Okay, James Cameron, I see you.
It’s no surprise that Avatar: The Way of Water is a visually stunning film, but what else does this epic science fiction blockbuster have to offer? As someone who never cared much for the franchise or the idea of a five-movie saga — this blew me away.
After significant delays, three years of shooting, and thirteen years total to come to fruition, the story picks up more than a decade after the events of Avatar (2009). Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have since built a family, but when the humans return to Pandora, they seek refuge with the sea people to keep their family safe from the oncoming war.
Yes, on paper, this sounds dreadfully similar to the first film: Humans bad, Na’vi good, protect the planet, blah blah blah. And maybe that’s the point, to drive home the idea that, ten years later, humanity still hasn’t learned its lesson, and they will still selfishly destroy Pandora’s ecosystem for their own needs.
But while the first film is a simple story of good vs. evil, The Way of Water is much more nuanced — not everything is black and white. The Na’vi aren’t just “fighting the good fight” this time around. Avatar: The Way of Water is about perseverance, loyalty, and the lengths they go to keep their family safe.
It’s been a while, so here’s a refresher: In Avatar (2009), Jake and Neytiri were relentless in battle. They would throw themselves into danger without a second thought, fueled by rage and passion with nothing to lose. Now, the stakes are much higher.
James Cameron said, “becoming a parent changes so much of your behavior and your value system.” We see Jake and Neytiri’s natural evolution from warriors to caretakers. Jake is a caring, albeit strict, father trying to raise his children to be intelligent and kind. Where Neytiri used to be hard, cold, and nearly feral, she has become softer, vulnerable, and a mother above all else.
But don’t let that deter you — this is still very much an action-filled epic. When harm comes their way, Jake and Neytiri’s primal instincts kick in, and it’s a damn good time. Parenting has simply changed their perspectives, making them less reckless and more strategic when it comes to going into battle — but it also gives them a complex, vulnerable weakness.
Now, I’m a hot mess in my late twenties, very much not a parent, but even to me, the Sullys feel significantly more likable, relatable, and endearing. And I don’t just mean Jake and Neytiri — their new family, both blood and found, is rich with diverse characters who I couldn’t help but root for. Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Reya (Bailey Bass) shine. Not a single character moment in this film goes wasted, and they each have their demons that I hope will be explored more in future films.
Cameron compared the Avatar sequel to The Godfather, calling it "a generational family saga very different than the first film.” He continued, saying it’s “what happens when warriors, willing to go on suicide charges and leap off cliffs onto the backs of big orange Toruks, grow up and have their own kids. Now the kids are the change makers."
Of course, we have to talk about the elephant in the room: the three-hour and ten-minute runtime. Honestly, this movie flew by. It’s brilliantly paced and consistently immersive. Some scenes felt gratuitous, a bit like a,“ Hey, look what we can do!” tech demo, but honestly, the pure sense of wonder, paired with a seamless combination of live-action, CGI, and gorgeous underwater set design, had me gawking in awe for the full three hours.
“But it looks like a three-hour video game cutscene,” you say. Yes! It does! It’s amazing!
And look, I’m not the most technically savvy person in the world. I’m not going to pretend like I know every mechanical aspect of this film, but I’m going to take a shot in the dark and assume the average viewer is in the same boat (pun intended) as me.
So in layperson’s terms, here’s the gist of it:
Cameron and his team developed new technology to shoot performance-capture scenes underwater. This has never been done before. There’s no real way to describe the feeling of watching a mostly-underwater film — and no, it’s nothing like Aquaman (2018). It is, for lack of a better term, that “movie magic” that Hollywood films are always chasing.
Additionally — and stay with me here — The Way of Water was shot in 48 frames per second (fps), unlike most films which are shot at 24fps.
HOWEVER, this isn’t a visual disaster like The Hobbit (2012), also shot in 48fps. It isn’t a jarring 3D movie that gives you motion sickness. With a technical hack that I won’t even attempt to explain, Cameron only used 48fps for the underwater scenes and some of the flying scenes. Everything else is 24fps.
In other words, it maintains the raw, authentic feel of a true cinematic experience.
While Avatar: The Way of Water is only the second film in a five-movie saga, it ends with a satisfying conclusion. The story has a complete arc with a brutal and energetic third act — I can’t even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed the fight scenes. I beg of you, James Cameron, give me more killing-spree Neytiri.
And while the story still has some loose ends to be explored throughout the following films, it feels like a stand-alone movie. Avatar: The Way of Water is rich with nuanced characters, fascinating creatures (who I possibly cared about more than the Na’vi), impressive world-building, and a fulfilling, emotionally resonant story far better than its predecessor’s.
Avatar: The Way of Water hits theaters on December 16th.