AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) – Big Budget James Cameron Sequel Worth the Wait, Not the Price Tag

Thirteen years?

Are you kidding me?

That’s the time in between the first movie AVATAR (2009), and its sequel AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) which just opened in theaters this weekend. I loved AVATAR. I remember being blown away by its 3D effects, which were the best I had ever seen at that point, and its story wasn’t half bad either.

But thirteen years? Why should I care about a sequel to a movie I barely remember? This has been my mindset leading up to the release of this sequel, but truth be told, I am only half serious, and that’s because I know the answer to that question. The reason I still care about this sequel is because it’s being made by James Cameron.

Cameron of course has directed a long line of innovative movie hits, including THE TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), TITANIC (1997), and AVATAR. Cameron’s movies are always visually impressive, and sometimes, as was the case with the 3D technology in AVATAR, groundbreaking. So, while I poke fun at the gap of years between the two movies, I still was interested in seeing this sequel.

Speaking of which, let’s get down to business. Is AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER any good? Well, of course it is! The real question is, just how good is it?

Visually speaking, it’s tremendously good! This is a movie that is nearly one hundred percent animated, using motion-capture and CGI effects throughout, on the fictional planet of Pandora. It’s a visual treat for the senses. The film is beautiful to look at.

My favorite part, though, is actually the characters, who though animated, come to life through their expressions and mannerisms. You really believe the characters you are watching are real.

Now, I wasn’t able to see AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER in 3D this time around, and that was just fine with me. I mean, a movie shouldn’t need 3D technology to make it a success. It has to stand on its own. As such, even in 2D, the effects here hold up.

The story in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER takes place several years after the events of the first movie, and we find Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) living with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) among her forest people, and as such they now have a family, two sons and two daughters. We find out that the villainous Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who Jake and Neytiri killed at the end of the first movie, has been cloned in the form of the indigenous people of Pandora, as have a bunch of other military soldiers.

The Sky People— people from Earth— continue their military mission to conquer the natives of Pandora because Earth is dying, and humans need a new place to live. The mission has been going badly because the native animals in the forest attack and kill the soldiers before they can even reach the native peoples they want to conquer. So, the thinking is, these new soldiers created to look like Pandorans will get by the animals because they will be perceived as natural to the environment. And Quaritch has an added mission, which is to find and kill Jake.

When Jake realizes they are coming for him, he moves his family away, and they relocate far away in a new community with the ocean people who primarily function underwater. But, as expected, Quaritch and his soldiers eventually track Jake down, setting the stage for a climactic battle.

As stories go, the one told in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is okay. The big picture stuff is all rather simplified, the evil soldiers who don’t care about the environment, the animals, and ultimately the people there, vs. Jake and his people who care about all these things. It’s simplified, but it makes its points, and it works.

The story works even better when it focuses on family, and I’m tempted to say that AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is more about Jake’s and Neytiri’s children, but that would be an unfair assessment, because it’s also about Jake and Neytiri. But a bulk of this movie is about the children, who range in age from young adult, to teen, to school age, and their stories are every bit as interesting as the adult stories, especially their relationship with the children of the ocean people, and with the animals, especially the sea creatures. That all worked for me, and so when you get to the film’s conclusion, and all these folks are in harm’s way, it makes for some very exciting and emotional storytelling.

The screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver works best when it creates these characters and allows the audience to get to know them and care for them. It doesn’t work as well when it comes to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The film gets off to a sluggish start as little or no effort is made to connect events unfolding to the previous movie, and for me, it took a good twenty minutes before I started to settle in and feel like this movie was going somewhere.

The movie runs three hours and twelve minutes, which is an incredibly long running time, but honestly, it held my attention, and so the running time itself isn’t an issue. However, after sitting through a movie for three hours, you expect a finite conclusion, and AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER doesn’t really give us one. The major conflict between Jake and Quaritch isn’t resolved, and questions about Jake’s and Neytiri’s oldest daughter’s powers and heritage are left unanswered. Movie audiences deserve a finite conclusion, even if more movies are planned.

There are also some lapses of logic. It struck me as naive that the ocean people accept Jake and his family without realizing that doing so would threaten their own family, knowing that the Sky People are actively searching for Jake. Jake tells them as much when he explains why they fled their homeland. And at the end of the movie, Jake declares that with his newfound family, the ocean people having accepted them, that this is their new home, and their days of running are over. It’s better to stand firm and defend one’s home than run away, which begs the question, where was this attitude at the beginning of the movie?

It’s difficult to talk about the actors in this one because we never really see their human likenesses, but in terms of voice work, they all do superb jobs. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, and many others all lend their voices and do great work. A lot has been made about Kate Winslet doing her own underwater diving and holding her breath for a record time, and while this is impressive, it’s weird to think about, because you don’t really see Kate Winslet underwater. I mean you do, but it’s her as an Avatar character. It’s just weird to think about. There’s a part of me that hopes this isn’t the future of movies, where you will have actors involved who are unrecognizable because the technology has completely changed the way they look.

Edie Falco appears in human form as General Ardmore, and she was fun to watch as she was one of the few characters allowed to talk down to Quaritch, but she’s only in the movie during its first half.

I enjoyed AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER quite a bit. However, this movie cost between $350-$400 million to make, and when you see the effects, you’ll understand why. And yes, admittedly, the visuals in this movie blew me away. But a movie is more than just visuals. There’s story, characters, themes, dialogue, and emotion. Now, AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER gets most of these right as well, or at least the characters and the emotion part. The story is as I said earlier rather simplified.

So, what’s my point? Simply this. A $350-$400-million-dollar budget doesn’t guarantee the best movie of the year, meaning there were plenty of other movies I’ve seen this year that I liked better than this one. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful that Cameron made this movie, but that’s a ton of money, and it will be interesting to see if this film makes enough money to turn a profit.

At the end of the day, I liked AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER a lot. Its visuals, especially the world it creates, is second to none. It also has a lot of likable characters and tells an emotional story. But it still plays like a sequel, or at least one small part in a bigger story arc that is set to continue with more AVATAR movies. Which for me is the biggest knock against AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. It’s just not a standalone movie. $350-$400 million dollars is a lot of money for just one chapter in a story.

I give it three stars.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

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