrating salmon (which probably glow in the dark on this planet).

Lindbergh: When Jake gets fluent enough in Naʼvi to turn off the subtitles; when we see that the sun is naked-eye visible from Pandora; when Jake briefly faked me into thinking he would pull an Obi-Wan and walk away from Quaritch instead of fighting to the death; when the movie gets up the guts to kill the tulkun and Neteyam, which made me sincerely sad; and when I read in Variety that while filming The Way of Water, “[Kate] Winslet held her breath for seven minutes and 15 seconds, breaking Tom Cruise’s record” and thought for a split second that Tom Cruise was the world-record holder in not breathing, which seemed semi-plausible.

Adeniran: The final act had some of the best-looking big-screen action in a long time. Between Neytiri sniping folks with arrows, James Cameron sinking a big ship in the ocean again, and the hand-to-hand combat between Jake and Quaritch, the last 30 minutes of the film BROUGHT IT.

Surrey: Is it cheating to say the entire middle third of the movie? Cameron shifts into a new gear when The Way of Water starts diving into Pandora’s oceans and the results are breathtaking—especially in 3D.

Ress: “Son for son, I cut.” Zoe Saldaña is clearly the best mo-cap actor in the cast—only she could convey the emotional weight of the most complicated moment in an Avatar film so far.

Herman: I know I should say something about the mind-bending, awe-inspiring blend of digital and natural worlds that makes Avatar unique. Honestly, though, it was Edie Falco using her giant robot arms to sip a cup of coffee. Her human appendages are right there, but much like James Cameron, her character just can’t help herself when some wild tech is on hand.

3. What was your least favorite part of the film?

Lindbergh: One nitpick for each eventual Avatar film:

5. The same characters get captured too many times. Aren’t Sullys supposed to stick together? Control your kids!

4. This is one Wyland-ass movie, and the second act has a ton of swimming by and with whales. Just make a Pandora documentary, man.

3. It still feels kinda cultural appropriation-y, and I’m not even talking about Spider’s dreads.

2. The frame rate stuttering like a ray-traced PS5 game on fidelity mode.

1. The marks on my nose from the 3D glasses. I didn’t miss this.

Adeniran: Jemaine Clement is in this movie and you might not know it at first because he’s doing a vaguely American accent. LET JEMAINE COOK!

Jenkins: Basically the entire first act, and in particular, the capture and attempted indoctrination of Spider. No offense, Spider, but I simply do not care about you or your daddy issues—take me back to the Planet Earth scenes!

Surrey: As someone who relates to Cameron’s affection for nature and wildlife, it was genuinely hard to watch the sequence when the tulkun and her calf were killed by poachers. Cameron is conveying the kind of suffering that’s all too common among animals on our own planet, and I hope The Way of Water convinces people to take more seriously the plight of creatures that don’t have a voice in the cruel, needless destruction of their habitats.

Gruttadaro: Is it too much to ask for a more nuanced story arc, or for better dialogue? Every child character aside from Kiri is broadly drawn and most of the movie’s lines are painfully blunt and impersonal. (A whale telling his Na’vi friend that he can’t talk about the past because “it’s too painful” is being cited as the most memorable part of the movie, but I don’t think Cameron was going for laughs there.) It isn’t until the tulkun poachers show up that the movie levels up—I would’ve much rather watched a three-hour movie about that struggle than one between Jake and Quaritch.

Ress: I’m just not a fan of the high frame rate—multiple sequences looked straight out of a video game. Also, that flash photo of Jake Sully’s family was ROUGH.

Herman: The slo-mo shot of a teen Metkayina emerging from the water got a big laugh in my screening. I don’t think it was intentional. Cameron can convincingly render Pandoran nature in all its beauty, but Na’vi sex appeal remains firmly in the uncanny valley.

4. Who did water better: Avatar and the Metkayina or Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the Talokan?

Adeniran: Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t have a K’uk’ulkan, but what the Metkayina lack in a leader for the ages they make up for by having lifelong whale pals, which by the way, is cool as hell.

Herman: Wakanda Forever wasn’t half as interested in laying out the nuts and bolts of how its marine society actually works. You could argue The Way of Water is a little too in love with world-building and distracts itself from the story; I would argue the story only works because Cameron shows us a fragile ecosystem worth saving.

Surrey: No disrespect at all to Wakanda Forever, but The Way of Water is on another level in terms of immersion and visual spectacle. Cameron’s movie feels more comparable to actual nature documentaries than contemporary blockbusters.

Gruttadaro: Yeah … this isn’t really a fair fight. James Cameron is water.

Jenkins: Wakanda Forever is definitely a more intelligent film, but in terms of its water ecosystem it felt like a half-baked version of Avatar. That said, I’m taking the Talokan over the Metkayina, which essentially comes down to the magnetism of Namor.

Lindbergh: Avatar gave me a much stronger urge to get scuba-certified, so The Way of Water wins, though between the two I think I’m good on water for a while. You say Talokan, I say tulkun, let’s call the whole thing off.

5. Who gave the best motion capture performance?

Gruttadaro: You can feel Zoe Saldaña’s deep commitment to Neytiri; I almost feel like she’s entering the Serkis Zone.

Adeniran: Zoe Saldaña always brings it when playing Neytiri, but I’m going with Sigourney Weaver as Kiri. I didn’t even know she was playing the teenager until after the film!

Surrey: Incredibly, Sigourney Weaver was believable and quite affecting as a moody teen.

Ress: I just want to say I completely love the batshit decision to have Sigourney Weaver play a teenager. Her performance is genuinely touching as the wise and disillusioned Kiri, and hearing a 73-year-old woman’s voice coming out of a 14-year-old’s body really enhances that characterization. The whole thing is very bizarre, but that’s a feature, not a bug.

Herman: Sigourney Weaver is 73 and made me believe she was barely past bat mitzvah age. The power of acting, plus the GDP of a small nation spent on special effects!

Jenkins: Am I a cop for saying Sam Worthington? It’s been amusing to dunk on this guy for the past decade, but I thought he gave a grounded performance as a concerned father grappling with teenagers and alien colonization. Also, special shout-out to Zoe Saldaña for her anguished wails after the death of Neteyam.

Lindbergh: Jemaine Clement as Dr. Garvin, the marine biologist who must have been so excited about the science he’d do on his all-expenses-paid Pandora expedition that he forgot to read the fine print. Clement’s expression says, “Man, I never saw myself harpooning hyper-intelligent, incredibly compassionate whales for work when I was getting my degree. Life takes interesting turns.”

6. You can take a vacation in the forests of Pandora or the oceans—which one are you choosing?

Surrey: The ocean: I’m not passing up an opportunity to hang out with the giant space whales who communicate with the Na’vi.

Lindbergh: Oceans, easy. All that sun would be bad for my pale complexion, but there seems to be far fewer ways to die than there are on land. Just stay out of deep water, where there’s always a bigger fish.

Gruttadaro: The forests look very … sweaty. I’m more of a beach guy anyway.

Ress: As a terrible swimmer, I’d love to vacation in the oceans of Pandora knowing the whales could protect me.

Adeniran: I can swim but spending all that time in and around the water is only asking for trouble. I’ll take my chances in the forest and mountains.

Jenkins: Oceans, duh. Much more daylight, incredible views of the sunset, friendly whale homies; stuff seems to glow fluorescently a lot more in Pandora’s seas, as well. I like that.

Herman: Hard to call it a “vacation” when I’d surely die within minutes. I choose the dinosaur shark!

7. Where does this movie rank among James Cameron blockbusters?

Herman: It’s certainly the most James Cameron blockbuster, if that’s the metric we’re using.

Gruttadaro: Uhh, it’s better than Avatar?

Lindbergh: Just above the original Avatar, True Lies, and—probably—Piranha II: The Spawning.

Jenkins: To be honest, not all that high. But that’s credit to a man who directed two Terminator movies, Aliens, and Titanic.

Adeniran: It technically may be the worst film he’s ever made depending on where you rank the first Avatar (it’s impossible to beat Aliens, True Lies, Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Titanic), but even so, it’s a crowning achievement in visuals, scope, and filmmaking that cannot be dismissed.

Surrey:

8. True Lies

7. Avatar

6. Avatar: The Way of Water

5. Titanic

4. The Terminator

3. The Abyss

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

1. Aliens

Movies 1 through 5 are absolute masterpieces, the Avatar franchise is an unforgettable theatrical experience, and True Lies has arguably the most Divorced Energy that’s ever been put into a blockbuster. Big Jim’s resume is a work of art.

8. James Cameron says he plans to make five Avatar films in total. When will the fifth one come out, and will you be seeing it in theaters?

Lindbergh: Extrapolating from how long it took to make the first two, the saga’s on pace to be completed by Cameron’s clone—or Cameron himself, if he has a stash of fountain-of-youth juice harvested from space whales—in the 2060s, right around the time Pandora is due to be discovered. I’ll see it in theaters if theaters still exist, assuming glasses-free 3D will be working by then.

Herman: Amid the crumbling ashes of what’s left of society come 2073, I’ll fight my way to Earth’s one remaining multiplex.

Adeniran: I really hope we are able to upload our consciousness into computers, because I don’t know if I’ll be alive in 3065. If we can, I’ll be there.

Ress: It might not be until the 2050s, but I believe Avatar 5 will come out at some point, and I imagine by then Cameron will have developed a more immersive alternative to movie theaters, likely at the bottom of the ocean.

Jenkins: Wikipedia says 2028, but you just know Cameron is going to wait for the technology to improve even more so that we don’t watch Avatar 5 but instead are an active participant in it via virtual reality. 2037. I don’t think I’ll be joining, personally, but I’m very down for Avatar 3 at the least.

Gruttadaro: I actually think this is a situation where the movies are going to be produced exponentially quicker than the one previous—let’s say Avatar 5’s in theaters by 2035. And assuming the planet (ours, not Pandora) still exists by then, yes, I will see it in theaters. There’s a lot to criticize about the Avatar movies, but their status as elite theatergoing experiences is not one of them.

Surrey: The phrasing of this question feels surprisingly skeptical of a director who has, on several occasions across several decades, released blockbusters saddled with massive expectations that made box office history. I will follow Cameron to the depths of Pandora’s oceans and back—and history suggests many others will too.

9. What is the biggest lingering question you have after seeing Avatar: The Way of Water?

Ress: We’re just gonna gloss over that we don’t know how Kiri was born?

Adeniran: Is Kiri Pandora Jesus? Think about it: she’s a child born with no father, can hear things from a higher power that no one else can, and she literally came back from the dead with wings to save the lives of people who were lost. They tried to make her seem crazy but in a world where you can actually talk to wildlife, you have to consider it.

Lindbergh: Wait, why doesn’t everyone always wear those wing things that let them breathe underwater?

Gruttadaro: Where TF did all the Metkayina go at the end of the climactic battle? Pretty sure Neteyam would still be breathing and Quaritch’s Avatar body would be floating across the sea in a million little pieces if those hundreds of warriors didn’t just disappear.

Herman: What’s the next massive hit movie we’ll use as a cultural punching bag now that Avatar has defied the haters? Follow-up question: Can I nominate Deadpool?