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Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) | Review

By Susanna Lehtonen

Rating: 4/5

Thirteen years ago, everyone had heard of or seen Avatar, a movie about an alien planet whose peace and delicate balance was being threatened by humans hungry for its resources. In December of 2022, legendary movie director James Cameron invites us to return to Pandora, where the threat humans pose to the planet’s inhabitants and harmony remains. Although it echoes the core environmentalist message of the first film, Avatar: Way of Water pushes the limits of modern cinema to deliver a movie with uniquely breathtaking visual effects. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 2022, but it’s no secret that even with an estimated budget of 350 million USD (making it one of the most expensive films ever made) it falls short in certain aspects. Nevertheless, it is clear that this film will make its mark as one of this decade’s most technologically groundbreaking films.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a sequel to the movie released over a decade ago about the battle between the Na’vi, the indigenous inhabitants of the alien planet Pandora, and the ‘sky people’—humans—who are attempting to (once again) strip the planet of its precious natural resources and who will not tolerate any resistance from the Na’vi. Set a decade after the events of the first movie, we see the return of Jake Sully, who has left behind his human body to embrace his Na’vi avatar and start a family with Neytiri, his Na’vi partner. The movie is mainly centred around their five kids, three biological and two adopted, or ‘stray’ as Jake charmingly calls Spider. Of the three biological children, Lo’ak (second eldest) is given the most central role in his struggle to live up to the strict expectations of his father. Kiri, the adopted daughter of the Sullys—played by 73-year-old Sigourney Weaver—adjusts to her mysterious abilities to connect with Pandora’s wildlife, while Spider wrestles with his unique position of being fully human but raised by the Na’vi. However, as the return of the ‘sky people’ threatens the peace established by Jake and Neytiri, they and their children are ultimately forced to leave their forest home and seek shelter from the Metkayina tribe, who inhabit the beautiful shorelines and reefs of Pandora. The return of a familiar threat pressures the Sullys to quickly familiarise themselves with a completely new environment, with its own natural wonders and dangers, to eventually face their enemy together as a family.

Courtesy of Disney

To this day, the first Avatar is remembered for its role in pioneering 3D cinematography, and, at the time, being unique in using CG to bring a completely alien world to life on cinema screens around the world. In many ways, Way of Water has taken this to a completely new level. Water is notoriously difficult to portray realistically using computer technology, but thanks to a lot of the scenes actually being shot underwater and paired with what the latest technology has to offer, Way of Water creates a mesmerising world any viewer can easily find themselves immersed in. A good chunk of the movie achieves just that, with at least an hour spent establishing the new world of Pandora’s oceans and reefs and all the diverse creatures lurking beneath the surface. Although I didn’t find it too distracting, it definitely contributed to the film’s rather extended runtime of over 3 hours. Though I loved how meticulously crafted the underwater scenes were, I didn’t really need to see the entirety of the astonishingly detailed crash course the Sullys received on riding the various types of alien seals and fish of Pandora. Despite the movie feeling a little National Geographic-esque at times with dragged-out scenes overlooking nature, Cameron’s way of capturing this new aspect of Pandora managed to highlight how the planet lives and breathes as a single organism. Although we’ve explored only a fraction of Pandora’s wildlife, it’s easy to see how all these ecosystems are interconnected. Cameron’s worldbuilding is nothing short of masterful, and certainly the highlight of the movie for me.

Even though the visual aspect of Way of Water was praised to high heavens by both critics and audiences alike, other aspects of the movie deserve some criticism. For many, it was the main plot. It’s clear that the story was secondary to establishing the underwater ecosystem of Pandora. With a theme very similar to that of the first movie, at times the story felt like a repeat of familiar events: humans land on Pandora and discover a precious resource so important and expensive that they will stop at nothing and nobody to obtain it. With the main villain also being literally brought back to life to hunt Jake once again, I partly agree with this criticism: it feels like none of the conflicts established in the first movie were resolved, making the plot of Way of Water seem lazy and superficial at first.

However, while watching the movie, I didn’t mind the simple storyline. For example, the decision to bring back Colonel Quaritch as Na’vi struck me as an interesting take on the character. In the first movie we’re never really given reasons to sympathise with Quaritch: he is clearly indifferent to Pandora or its delicate ecosystem and only awaits the next moment to shoot at anything that moves. Now, the new Colonel we meet is not the same as the first movie but rather a Na’vi avatar who has the original Colonel Quaritch’s memories transferred to him. Though the technicalities of all this are left a little muddled, there is an added level of uncertainty to the Colonel’s actions, as, technically, he has no personal reason to hunt the Sullys. This is sadly never explored to its full potential—we are left with a villain who plays a 3-hour cat-and-mouse game with Jake, and though he seems to take a moment to question his actions towards the end of the movie, no significant changes to his character take place.

Despite being narrated by Jake, Way of Water is ultimately a story about Neytiri’s and Jake’s kids—biological, adopted or just tagging along—finding their place in the world. With an array of relationships to each other and their guardians, the film has many ways to establish conflict between the children. However, we are only expected to care about two of the 5 kids: we mainly follow Lo’ak’s struggle to fulfil his father’s expectations and Kiri’s strongly hinted but ultimately unexplained connection to Eywa, Pandora’s guardian life force and deity. The rest of the kids are left as background characters springing into action only when the story requires a major turn of events. I didn’t see it as a major downside though, as adding any more dialogue-heavy scenes with character building would have pushed the limits of my attention span. Nevertheless, the kids were charming and fun to observe: the only thing that bothered me and many others was the dialogue. Between scenes of breathtaking scenery and, well, literal aliens, the ear-grating exchanges involving frankly absurd usage of ‘bro’ effectively broke the otherworldly experience set up by Cameron. Putting the logic of where they would even pick up these types of words aside (when everyone around them is either a scientist or a soldier on an alien planet hundreds of years into the future), the exchange felt jarring. It was clearly a tragic attempt by a screenwriter to emulate teenage lingo extremely unsuccessfully.

Courtesy of Disney

Though I believe the story of Way of Water to be its weakest point, it doesn’t take away from the main message of the movie. The familiar ‘humans bring destruction of nature wherever they go’ theme is glaringly obvious throughout Way of Water, with the weapons of the ‘sky people’ cutting away at plants and animals any minute humans are shown on screen. Though this contributes to what may first seem like a superficial plot about the importance of nature preservation, having the Sully kids take centre stage adds an additional layer to it. We are reminded of the importance of family staying together in the face of conflict, rather than allowing individual grudges to drift everyone apart. Throughout the movie we see each of Sully’s kids accept their roles in the family and take their first—however wavering—steps into becoming their own persons. With this newfound confidence, the Sully kids are able to support their parents in crucial moments of the final battle. As Jake reminds his family over and over again: ‘Sullys stick together’. This theme is beautifully mirrored by the end credits song ‘Nothing is Lost’ by The Weeknd, which powerfully concludes the film. A movie franchise that started with a rather in-your-face message about environmentalism managed to stay true to its origins while adding a level of complexity to it—something I’d expect from any successful sequel.

I left the cinema—though feeling a little stiff in my limbs after 3 hours of sitting—ultimately satisfied and in awe. Way of Water has truly redefined the word ‘cinematic’ and set a new standard for modern cinema. Although maybe simplistic at times, the main theme of Way of Water doesn’t require excessive explanation, metaphors, or expertly written dialogue. It’s a story about the never-ending fight between humans and nature, and how any adversity can be faced and maybe even overcome by sticking together. The plot is not the main focus here, which can be seen as both a weakness in terms of depth, and a strength when highlighting the current visual standard of movies. Needless to say, I’m excited to return to the beautiful lands and seas of Pandora for the promised sequels, whenever that may be.


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