AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is the best cinematic experience I’ve had in 2022. The film is absolutely stunning. If you see it, you MUST see it in IMAX 3D, the way director James Cameron styled it to be seen. So why am I not giving it the best review possible? The effects, the cinematography, the score, and the production design are all 🤩. The narrative, however, is a mess, and because of this, the film just didn’t live up to its full potential. I will try to keep this brief, but there is A LOT to talk about.
My viewing was at the world-famous Chinese theatre in Hollywood, one of the best IMAX screens in the world. The sight, sound, and theatre layout are second to none. Absolute A+ movie-going experience every time I go there. Big films are introduced by Hollywood historian and Manager Levi Tinker. Film directors and actors often appear in person with their movies. There’s a reason why this is the most well-known theatre in the world. We saw it there in High-Frame-Rate which means the film shows in 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24. You may recall THE HOBBIT trilogy also screened in HFR, to mixed reviews.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER in IMAX 3D HFR is dazzling to look at from beginning to end. The best parts of the HFR, by far, are the water scenes. The water action looks smooth, but not flat. The forest scenes of Pandora are beautiful too, but the HFR doesn’t add anything to high-contrast night scenes. While these still looked better than the now 8-year-old THE HOBBIT trilogy, I imagine standard IMAX 3D is superior during these moments.
The best parts of the film go “the way of water”. Whether swimming over the waves or underneath them, I felt like I was dropped into a mythical ocean documentary, completely immersed as if emerged in the water itself. When Jake, Neytiri, and their family reach this part of Pandora, the real story begins.
It’s been 13 years since the first AVATAR and there was a lot of catch-up on. Jake Sully’s narration takes us through some of the events that happened after the events of the original film. It’s a good, not great opening that is rushed, especially when the audience is asked to remember a lot of information about several characters we’re just introduced to. The moment the film started to fail me though wasn’t far into the 3-hour, 12-minute runtime. Characters you thought were long gone are back, explained in an ‘it only makes sense in the movies’ sort of way and the rest of the film suffers for this. What could have been a chance at telling an entirely new story feels rehashed.
From there the script jumps all over the place and tries to include too many characters and plotlines to be coherent. At the same time, Cameron takes time to show us the beauty of Pandora, the Na’vi, and the many wondrous creatures that inhabit the planet. As I left the screening I mentioned to friends that I thought the plot would have been a lot better had the film not paused so many times to quite literally bathe in the artistry. The kicker is those “bathing” moments are the absolute best parts of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. I know James Cameron can tell a heartfelt tale ala THE ABYSS but sadly, he hasn’t done that here.
Additional problems include casting white actors like Kate Winslet and then giving them indigenous-sounding accents. In the year 2022, and there aren’t indigenous actors to play these roles? AVATAR, the original, was marred by its white-savior complex. This sequel was the perfect opportunity to shift the focus to the Na’vi characters who are struggling to overcome the dangers of colonization. There is a side plot that I enjoyed more than the main one. Unfortunately, it’s left unresolved, most likely because Cameron is setting up his future sequels. At least AVATAR felt like a fully executed story whether one liked it or not. Unless Cameron plans to make this the main focal point of a future sequel, there was no reason to leave it hanging.
The script spends a lot of time with some of the children of Pandora, which often felt like Disneyfication within a space that’s quite literally already a Disney ride. We’re introduced to the kids so quickly, it’s difficult to catch their names. The most interesting of the younger generation, Kiri, is a standout and it’s her subplot that is more interesting than Jake’s. Zoe Saldana is underused as Neytiri. I longed for more moments shown from her point of view. Like the first film, Cameron again also very deliberately shows us how we can live more in unison with nature: our forests, our waters, and the animals that inhabit them. If Cameron was leading the way in directing nature documentaries, I’d want to see every single one.
For those of us who have followed Cameron’s career, we know he’s a VERY rich man who loves his toys, and some of them are on full display here. And no I don’t mean the special effects that Cameron and team invented explicitly for these films. You’ll experience the ocean not only through the Na’vi but via the futuristic submarines that the director probably owns in real life.
Possibly the most minor of my quibbles lay with an overused plot point within the film I’ll call ‘we left them behind’. It’s common in action films. Characters separate and someone is left back. It’s how Jake Sully meets Neytiri in the first film. It happens so much in THE WAY OF WATER, for a split second I thought the film was repeating a reel. Of course, I quickly remembered all of this is digital and there aren’t many real film reels anymore at all.
If you’re going to see AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, do it in IMAX 3D. Do it for the spectacle. Get a great seat right in the center of the auditorium and let the oceans of Pandora wash over you. But if you’re completely on the fence and don’t really care for the technical aspects, it’s fine to skip it. I’m not sure I can recommend saving it for streaming. If ever there was a film meant for a cinematic experience, this is it. The film is sure to make A LOT of money and receive awards and accolades. But I can’t in good conscience tell you to rush out and see it knowing the plot was so weak.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is currently in theatres.