To describe Avatar: The Way of Water as long-awaited would hardly begin to address the mind-numbing levels of hype and expectation that will carry James Cameron’s return to Pandora into theaters this month. In the 13 years since the veteran filmmaker delivered Avatar — itself a breakthrough moment in blockbuster history that found Cameron returning after another decade away to the epic narrative scope that’s long been considered his comfort zone, armed with revolutionary visual effects that promised to redefine the medium — he’s been hard at work on its four planned sequels, an endeavor that could find new Avatar movies releasing through 2028. Each is buoyed by further technological advancements made since the first film’s release, such as a new camera system connecting high-end Sony Venice cameras to a 3D stereoscopic beam splitter system, upgraded motion-capture technology for filming underwater, and myriad evolutions by Wētā FX aimed at photorealism.
Had Avatar not become the highest-grossing film of all time upon its release (a claim it held until the release of Avengers: Endgame, then snatched back with a China rerelease last year that put its total haul at $2.847 billion), the expenditure associated with these sequels — reportedly over $1 billion in production costs alone, not to mention additional costs associated with the record-setting number of VFX shots, of which The Way of Water features 3,350 — would appear the height of folly. Yet Cameron’s hard-won reputation as a technical risk-taker and innovator is cushioned by the consistency with which his big bets have yielded even bigger returns. All his films have made their money back, two of them (Avatar and Titanic) exorbitantly so. And so it makes sense that, even with industry analysts — and Cameron himself — reporting that The Way of Water would have to make over $2 billion to make its money back, “never bet against James Cameron” has become a predominant refrain on social media. The King of the World has once again achieved underdog status.
Providing all this context upfront feels relevant in writing about The Way of Water, a film that’s most impressive as a technical achievement and so notable on those grounds that its far less impressive narrative progress feels almost (almost) besides the point. As per Avatar, this sequel makes a grand spectacle of combining live-action sequences with digitally captured performances inside a three-dimensional, computer-generated world. Seeing it necessitates not only the return of those 3D glasses that were deemed passé only a few years after the release of the first Avatar, but a certain acceptance that the scale and movement of the film’s mightiest sequences — despite improved textural detail and depth of focus in its digital 3D stereo-space, both enabled by Cameron’s new camera — remain difficult for the eye to resolve, not to mention more physically than emotionally exhausting across the film’s epic 190-minute runtime.
Exacerbating the optical strain Avatar’s liable to bring on this time around is Cameron’s use of variable frame rate; though the sequel’s underwater sequences do benefit from high frame rate (HFR), which preserves the breathtaking clarity of individual images while fluidly tracking the motion-captured characters, its on-land scenes are noticeably ill-served by this approach and at times even reminiscent of video-game cut-scene animation, an issue worsened by Cameron’s ambitious maneuvering between frame rates within scenes (and even individual shots that might, say, differentiate the frames-per-second used between their foreground and background elements). A tempting opportunity for someone with Cameron’s affinity for technological innovation, VFR remains an issue he’ll have to solve for, presumably, somewhere between the third and fifth Avatar, so as to prevent the kind of motion-smoothing effect that creeps in on occasion throughout this film.
Still, what The Way of the Water offers to an impressive degree is immersion. An expansion of the 3D storytelling experience that most advances Avatar’s sense of hyper-reality, The Way of Water often seems to present an open window into the alien planet of Pandora rather than a screen against which it’s projected. The advancements in motion-capture technology, particularly, are such that the blue, cat-like Na’vi move seamlessly through a bucolic rainforest and the deep blue ocean, sometimes towering over human characters in the same scene, and appear real within these dazzling vistas. Our perspective on these characters is panoramic, the camera keeping pace with and encircling them with a confidence that justifies Cameron’s use of a CG rig, which gave him real-time visibility of characters in their CG environments. More than in the flatter Avatar, the director’s confidence with framing and positioning the Na’vi for dramatic effect is palpably amplified by the 3D, and it becomes extraordinarily easy across the film’s leisurely-paced first half to believe in this particular illusion.
Perhaps to ease our transition back into the world of Pandora, perhaps as a tacit acknowledgment that many of us cannot recall from memory what the first Avatar was actually about, The Way of Water spends its first hour settling into this enhanced 3D environment, also catching audiences up with what’s become of the characters in the decade that’s elapsed since its action. Having relinquished his paraplegic human body and permanently transferred his consciousness into a Na’vi one after successfully driving the human military off Pandora, former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has started a family with the Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and become the leader of her forest-dwelling Omaticaya clan. The Sully brood includes three biological children — eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), a younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and a young daughter Tuk (Trinity Bliss) — as well as an older, adoptive daughter, Kiri, who’s played by Sigourney Weaver in a recasting the film only partly clarifies by announcing her as the biological daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar (Weaver’s other character, killed in action last time around).
“This family is our fortress,” Jake’s fond of saying, and The Way of Water finds what dramatic footing it has through leaning on this idea, framing its drama as one of a single family under threat, more than a species or belief system (as in Avatar, which found its climax in a Na’vi-led defense of the sacred Tree of Souls). An unlikely nexus for the sequel’s family drama comes in the form of Jake’s other adoptive child, Spider (Jack Champion), a human born in a colonial facility and too young to evacuate when the rest of the humans were expelled from Pandora. Inexplicably, Stephen Lang is also back as a Na’vi “recombinant” of villain Miles Quaritch, embedded with his memories and still hell-bent on revenge against Jake and his family. Quaritch is enabled in this mission by a new head honcho (Edie Falco, who villainously sips her morning coffee using the hands of her military exoskeleton) and eventually by Spider, whom Quaritch abducts in an attempt to track the Sully family after they flee the forest and head for Pandora’s reefs.
The Way of Water picks up in terms of its plot once the Sully clan seeks shelter with the oceanic Metkayina clan, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet, who’ll presumably have a larger role in the third film), for whom free-diving in the reefs is akin to worship. Soon enough, one of the Sully children forms a quasi-mystical bond with a sentient, whale-like creature, called a “tulkun,” that they encounter in the reef, one whose mysterious powers could be an asset to the Na’vi in their face-off against Quaritch. The photorealism with which The Way of Water renders both the tulkun and another, plesiosaur-esque creature — akin to the forest pterodactyls ridden by Na’vi in the first Avatar — is one of the sequel’s principal attractions. Cameron’s well-documented love of deep-sea exploration gets a blockbuster-scaled workout here; this is by far the most transportive, beautifully detailed depiction of an undersea world that Hollywood has produced in the modern era (and feels cathartic to see months after the murky, CG-addled morass of Talokan in Wakanda Forever).
The wondrous, gently unfurling presentation of that world, which is certain to expand further in Avatar’s next sequels, dominates The Way of Water’s middle hour. For those struggling to adjust to the high frame rate or 3D format, especially, it will likely register as the section most in need of a tighter edit; for others enamored of the techniques at play, everything from the way light ripples across the ocean surface to the slow gliding of Pandora’s animal life through the planet’s briny depths will feel enchanting as a dream. But Cameron wisely devotes the final third of The Way of Water to a more dramatically intense showdown between the Sully family and their adversaries, one that builds its tension methodically and without losing sight of the dozen-or-so characters involved. By turns evoking memories of Titanic’s emotionally freighted sequences of inexorable disaster and the tendency of Cameron’s heroes — particularly Ellen Ripley from Aliens and Sarah Connor from T2: Judgment Day — to run back into the belly of the beast in defiance of such peril, The Way of Water’s finale reminds us that Cameron is a deft architect of high-stakes action.
As the architect of his own sci-fi fantasy epic franchise, however, Cameron has made no secret of his investment in letting the true scope of this story reveal itself gradually. After The Way of Water, it somewhat incredibly feels too early to say whether Avatar is actually taking its characters anywhere worth following. Too many story beats from the first film are reduced and recycled by this sequel — though, in fairness, Avatar derived most of its plot and retrograde cultural politics from Dances with Wolves without updating them, and the tokenization of Indigenous cultures remains a foundational problem with this story. The Way of Water also only serves as an introduction, at best, to the younger generation of Na’vi whose adventures seem likely to dictate the series’ ultimate destination. Despite the three-hour runtime, characters feel constrained to easily recognizable tropes, and it’s difficult to ascertain any acting of dramatic consequence beneath the motion capture — certainly nothing on the level of Andy Serkis‘ emotionally resonant mo-capped turn as the Shakespearean chimp Caesar across the recent Planet of the Apes films. Even Avatar’s returning players, such as Jake and Neytiri, are reduced to classic warrior chief and den mother types, one reminder that The Way of Water’s grand “return to Pandora” was always going to be a more convoluted and time-consuming matter than diving swiftly back into its glittering blue waters. It will take more commitment — yes, more than the nearly six hours Cameron has seized thus far — for the filmmaker’s overarching narrative to actually come into focus.
As a story, then, The Way of Water disappoints, even as its visuals overwhelm. If audiences will show up for an Avatar sequel so long after the first installment, Cameron seems to be saying, they’ll be willing to pay another visit in two years’ time, when Avatar 3 hits theaters — if not to catch up with the Sullys, then to herald the latest breakthrough in his own vividly imagined world-building. The simplicity of the Avatar films, perhaps, is part of the attraction, especially to its new Disney benefactors. In Pandora, audiences can visit a science-fiction world away from our own, whose people are not unlike us in their capacity to marvel at their planet’s natural wonders — and exactly like us in their culture’s emphasis on family as a bond that endures, anchors, and brings meaning, even in the face of an impossibly awe-inspiring universe. It’s a sentimental, even conservative theme for one of the most expensive productions in Hollywood history to revolve around, a comfortable counterbalance to the unrivaled technical ambition inherent in Cameron’s vision. This is clearly a trade-off the director was willing to make. It’s also one that suggests his most lasting contribution to the medium, which he’s still busily crafting into a legacy, will be technical, rather than story-driven. The Way of Water is impressive, but what the cameras created to enable it could allow other filmmakers to achieve is the only truly thrilling question it raises.
King of the World? With Avatars coming down the pipeline until 2028, Cameron has seemingly settled into a different kind of position: CEO of the dream factory.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 16, with previews beginning on Thursday night. The film will also be available in IMAX theaters around the world.