Larger in spectacle but smaller in scope, the return to Pandora packs a visual and emotional punch.
It happened. 13 years after the original film, I returned to Pandora. After years of anticipation, I trekked to a local theater, purchased popcorn and blue-tinged Avatar: The Way of Water souvenirs, and experienced the movie in 3D. According to a Hollywood adage, you should never bet against James Cameron, especially when it comes to sequels—the man made Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens, after all. The Way of Water largely reinforces that tenet. Yet, despite the triumph that is The Way of Water—and it is indeed a triumph—I left feeling a little unfulfilled.
The film begins by dropping us into the Valley of Mo’Ara, where the Omaticaya have made their home base in the sky. After most of the Sky People were kicked off Pandora following the conclusion of the first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have started a family consisting of three biological children, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuktirey (Trinity Bliss). Their brood also includes two adopted children; Kiri (played by Sigourney Weaver, who played Dr. Grace Augustine in the first film), and Miles Socorro (referred to as “Spider,” played by Jack Champion), a human left behind because apparently babies can’t go into cryo. The lens of the film focuses sharply on the Sully children, who drive much of the plot.
To no one’s surprise, Earth’s Resources Development Administration (RDA) is back on Pandora and not just to extract its precious minerals, but to populate Pandora because Earth is “dead.” We are then re-introduced to Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain from the first film. Quaritch is dead, though not entirely; through clever exposition and scientific achievements, we learn that he and select members of his squad made arrangements so that a part of them—their memories and DNA—were preserved before the assault on the Tree of Souls, the finale to the first film. Those plans were apparently best laid, because Quaritch & company are efficiently brought back in Na’vi form and recruited by Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco) to put a stopper to the Omaticaya, who, under Jake’s lead, are successfully attacking and impeding RDA’s progress.
After one of the Sully children is injured in an attack on RDA orchestrated by Jake, we observe Jake reacting as any father would; with concern. And a little anger. And thus begins an exploration of a central theme to the film: parenthood. What will parents do to keep their children safe? How far will they go? Will they fight? Should they fight? It is these questions that expose the differing parenting philosophies held by Jake and Neyteri. Neyteri, unsurprisingly, wants to stand her ground and fight. Sully, formerly a hot-headed marine, like most men who become fathers, has changed his outlook. He will do whatever it takes to keep his children safe—even if that means fleeing the familiarity of the Omaticaya clan, a clan he now leads. After a trip through the forest, Quartich comes perilously close to hurting the Sully children. Jake decides to uproot the family and they tearfully relinquish their status and community. As a father, this theme spoke strongest to me, and it pushed the film into an emotional depth not explored in the first film. Fatherhood requires dads to, perhaps for the first time in their lives, think beyond themselves. To consider the little lives that now depend on them. The idea of protection weighs heavily on Jake’s mind, as revealed throughout the film via his narration. Is he doing what is right? He’s not sure. But he’s doing what he thinks is right for their safety. And though it’s not entirely similar, as a person who become a father during the pandemic, I can relate to the fears, concerns, and uncertainty that accompany new parenthood, and also to the doubts that accompany such heavy decision-making.
After that first hour, we are finally at sea. The Sullys seek refuge at an island inhabited by the Metkayina clan who are led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet, who is woefully underutilized in this role). After some public trepidation, Ronal grants the Sullys refuge, but not before we get some slightly awkward exchanges between the children of the respective families. It’s made abundantly clear that the Metkayina are water-based, their thicker tails and fin-like hands made obvious within seconds. And then we are exploring the sea along with most of the Sully clan. While Neytiri sits out much of this hour—and much of this film, really—Jake quickly learns to fly and swim with a new creature, called a Skimwing that can, well, swim and fly. Gone are the days of the bonding activities required to fly an Ikran; instead, Jake is seemingly able to plug into the Skimwing as needed, and that’s that. Maybe it’s because he’s now a Navi? Maybe it’s because Ikran are particularly obstinate? It’s not clear, but the speed with which Jake and his children can connect with the sea creatures was noticeably swift.
And speaking of the Sully children—it is this group that steers us through the exploratory phase of the film, which is perhaps my favorite phase. This is where we experience the underwater world of Pandora, the subject of the advanced motion-capture hype, in all its technical, oceanic glory. The Sully children must adapt to the water and there are some growing pains, both in their aquatic pursuits and the dialogue in this section. Kiri, born of mysterious origin to Dr. Grace Augustine’s Avatar (don’t think about it too much), clearly has a unique connection to Pandora, to Ewya, as shown in a brief but textured scene in the forest earlier in the film. Her connection runs deeper, still, during the underwater scenes. She can easily hold her breath for just as long as the Metkayina, and both the sea flora and creatures seem attracted to her most of all. Though not fully fleshed out in this film, the stage is set for Kiri to have an expanded role, whether that’s in the seas or back on land with the Omaticaya.
The emotional weight of this hour comes from a bond made between Lo’ak and Puaykan, a whale-like creature called a Tulkun, that saves Lo’ak’s life after several Metkayina desert him in the deep sea. Lo’ak,the second born son in the Sully clan, often feels like an outsider, and Puaykan was exiled from his clan after attacking humans. (Never mind the fact that this anti-violence stance held by the Tulkun runs contra to the behavior of the land-based creatures in the first film’s finale.) That said, we learn that the Tulkun are emotionally intelligent and capable of communication with the Metkayina, as made clear by the subtitles that appear (in Papyrus font, no less) when the Puaykan make whale-like sounds. The scenes showing the developing connection between Lo’ak and Puaykan are all-encompassing, fill-the-entire-screen style shots of the alien ocean that make for some of the best-looking and emotionally charged moments on screen. You can almost feel their bond through the screen, and it is in these moments where The Way of Water truly shimmers.
In a series of events that merged into one extended storyline, Quartich tracks down the Sullys and hitches a ride on a large ship intent on poaching the Tulkun. There is an extensive poaching scene that shows the brutality with which the RDA capture a mother Tulkun to extract a precious resource from her brain that can apparently stop aging. It is on this brief detour turned frolic that we arrive at the finale; Quartich arrives while the Sully children are–of course–in the water, away from their parents’ protection, trying to save Puaykan. We are thrust into the film’s final hour that largely consists of a battle between Quartich, the Sullys, and the previously reluctant Metkayina clan. Cameron brings the heat for some truly fun action scenes here, including Puaykan attacking a ship. It’s full of spectacle, it’s action-packed, you feel like you’re there—everything you expect from a Cameron sequel. Though, it does feels relatively short-lived. The large set pieces give way to the final act that is devastating and intimate. I won’t spoil what happens here, but Jake and Neytiri do get to showcase their fighting skills in a tightly choreographed scene that could leave you breathless. Worthington and Saladana give gut-wrenching, raw performances that deserve praise. Saldana in particular is so visceral she manages to outshine the technical production. I will be surprised if she does not get a Best Supporting Actress nod from The Academy.
The film ends relatively quietly, the damage to the Sully clan done. It’s not clear whether Quartich will be the main foe in the third film, but he is saved by Spider, a character I hesitated to spend too much time on in this review. Spider, to me, looks and feels out of place and I’m not sure he is necessary to the film. But he is Quartich’s son, and he spends most of the film in captivity with Quartich, keeping the audience apprised of the RDA’s pursuits. His decision to save Quartich will certainly complicate an already complicated relationship with Neytiri, and I am cautiously curious about where Cameron will take this storyline in the next installment.
Let’s start with the good: this film is visually stunning. It dazzles, delights, and glimmers, both above and below the sea. It draws you in immediately and immerses you in a world so detailed and sparkly that you are effectively transported–even if only for a few seconds–somewhere else entirely. That is no small feet. With the deluge of CGI and outsized blockbuster movies, we have come to expect a certain look from films such that they are no longer surprising, no longer impressive. The Way of Water is not one of those movies. In this movie, you are experiencing what you see on screen, in the world of Pandora, allowing you to briefly suspend other thoughts. And that is the beauty of the film. That is what we expect from Avatar; true escapism.
That being said, I now find myself in a weird position, somewhat at odds with critics and fans who absolutely adored The Way of Water. As a major fan of the first film since its release, I’ve been in the trenches of Pandora, so to speak, battling detractors who deemed it simple, bloated, silly, and worst of all, forgettable. Avatar has become a comfort watch for me, and I’ve moved from mere champion of its technicality to vocal proponent of its merit. And it could be for those very reasons why I left the The Way of Water not as blown away as I expected to be, not as awestruck as I wanted to be. Perhaps because I already was all of those things after the first film, and for the years afterward.
My biggest qualm is that it felt like something was missing between the middle hour and the finale; some build up, some additional action scene, something else before I was propelled into the finale. In The Way of Water, the lead up to the finale feels like an entirely different plot. Sure, the poaching ride along leads to the Sully children discovering Puaykan has been marked for tracking. But before that fully resolves, Jake, Netyriri, and the Metkayina are heading toward the ship, a range of other new sea creatures beneath them. Without further fanfare, it’s happening, blink and you may miss it. It wasn’t until I checked my watch that I realized what I was watching was the final act. That’s not to say it wasn’t entertaining or filled with action sequences other films can’t touch. But it somehow felt a little rushed. And much smaller in scale, so focused on one ship versus one whale—as opposed to the tripartite battle that occurred between the Omaticaya, the Pandora fauna, and the RDA in the first film.
I can feel the tension between the words as I write them, but I can’t help it: in spite of the larger than life set pieces, the third act felt small in scope, comparatively speaking. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable. I think it speaks more to my expectations both as an Avatar fan and a believer in the power of a Cameron Sequel. There is also truly so much to absorb in this film, perhaps too much. New characters, plots, and creatures often phase in and out, the newer object replacing the former, with no further mention of what came before. Neytiri is hardly in the film, and even during the final battle sequence, she comes in and out with longs gaps in between; as a warrior whose skills are so abundant in the first film, why was she sidelined this go around? Especially with her kids in the fray? Perhaps most glaring is the vanishing of the Metkayina mid-finale; one minute they are there, the next they are gone. These examples don’t feel like potholes, but instead, like the film was unfinished–or extensively cut during the final edits. And it is odd to feel like a three hour plus movie, made over the course of many years, feels unfinished.
That I left wanting more and feeling slightly forlorn could be more a product of my expectations—and excitement for all things Avatar—than a knock on an otherwise stellar film. Ultimately, The Way of Water is a worthy successor, the very essence of a sequel in that it feels like the explosive next chapter, even if, despite the running time, it feels like an abbreviated chapter. Its slight flaws aside, I was thoroughly impressed with the film, from its kinetic visuals to its rumination on parenthood and how vulnerable a child can make a parent. Taking a few steps back, I realize the accomplishment this film represents. That it came close to the original, and also surpassed it in many ways, is something to celebrate. I will be re-watching, and I will be first in the (virtual) line to see Avatar 3–in 3D, of course.
Have you seen Avatar: The Way of Water? Let me know!