Avatar: The Way of Water spoiler review: Never doubt James Cameron

(L-R): Ronal, Tonowari, and the Metkayina clan in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R): Ronal, Tonowari, and the Metkayina clan in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

*Warning: the following article contains major spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water.*

Oh, man. I’ll say this: I never thought Avatar: The Way of Water would ever see the light of day. I remember seeing the first Avatar as an eleven-year-old KID with my father months after its initial release, as all the kids in my school were touting it as the greatest movie ever made. It wasn’t, and felt amazingly underwhelming and milquetoast, even for a kid who wanted to be wowed at every occasion he would go to the cinema.

Revisiting Avatar earlier this year, when the IMAX 3D remaster got released, made me take a step back at my initial take on the movie: it’s fine. The visual effects hold up amazingly well, the 3D is an absolute feast for the eyes, and the action sequences are incredible (plus Stephen Lang gives one hell of a menacing performance as Colonel Miles Quaritch). But the script is terrible, giving another white savior re-tread in the form of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who appropriates the culture of the Na’vi to gain their trust.

It’s amazingly predictable and schmaltzy when it sets up Jake’s relationship with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). So even if the visuals of Avatar: The Way of Water looked lifelike and unlike anything we’d ever seen, my hopes for the sequel weren’t high. Coupled with the fact that the wait between the two films seemed to last an eternity (it didn’t help that COVID factored into that), my hype was practically non-existent. Of course, early reviews would hail it as a masterpiece, but they may not necessarily reflect what audiences will feel when it comes out.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a spectacular spectacle

I wished I’d slap this version of me in the face because Avatar: The Way of Water is a true masterwork from one of the greatest (if not the greatest) visionaries of our time. No one loves Pandora more than James Cameron, and he bathes in the world for two long hours before delivering the purest maximalist spectacle of the year made by an American production after S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR.

If you’ve seen RRR, you’re probably familiar with the scene where Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) attacks Governor Scott Buxton’s (Ray Stevenson) manor with a bunch of wild animals. Replace the tigers, deer, and lions with whales (or the more appropriate term would be Tulkuns), and you’ve got the climax of Avatar: The Way of Water. It’s so satisfying to see colonizers and big game hunters get what they deserve as nature reclaims what’s theirs and doesn’t hold anything back.

The main Tulkun hunter (Brendan Cowell) gets his arm ripped off by the creature, which traps the boat he and Dr. Ian Gavin (Jemaine Clement) are in with a steel rope. That’s hands down the greatest moment in the film’s hour-long climax, where the in-your-face action keeps topping itself in ways you can’t even imagine. Cameron takes his time to set up essential details on the sea portion of Pandora, where the Metkayina clan reside.

That’s where Jake, Neytiri, and his children, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), go to escape the clutches of a recombined Colonel Miles Quaritch, who has returned to Pandora to avenge his human body’s death and kill Jake Sully. Meanwhile, the RDA has also returned to Pandora, with General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco) leading the new colonization efforts.

It’s all straightforward in that it’s a classic good guy versus bad guys story, with the good guys having problems of their own and the bad guys being caricatured to shreds. But amidst that cartoonishness, there are some terrific performances from Stephen Lang, Matt Gerald, Brendan Cowell, and Edie Falco. Unfortunately, Falco’s character seems to be the major player in the upcoming three sequels, as she’s a walking and talking exposition machine. Still, it’s great to see her play something that feels entirely against the roles she basked in during and after playing Carmela Soprano.

But Lang continues to be the highlight of the Avatar films. His portrayal of Quaritch is far more nuanced here than in the last movie. He has failed as a human and sees his recombined Na’vi body as an embarrassment, which leads him to kidnap Jake’s adopted human son, Miles “Spider” Soccoro (Jack Champion), for his gain. And while Avatar: The Way of Water severely lacks in its screenplay department in terms of story, it more than makes up for its staggering visuals and incredible action setpieces.

You should’ve seen my reaction when the Tulkun exacts his revenge on the RDA. It’s not something that I would’ve thought of seeing the climax play out this way. Still, it felt so oddly satisfying to see human colonizers being crushed by the Tulkun’s fin or having an exploding bullet ricochet out of its skin and landing in a propeller. Stuff like this feels bog-standard, but Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter execute the action with such precision that it translates into something so brain-melting it feels like you’re witnessing something real and practical when most of it is done through CGI and motion capture.

None of the visual effects feel fake, and Na’vi’s looks have improved from the first film to this one, which is crazy because they were already looking lifelike in the first film! We meet the even more lifelike Metkayina, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), who is, unfortunately, the film’s weakest part. Neytiri doesn’t get much to do either, but Saldaña gives a better performance here than in the first film.

The only thing Curtis and Winslet do in this is a cyclical “you don’t belong here” spiel to Jake while reprimanding their children for every wrong decision they make. Ronal doesn’t want the Forest clan and the Toruk Makto to be here because she knows Jake will bring his war with the “sky people” to the Metkayina. And when they inevitably arrive, everyone has to fight for their survival.

I also have another nitpick about using a High Frame Rate throughout the movie. The film’s “optimal” viewing experience is in IMAX 3D, 4K, at 48 frames per second. HFR has been touted as a revolutionary tool since Peter Jackson tried to tout it as the next big thing with his Hobbit trilogy, but it never materialized. Ang Lee also wanted to make it an item with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man, but it didn’t work either.

James Cameron’s approach to HFR is mind-boggling. One shot, or moment in the frame, is in 24fps, while the other shot, or a specific element, is in 48fps. The result feels like a Supermassive Games video game, where the “gameplay” elements are in a higher and hyperreal frame rate, and the cutscenes are bogged down to a standard frame rate. The cuts between frame rates are jarring and don’t work in the overall scheme of the movie. You either do a film at a full High Frame Rate or not. And I would hope that Cameron chooses the latter for the subsequent three sequels.

But that didn’t stop me from being overwhelmed by the sheer technical prowess of Avatar: The Way of Water, which begs to be experienced on the most giant screen possible in IMAX 3D. Cameron is a gifted visual storyteller and knows how to blow the audience away on every possible occasion he gets.

This film isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than most American blockbusters made nowadays. Its earnestness is felt from beginning to end, especially during its spectacular final battle, which gives the first film a run for its money and more than earns its 3-hour and 12-minute runtime. Should the next one be nine hours long, I wouldn’t mind, as long as there’s a six-hour climax that’s as good, if not better, as the one presented in Avatar: The Way of Water.

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Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theatres everywhere.