Movie Review: “Avatar: The Way of Water”

After watching the film in three different formats, Senior Staff Writer Kaley Chun explains the unique spectacle of “Avatar: The Way of Water” and the factors that led to its massive box office success.

I was a kid when “Avatar” was released in 2009, but it remained a big part of my life. A couple of years ago, my family babysat my cousins and we could not decide on a movie. My parents had finally escaped the period where their kids wanted to exclusively watch children’s movies and they were not about to go back, so my mom said, “Put on ‘Avatar.’” My cousins were about 12 and eight years old, and they had never seen a PG-13 movie before. I worried it might be too violent for them, but as soon as we pressed play, they were completely engrossed by the new world of plants, animals, and people unfurling in front of them. “Avatar” had been in my life for longer than I could remember, but rewatching it next to two awestruck children reminded me how powerful the film is when viewed for the first time.

Unlike anything put to screen before, “Avatar” utilizes immersive visual effects to tell the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an ex-marine sent to the moon Pandora for its natural resources. Through the use of a remotely-controlled avatar, Sully encounters the Na’vi, a native race with a spiritual connection to nature. As he is monitored by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and taught the ways of the Na’vi by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Sully finds himself torn between loyalty to his own people and the new worldview he has discovered. The film became a massive hit that people went to see week after week, and “Avatar” grew to become the highest-grossing film of all time.

Despite this overwhelming success, the development of “Avatar: The Way of Water” would remain a mystery for the next 13 years. What was it going to be about? Was it going to be made at all? Director James Cameron announced in 2010 that he wanted to make several sequels, but after the record-shattering release of “Avatar,” Cameron’s legendary filmography came to a halt. In the place of tangible releases came reports that he was working on something: a film that would take five years to shoot, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and push the bounds of trailblazing technology even further than its predecessor. More than a decade later, this film became “Avatar: The Way of Water.” 

In the sequel, humans have returned to Pandora to eradicate Na’vi insurgency and establish a new home for mankind. As a result, Jake Sully and his family must flee the forest and hide among the Metkayina, a clan of Na’vi who are deeply connected to the ocean and its creatures. As the Sully family adapts to this new way of life, they are hunted by Quaritch, who was killed by Neytiri and has returned as an avatar in search of revenge. When written plainly, this plot is repetitive and uninspiring. It involves many of the same building blocks that supported the first “Avatar.” Why, then, has this film become the highest-grossing film of 2022? First of all, the film has had good marketing and timing. Many people saw “Avatar: The Way of Water” around the holidays with family and friends. However, that cannot be the only explanation, because not every film released in December crosses the threshold of two billion dollars.

Ask anyone who has seen the film, and the obvious answer is that “Avatar: The Way of Water” provides a viewing experience that once again reinvents what CGI, motion capture, and 3D technology are able to accomplish. In spite of its reductive plot, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is breathtaking. It begins in the familiar forests of Pandora, then moves with the Sully family as they dive through crystal waters, bounce across woven floors, and swim with fantastical ocean creatures. Though many consumers consider long runtimes a burden, the benefit is that “Avatar: The Way of Water” never rushes toward the next scene. On the contrary, each character is given time to interact with their surroundings, which creates an unusual balance where the film’s plot is less important than its visual world-building aspects.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” does have flaws: it is long and slow and was made without considering many criticisms aimed at the first film. It introduces more characters than can properly be characterized, leaving the plot shallow and scattered. However, this film’s massive traction indicates this is still the type of film moviegoers are willing to see. Why? Because people will go to theaters for visual quality despite a lackluster storyline, and they crave films that can be watched and discussed communally. People want spectacle, imagination, and themes that can connect to life even when the characters are giant blue aliens. Though it is not a perfect film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” uses its vibrant colors, textures, and sounds to accomplish something that most CGI fails to do today: it captures the childlike wonder of watching something really good for the first time and thinking that it might be one of the most beautiful films you’ve ever seen.

Grade: B+
Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Release Date: December 16, 2022
Rated: PG-13

Image courtesy of Cleveland.com

One thought on “Movie Review: “Avatar: The Way of Water”

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