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'Avatar: The Way of Water' Review

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December 14, 2022
Hunter Friesen
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You know how video games have tried to be more cinematic these past few generations? Works from Rockstar Games with Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, or Naughty Dog with the Uncharted and The Last of Us series, have pushed the envelope in terms of making video games into playable movies. Now, James Cameron has taken that path in reverse with Avatar: The Way of Water, making it one of the first movies that truly feels like a video game.

Of course, if The Way of Water was a video game, it would be the most polished and best-looking game in history. Thirteen years of waiting was well worth it from a technical standpoint, as Cameron has once again taken special effects to a new level, just as he did with 1989’s The Abyss… and again with T2: Judgment Day… and again with Titanic… and again with Avatar. I’m starting to sense a pattern here. 

You owe it to yourself and your senses to see this in the highest setting you can, whether it’s IMAX, 3D, 3D IMAX, 4DX, or if you’re really lucky, 4K HFR. Regular 2D will not do this movie justice. You are not just paying to see a movie, you’re paying for a theatrical experience. That statement may be overused at that point since the reopening of theaters from the pandemic, but nothing has symbolized it more than The Way of Water.

Saying all that, the experience of watching the original Avatar is more of what people remember than the actual story and characters. The same thing can be said for The Way of Water, as Jake Sully and his Na’vi family of Neytiri and four kids are now living fully within the world of Pandora. Death is not the end of the road for some of the original characters, as Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine and Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch have returned, just in different physical forms. Both have been cloned as Na’vi avatars, with Augustine being Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter (yes, the 73-year-old Weaver plays a character 60 years younger than her), and the Colonel being the leader of a new paramilitary force tasked with hunting down Jake. 

From here, the story pretty much repeats itself from the original, with Jake once again learning how to interact with this magical planet. There is the caveat, which the title alludes to, that the majority of the action takes place not in the forest, but in the coral reefs, which are inhabited by the Metkayina, a more fish-like species of Na’vi.

Even with bringing in Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the screenwriting pair behind the most recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, Cameron still has never been able to crack the code for writing just as he has for directing. It’s easy to forget that despite a combined 23 Oscar nominations for Titanic and Avatar, neither of them received nods for Cameron’s scripts. A few tin-eared lines come up now and again, mostly from the children, who are the main narrative focus for much of the runtime.

Luckily, the performances are not inhibited by what’s on the page, with the cast of new and returning principal actors being more than up to the challenge of motion capture performing. The life-like facial animations capture every movement, with real heart and emotion pouring from moments that you normally would find hokey coming from a ten-foot-tall talking alien.

But if there’s anything Cameron has been known for, it’s beating the odds of what has always been deemed impossible. At a reported cost of $350 million, the scale to which The Way of Water plays is unmatched, making many past and future blockbusters look quaint in comparison. Just as it was with Titanic, the final hour of this 192-minute behemoth plays out during a ship-sinking, with tons of crystal clear action and tense moments. It’s a real shame that Cameron’s regular composer James Horner died in 2015 because the work here by Simon Franglen can’t quite match the epicness of what’s on the screen.

I wonder if James Wan and Warner Bros are shaking in their boots about Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom because I don't know how they’ll be able to beat what Cameron has done here for water-themed special effects. The two movies were originally supposed to share a release date, but that all changed once the DCEU film was pushed back another year. That move won’t save it from endless comparisons, as it’ll now be sandwiched between The Way of Water and Avatar 3 in 2024, which I’m now anticipating infinitely more than Arthur Curry’s next imitation.

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