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Quick Review: Avatar - The Way Of Water
Return To Pandora
The following is my review for the film Avatar: The Way Of Water. A reminder, you can click this link to see how I score films when I review them.
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, learn the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.
Back in 2009 James Cameron’s Avatar hit the box office like a ton of bricks breaking through a wall. The late released film got good critical reviews, broke box office records, and heralded the return of 3-D options to movie screenings. The movie then bounced back from a rough start during awards season and picked up momentum all the way to arguably coming very close to winning Best Picture at the Oscars. For a decade-plus since all we’ve heard about is Cameron’s ambition to not just shoot a sequel but a series of movies about the world of Pandora. Finally thirteen years later we get that first in a series of planned sequels with Avatar: The Way Of Water.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled against the 2009 original is that for all the bonkers money it made during its initial run and the recent re-releases of the last few years, the movie’s characters and lore haven’t left a cultural footprint while franchises such as Star Wars, the MCU, the DCEU, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, Jurasic Park/World, and even to a smaller extent the Monsterverse Godzilla and King Kong films have had become topics of conversation at the water cooler, had merchandise that flew off the shelves, cultivated major fanbases that dominate social media and content creation, and made their own big box office splashes while earning a few Oscar nominations. But when you look at the money that 2009 film *still* makes all these years later, the stats don’t lie that more people are invested in the world of Pandora then some give it credit for.
My personal theory has been that the lack of continuing world building and new lore, the lack of sequels and expanding character rosters, has held Cameron’s vision back when it comes to cultural takeover versus the obvious demand from the movie-going public. Its also a franchise that has seen much more love overseas compared to domestic, and our biases in looking at just the U.S cultural marketplace can easily hide just how much Pandora still remains in the world at-large’s mind. I know a little bit about this myself as a follower of a franchise like One Piece, literally the second highest selling comic series in the history of the planet (Only behind Superman) - and yet its a niche product here in the states. But with Cameron wanting to make these sequels, wanting to build on more lore and characters, it opens up the chance for that lack of cultural footprint its detractors keep mocking it for to finally materialize. So how did the new entry into this would-be franchise hit for me?
I have to admit I first saw the 2009 Avatar at the height of its box office peak on New Year’s Eve on a date with my then-girlfriend and now-wife as we rung in 2010. I remember really liking the movie, but I never ended up returning to it in the thirteen years since. You spend a decade-plus hearing all these criticisms leveled at it and you start to wonder if you actually didn’t like the movie as much as you remembered. Watching it again in preparation for the sequel I have to say going into it with an open mind and trying to look at it afresh aside from all the barbs its hit with, I ended up liking it more than I remembered on re-watch. Yes its dialogue has some issues, yes some of the then-amazing visuals don’t look so amazing now, and yes its obviously borrowing from films like Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas; but dialogue tends to be an issue with most genre films including some of the most beloved MCU flicks, visuals are always evolving and I’ve seen other visuals from movies that have come out since age worse, and its not the first or last movie to borrow from other stories as anyone looking at the hundred-plus year history of cinema well knows.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Cameron’s direction, the cinematography, the production designs, the visual effects, the sound, and the score all make for a pleasing visual experience. Even the harshest reviews I’ve seen for this movie wave the white flag on how stunning this movie looks and sounds. From a technical film-making standpoint this movie hits A+ and 10/10 scores on various levels if you ask me. If you’re looking to escape and get immersed in a world on the big screen, if you’re going to watch it in a Dolby theatre, if you’re going to pay the extra cash to see it on IMAX, and/or if you’re trying out the 3-D experience, this movie is worth your money.
But obviously a movie can be look and sound as pretty as it wants, but will it have a story and characters that audiences will want to return to time and time again? I have to say the script for the film in terms of story and dialogue continue to be an issue but nothing that disqualifies this as a good movie in my mind. Its not the most original but neither are the plots of other films that are in the awards conversation this year either. I also would ding the film’s runtime. Perhaps I’ll feel different on re-watches, but I did feel the length of the three hour runtime versus not feeling it as much with other similarly-long epics from the year.
But nonetheless the characters won me over the most. Yes Jake Sully, Neytiri, and even (kinda) Colonel Miles are back, but we’re also introduced to the Sully kids who each have their own character arcs that are clearly not finished yet by the end of this film as we look towards future entries. Chief among them Lo'ak, the Sullys’ second born son, who has a story of that a lot of us can identify with in regard to gaining acceptance and being seen. Kiri, the adopted daughter of the Sullys and voiced actually quite well by Sigourney Weaver has her own arc that opens up certain mysteries to uncover in the subsequent films. There’s also the addition of lore with Pandora’s reef people who introduce us to Pandora’s oceans in the same way the 2009 film introduced us to those floating mountains. But my personal favorite character was actually the whale (or Tulkun) Payakan who is given a personality and character arc for a creature that I’d expect to see in a kaiju film, and if you know me and what films got me into movies, you know a kaiju-like character is one of the easiest ways to my cinephile heart.
The film does suffer some uneven pacing at times. The first forty-five minutes or so were a bit rough with rushed pacing and had me wondering if I was going to be in the minority with the film; but once we’re introduced to the reef people and the main plot, subplots, and character arcs get going, the movie settles down and sucked me into its world. The climatic part of the film is nearly an hour long and sets up one of the most exciting back-and-forth tense scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. The stakes just get higher and I found myself gripped by who would make it out alive and how certain character arcs would be wrapped up with the final confrontations between the Sullys and those hunting them down.
I don’t think ‘Way Of Water’ is going to win over anyone who is especially cynical or just not a fan of that first movie from 2009. I do think this film has some nitpicks and feels overlong based on my first viewing. But the spectacle, the new lore, and the new characters more than make up for it for me. What you get is a solid sequel in a year filled with them. I wouldn’t say this is in my top five of the year like it seems to be for its most passionate fans, but its certainly in my top ten. I found this to be an immersive and satisfying experience and I think most audiences will as well.