Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

A stunning visual spectacle, as expected. But does the story match up with the eye-popping CGI?

Source: Official ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Poster from 20th Century Studios via WDW News Today

Last week I wrote an article titled I Love ‘Avatar’ and Haters Can Choke. An aggressive response to a nearly decade and a half of people unfairly singling out James Cameron’s 2009 smash hit, and beating it over the head for its supposed lack of originality, simplistic story, or sometimes for no reason whatsoever.

Avatar haters really are a special breed. Filled with glib self-righteousness, dismissive of the titanic efforts that went into making the groundbreaking special effects, all while ignoring the scores of big dumb sci-fi/action franchise films like Transformers, Star Wars, or 80% of Marvel products, that don’t even possess half the technical precision, directorial vision, much less box office gross of the Pandora-set film.

Frankly, I get second-hand embarassment just thinking about them.

But we’re not here to talk about those with clearly lesser-developed frontal lobes. We’re here to talk about the monumental, long, looong-delayed sequel, that’s just finally premiered this week. We’re here to discuss Avatar: The Way of Water.


AWOW, as I call it, (which is pronounced “Hey, wow!” by the way) starts off over a decade after the events of the original film. Jake Sully, now a full-bodied Na’vi member, having transferred his consciousness into his avatar form with the help of Eywa in the first film, is married to Neytiri, and has a growing brood. This includes Neteyam, his eldest son, their second son Lo’ak, and “Tuk,” their youngest daughter. 14-year old Kiri, born of an apparent immaculate conception from Grace Augustine’s avatar body, and played by Sigourney Weaver, and Spider, a human male, and son of Colonel Quaritch, are the family’s adoptive son and daughter.

Unlike the first film, where Jake only had his own safety to be concerned with, now he has a family to worry about. So when humans in powerful warships descend from the sky over Pandora to recontinue their quest for the planet’s minerals, he must balance his role as a protector of the tribe, with a protector of his immediate family. At first he’s able to make this arrangement work. He leads the Omatikaya clan in derailing (literally) a train system, stealing weapons and supplies to be used against further encroachment of the “sky people.”

However, it isn’t long before an old enemy resurfaces, who has made this restarted colonization process a personal matter rather than one staking the future of a dying earth, and Jake is forced to go on the run with his family. Leaving their home in the forest, Jake leads his wife and children to the Metkayina clan, who live near the ocean, in harmony with the vibrant aquatic life forms. But Colonel Quaritch, now reincarnated in an avatar body, but with all of the old soldier’s maliciousness, eventually catches up to the Marine that betrayed him, leading to an explosive (and watery) showdown.

Visually, this film is a masterpiece, of course. It’s even unprecedented, despite being a continuation of the original. It makes 2009’s Avatar look like an early 2000s Playstation game (Resident Evil: Nemesis, anyone?), even though Avatar’s CGI still looks pretty good, or better, than films made in the past five years. It all goes without saying that Cameron has raised the bar again, having pioneered underwater mocap suits for AWOW. See it in 3D and IMAX and it’s as transportive as the original, maybe even more so. There are sequences that just look impossible. Cameron sought to create a cinematic spectacle that was like “dreaming with your eyes wide open,” and he certainly pulled it off. Except while dreams are usually chaotic and messy, Way of Water is a focused, entertaining spectacle of the highest order.

All that said, what about the story? While I’ve defended the original as vigorously as an attorney who knows his client is innocent, it’d be the height of intellectual dishonesty not to acknowledge the film’s shortcomings. The Godfather, it is not. But then, no four-quadrant tentpole science-fiction/action/fantasy that costs a quarter million to produce is either. It’s a simple story told on a vast stage, which is what most of your big budget spectacle films try to do.

However, there is a noticable upgrade when it comes to nuance, in the character work and plot of AWOW, versus the original. People who liked the first but left wanting a little more, will likely be satisfied with this latest sequel.

In fact, some of that extra narrrative weight actually proves the film’s weakness, as well as its strength. In AWOW, Cameron does something I don’t think he’s ever done before in any of his films. That is, balance a large central cast filled with intricate relationships. This is a story about a family, not about a man (Sully), as in the original. Sometimes Jake recedes to the background in favor of his colorfully characterized children, only to resurface when needed. Neytiri almost fades away after the mid-point, only to come back powerfully at the climax. Almost all of Cameron’s films involve a single, central relationship. In The Terminator, it’s Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. In Aliens, it’s Ripley and 8-year old Newt, the lone surviving colonist. In T2, he steps it up with John Connor and the good T-800, and John and his mother, Sarah. Titanic it’s Jack and Rose. In Avatar, it’s Jake and the Omatikaya, and Jake and Neytiri.

In AWOW, there is no one central relationship to steamline the story. There are like five interwoven ones. Jake and his overall role as patriarch to his family and husband to Neytiri. Jake and his relationship to his “disappointing” second oldest son, Lo’ak. Lo’ak, and his relationship to Payakan, a whale-like creature. Kiri, and her spiritual relationship to Eywa. And lastly, Spider, and his relationship to his sorta father Quaritch.

It’s all pretty big and cumbersome. Almost unwieldy, were it not for the film’s monstrous 3 hour and 12 minute running time. Cameron gives ample space for most of the major plot threads. Though some are no sooner started than minimized to background noise. For instance, after Spider is captured by Quaritch and his avatar-embodied marines, he largely disappears, save for a few short sequences, until the film’s final fight. Meanwhile, Lo’ak encounters the friendly and misunderstood Payakan, while Kiri explores her abilities to connect with the planet’s maternal entity, Eywa. Most of the threads come together for proper payoffs, save for Kiri’s epileptic reaction to plugging in to Eywa. It’s stated by human medics that if the teenager attempts to access the spirit mother again, she could die, in an apparent set-up to a future sacrificial moment. But this never comes comes to fruition, and is never mentioned again.

All of these relationships in AWOW are meant to reflect the bigger theme — which is mankind’s relationship with nature itself. This film is a “love letter to the ocean,” as Cameron puts it. More specifically, it’s a calling to be more mindful of what we put in the ocean, and in our environment. Reinforcing that theme is the appearance of a cruel, Captain Ahab-like character, who’s hunting Tulkuns (Payakan’s species) for their highly valuable brain fluid, which can evidently “stop aging” in its tracks. Though one wonders why humans would want to live forever on a “dying planet.” The metaverse must be significantly improved to Matrix-like levels in the future earth of Avatar.

While it’s possible sequels will resolve some of the missing links in AWOW’s great chain of relationships and plot points, it’s fair to say that this latest film is a ten-pound story stuffed into a five-pound bag. Even though it’d never be financially feasible to construct an Avatar streaming series given the technical requirements (not to mention Cameron’s time-consuming perfectionism), you all but one need one at this point. If the visionary director who submerged to the lowest point in our oceans has his way, we could be seeing at least three more sequels. Might five installments (or more) be enough to contain the whole story? It’s hard to tell, but part of me thinks this is a bit of a runaway train. Not that I’m complaining.

It would be impossible to count off every CGI marvel in AWOW. But for me, the most impressive, and honestly most touching visual, was a brief shot after Payakan splashes his new human friend, Lo’ak. The Tulkun dives under the water, but not before casting back a self-aware, playful look in his eye. I don’t think I’ve ever seen behavioral subtlety done that effectively in an animal character before. For sure, humanoid CGI characters like Thanos emote quite realistically. Or the chimpanzee protagonist Caesar from the Apes films. We’ve become spoiled with all the computer-generated wizardry. But to make a whale’s personality shine in a brief moment — that takes things to another, emotional level. Quite impressive and stellar, to say the least.

Overall, I’d give Avatar: The Way of Water 4.5 stars out of five, losing half a point only for its overstuffedness, and some minor excessive indulgence. There were some sequences that could have been trimmed for a leaner run-time. But that’s like complaining about there being too much food at a long-awaited for feast. AWOW is the best you’re going to see in IMAX 3D, and absolutely worth checking out once, twice, or more times. I just hope part three arrives in a timely fashion. I’d like to see this franchise come to a completion within my lifetime.

I Love ‘Avatar’ and Haters Can Choke

Source: Official ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Poster from 20th Century Studios via WDW News Today

“Avatar is just Fern Gully in space.”

“Avatar is just Pocahontas in space.”

“Avatar is a white savior movie…in space.”

Avatar left no pop culture footprint.”

Avatar is the most successful failure ever.”

“Avatar has phenomenal CGI but a terrible story and stock characters.”

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourselves.

You know, for a movie so many people keep insisting sucks and was evidently “forgotten” after premiering in December 2009, you’d think they were talking about something like Delgo. That weird, creepy-looking animation from 2008 that became one of the biggest box office bombs in history, making barely a million bucks against a $40,000,000 budget.

Delgo, like Avatar, is set in a mythical fantasy land where conflict arises between two warring alien clans, and features two lovers from opposing sides trying to find romance despite their differences in heritage.

But then the two films diverge quite massively, as Delgo legit blows, while Avatar is a bonafide masterpiece and a technical milestone that made nearly $2.7 billion in its initial theatrical run.

Avatar kicks ass, and I’m tired of people pretending that it doesn’t.

The same losers who shit on Avatar are the same ones who made Star Wars: The Force Awakens the number one highest grossing U.S. domestic release in box office history. And that JJ Abrams-directed fan fiction is nothing but a bigger budget remake of Episode IV, and has about as much creativity as an elephant fart. You know it and I know it.

Oooh, ooh, instead of a Death Star, we’re going to have a planet-sized Death Star this time! And instead of blowing up just one planet, it’s going to blow up several! And we’re going to make a FEMALE as our protagonist. A female lead? OMG that’s unprecedented! And we’re even going to have a black guy in it as a lead too (though in sequels we’re going to reduce his importance until he’s buffoonishly inconsequential so much the actor wants nothing more to do with the franchise). Never been done!

So which is it, idiots? Avatar’s just a ripoff of Fern Gully and Pocahontas using a familiar hero’s journey template, but Force Awakens is somehow the greatest thing ever put to film? You can’t have it both ways.

Source: Screenshot of Google results for “Avatar is…”

I’m not going into all the technical details about why Avatar’s CGI and motion capture technology was so ground breaking. It’s all been said before, I’m pressed for time, and I’m not that much of a dork to get into the nitty gritty tech stuff.

I will, however, compare Avatar to a jury of its peers — other massive science-fiction/action film franchises — which is how everyone should appraise James Cameron’s movie.

First, some blunt honesty.

Avatar is obviously not The Godfather. It’s not some deep A24 indy film about some guy’s existential middle-aged crisis or something. It’s a finely crafted popcorn flick with phenomenal special effects, with some superficial environmentalist themes. That’s about it. I love it because it’s a transportive amusement park ride, and executes its story just about perfectly. A rare feat few movies accomplish. Avatar is still the best and most immersive movie theater experience I’ve EVER had. It does everything a sci-fi/action film should do, and way more. Yet for some reason everyone judges Avatar harshly, while giving substantially lesser franchises an easy pass.

People only hate Avatar at this point becuse they think they’re supposed to. It’s cool and hip to be anti-Avatar because it’s so popular. And I get it. Sometimes popular stuff does indeed suck ass. God knows I’ll never understand the appeal of Twilight or Fifty Shades, but I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m better than people who like those franchises. Most times, things are popular for a good reason. They connect with people in a visceral and profound way.

Anyway, we’ve already peeked at the new Star Wars films, Avatar’s closest competitor that’s also within the massive Disney ecosystem. And what do we see? A disorganized mess with no vision, no scope, no outline, no coherency, and no theme. Seriously, what the fuck are the newest Star Wars products even about? Empire bad, robed people good? LOL, GTFO! They stand for nothing!

Whether you hate Avatar or not, it’s virtually impossible to walk away from seeing that film and not get the pro-environmental and anti-imperialist messages, however hamfisted those themes are handled. And whether you agree or disagree with those themes, the fact that a writer/director is able to inject his vision into a spectacle film about giant blue people in a coherent and frankly meanginful way is honestly pretty impressive.

Now let’s take a look at another competitor — the Marvel films. I will grant you that some of the Marvel installments like Infinity War, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and even the first Guardians of the Galaxy, are pretty good. The mocap technology used to bring Thanos to life is incredible. And I have no idea how producer and plot captain Kevin Feige manages to interweave so many characters and storylines together between so many directors and writers. But for the most part, your typical Marvel movie is servicable, without saying much or doing much to stick with you. Really, do you remember anything from Iron Man 2, or Captain Marvel, or The Incredible Hulk? I don’t. And nowadays, the Marvel mega-franchise has become increasingly watered-down and impossible to follow with all the Disney+ stuff and about ten films released every year. Marvel is proof there is sometimes too much of a good thing. I’ve given up on the superhero soap opera simply because there’s too much to keep track of. Marvel used to feel special with maybe two releases a year. Now it feels forgettable and paint-by-numbers.

Meanwhile, James Cameron took 13 years — 13 years! — to make Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to the 2009 film. Could you imagine any other franchise taking that level of care and patience when it came to producing a sequel? Could you even imagine any director delaying an Avengers film for almost a decade and a half until the tech was “right?” Of course you couldn’t. And that’s because Marvel films, for all their occassional creativity and spectacle, are mostly business products at the end of the day. They are there to enhance Disney’s bottom line.

But what is Avatar: The Way of Water? According to the creator himself, it’s the “worst business case in movie history.” TWOW apparently has to gross almost $2 billion just to break even. Or like one sixth the current market cap of Dogecoin. Its budget is a bloated potential time bomb to Disney’s already floundering stock price. A cathedral to one director’s massive ego to make the biggest film of all time thrice.

And you know what? That’s awesome. Not many artists are willing to go all in on their own work time after time again, costs be damned. Hell, most people aren’t even willing to invest 10% of their money without making sure it’s in a properly “diversified portfolio.” And most artists can’t sell themselves for shit, and have as much confidence as a teenage boy with a face full of acne standing in front of his high school crush. Not James “Big Balls” Cameron, who’s hit a grand slam twice in a row with Titanic and Avatar both taking up the number one wordwide box office crown, and declared himself the “King of the World.” Can he do it a third time? Time will tell.

So, what mega sci-fi franchise is next? Jurassic World? Ha ha. Yeah, right. Each installment has devolved so much it got to the point where the 2015 hit was basically a meta joke of itself, and is mostly known for its lead actress unrealistically running around in heels the whole time. Seriously, Bryce Dallas Howard, what’s your deal? Even Debbie Reynolds wore flats for some of the dance routines in Singin’ in the Rain. And her dance partner was Gene Kelly. Who was your co-star again? Oh, yeah, this goober:

Source: Parks and Recs (via Den of Geek)

Jurassic Park is a brilliant novel and film, without a doubt. But looking at the franchise collectively, and you can’t help but but feel exhausted by its purely business-driven cynicism. It’s like looking at a giant Excel spreadsheet with a T-Rex pasted in the corner. Pass.

Now what? Transformers? The cinematic equivalent of what a 13-year old kid would puke up after binging all night on Mountain Dew and Snickers bars? A franchise filled with robot on robot action scenes so messy and convoluted you need shock therapy to recover after seeing them? It’s kind of amazing that for a franchise that ran for 11 years, it only produced one decent film — Bumblebee. The last of the live action Transformers films since its release in 2018, and actually made the least amount of money. Which is a bad look for the once mighty audience of this franchise, as when they were finally presented a sequel of quality, they turned their noses up to it.

Oh, but I’m sure Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is totally going to rejuvenate the franchise when it comes out next year. Can’t wait for that one.

The Matrix? You talk as if there are sequels to the 1999 groundbreaking bullet-time hit. Maybe one day there will be. But for now, we’ll just have to keep waiting.

The Terminator franchise, aka the Old Arnie Show? Even as a big fan of the original two Cameron films, I can’t bring myself to acknowledge the sequels/reboots/remakes/reimaginings/whatever you want to call them, even as fun escapism. And as far as artistry or filmmaking craft go, they are obviously woefully short of the original and Judgment Day.

It’s not all negative, though. Avatar does have franchise peers in its genre.

The Alien Franchise, including the two Ridley Scott Prometheus/Alien: Covenant films, is probably the closest to Avatar in terms of special effects and directorial vision. Not to mention polarization among audiences, with many still split on the thematically muddled messes the last two Scott films have presented. But unlike Avatar, with its colorful, lush world, the Alien films are restrained to their bleak and nihilistic horror settings. Not exactly a fair comparison. And while the latest films to feature the creature with acid for blood haven’t been knock outs, they’re far better crafted than 99% of what you’ll find in your typical horror/sci-fi genre.

Another peer franchise to Avatar would have to be the new Planet of the Apes films, with the next sequel Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes scheduled to premier in May, 2024. But unlike Avatar’s blowout box office numbers, Apes has largely flown under the radar, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the franchise’s highest-grossing film to date) only grossing under one quarter of what Avatar did. It really goes to show how hard it is to find an audience these days, even when you have groundbreaking special effects, great writing, a classic IP, and a strong cast, which the Apes films have in spades.

Will Avatar: The Way of Water become another smash hit like the original when it comes out on December 15? There’s no way to know for sure. But I do know that it’s one of the few films I’ve actually been looking forward to seeing for a long time. And I’m damn sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Put against its rivals, Avatar stands head and shoulders above most of its competition in every categorical measure. Special effects, story, cast, box office draw, vision, and yes, even impact and legacy. Who exactly is still talking about Transformers? No one’s even discussing Jurassic World: Dominion, and that movie came out this year. But everyone will be talking about the new Avatar sequel. Not to mention seeing it again and again.

I love Avatar and haters can choke.