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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is a visual marvel and a Frankenstein of past stories told

James Cameron’s sequel to 2009’s ‘Avatar’ is marvelous in its presentation with familiar themes of identity and conquest.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios
20th Century Studios

Let's get this out of the way. Avatar: The Way of Water is a visually captivating film that should be seen in the highest quality possible. That is not a tagline – it’s the fruits of a 13-year journey director James Cameron ventured on to compose the sequel to the 2009 film. The re-entry point to the world of Pandora feels natural – almost as if the second film didn’t take over ten years to make. The beginning of The Way of Water is a prologue to get audiences up to speed – a basic story of imperial conquest mixed with an ethos of nature and folklore.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has fully integrated within his Na’vi avatar, growing his family to a four children structure with princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The younger Sully tribe all have their different personalities – there’s big brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the “black sheep” Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and youngest Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Jake and Neytiri also adopt a teen daughter named Kiri (played by Sigourney Weaver), who has a connection to the previously deceased character Dr. Grace Augustine from the first film. Is it farfetched? Not so much in the world that Cameron has created. Kiri is shown to have a particular connection to the Earth that the other children don’t have. Things in her storyline elude to mysteries that could be uncovered in other sequels in the future.

The concept of reincarnation is not just Kiri, but The Way of Water’s primary antagonist Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who finds new life within the body of a Na’vi. His hatred and bloodlust are even more pronounced with this newfound power – his relentlessness for revenge, along with his fellow “sky people,” is a foreboding march that comes to a head later in the film. While the first part of The Way of Water has some slight bumps, the second act is where things start to take off. The Sully family has to flee toward the islands and the abundant water landscape of the Metkayina – a clan of Na’vi that are apprehensive about welcoming them.

In that respect, chief leader Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) slowly come around to letting the family learn their way of life. From here, much of the plot is a Frankenstein of themes audiences will recognize from other stories. Acceptance is a crucial marker as the Sully children are a mix of human and Na’vi, and they have to reckon with that in a new colony. Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy abandoned on Pandora, grows up adopting the Na’vi way of life. However, he’s still a human, and it’s hinted throughout the film, given the struggles it presents. Lo’ak deals with finding himself as the “middle child” who wants to impress his warrior father.

Jake and Neytiri’s characters almost take a back seat as the film looks more into the lives of the younger characters. They are more overseers of discipline and wisdom while dealing with the push-and-pull of fleeing versus fighting for their people. While The Way of Water settles into a groove, it also indulges in showing off its technological advancements. Then again, who could blame Cameron for doing so? Most of the scenes display the ocean, sea creatures, and the motion capture technology has to be some of the best used in a motion picture. However, while immensely appealing to the eye, one can’t help but feel that some of these scenes could be cut down from the 3-hour, 12-minute runtime.

Some of the most captivating narratives come from the acting of Lang, who makes you despise Col. Miles Quaritch even more than in the first film. You’ll often ponder why humans are so violent to a majestic community without provocation – a story that rings true throughout history. Everything seemingly comes to a head in an action-filled, exciting conclusion. Cameron leans into his Aliens and Terminator franchise templates to build a water-based clash between the humans and Na’vi that provides enjoyable combat and emotional beats to formulate the future towards.

If there’s anything to say about The Way of Water, Cameron is always looking to top himself visually – while keeping the story as a basic cocktail of tales that have had more investment working themselves down to one or two. However, there’s no denying the magic you feel revisiting these worlds and going into new ones.