WARNING! The Following article contains ‘spoilers.’ If you’re planning on seeing the film, please do so before reading.
When Avatar was released back during my college days, I was not really impressed with it. This was a funny thing for me since James Cameron is one of my favorite directors, so to not be engrossed in his latest science fiction epic was a disappointment. In the end, Avatar faded from my memory with my dislike gradually turning to indifference, which didn’t change much when the first sequel was finally set for release in late 2022. And yet, despite that indifference, I was still curious, so one day, on a whim, I went to the theater, wondering how I’d get through those three hours. Three hours later, I was on my feet and clapping.
Avatar: The Way of Water follows Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now a couple and raising their children on Pandora following the events of the first film. When the military (the humans) returns to the planet to hunt Sully down, the family flees their forest home and joins a tribe of water-based Na’vi. They try to adapt to the customs of their new hosts, all while their enemies close slowly in for an inevitable fight.
The original had a creative world with some exciting worldbuilding, marvelous visual effects, some interesting themes relating to colonialism and environmentalism, and some of the best production design ever seen in a science fiction film. What really sunk it, for me at least, was the seemingly by-the-numbers romance between Neytiri and Sully. It was easy to figure out where the story was going next from the meet-cute between the two leads, the inevitable falling out that kicks off the third act, and the eventual reunion where the two defeat the villain. It was a case of the story not feeling as fresh as the world did.
The Way of Water by contrast doesn’t follow a lot of these conventions, allowing the story to go to more interesting places than its predecessor. The original film in many ways is a setup for The Way of Water, familiarizing the viewer with the world and its characters before the second film allows those ideas to be explored in a more in-depth way, pun intended.
One of the biggest issues a lot of people had with the previous film was Jake Sully, who was often criticized as being a bland lead. By contrast, Sully here is a more well-rounded character, acting as both a devoted family man and a hardened soldier. An interesting aspect of the character is his familiarity with both Na’vi and human cultures, given he was originally human himself. Seeing him switch between the fatherly outdoorsman he’s become and the disciplined military during fights is fascinating to watch. Neytiri is also a more interesting character. She’s now approaching middle age and struggles to maintain both her leadership role as well as be a good mother to her kids. A scene where Neytiri is forced to leave her people and her forest home is genuinely devastating, offset by scenes of her and her family just being a family.
But Neytiri and Sully aren’t the only characters here. Given this is a three-hour epic, they are two characters in a much larger ensemble of arguably more interesting people. Sigourney Weaver returns not as the scientist she played before, but as that scientist’s now thirteen-year-old daughter Kiri, birthed of her Na’vi avatar. Stephen Lang returns as the villain, but since Miles Quaritch is dead, a backup of his consciousness has been put into, irony of ironies, a Na’vi avatar body. It turns out Quaritch had a son named Spider before his passing, a son now being raised by the Na’vi whose loyalties are tested when the military returns.
Seeing the unique ways in which these characters interact with each other is one of The Way of Water’s greatest strengths. It’s interesting to see an older Neytiri and Sully trying to find their place in the world. It’s engrossing to see Quaritch’s avatar show conflicted feelings for Spider. It’s delightful to see how Kiri and Spider play with each other and bond as kids. All the characters here have interesting stories behind them, and the film gives them all something to do.
Aside from expanding on its characters, Way of Water also expands on its world in a more literal sense, taking the heroes out of the jungle and into the open sea. This allows us as a viewer to enjoy Pandora in a whole new way, and, much like the oceans of Earth, feels like a world hidden within a world. The seas of Pandora are rich with creatures both wonderful and frightening, with some of them given their own character arcs along with other members of the cast.
When you throw great characters into a creative world, there are possibilities abound. Pandora is just as dangerous a place without humans invading it, so numerous times Neytiri and Sully’s children are forced to contend with hostile wildlife. Some set pieces are character-based, such as when Quaritch’s avatar learns to ride a mountain banshee in order to impress Spider. Among the most impressive set pieces occur in the finale which, given Cameron has mastered this in the past, is set aboard a sinking ship. The ship is wild, capsizing as it sinks and leaving the characters even more disoriented as they try to find a way out. Taking the action out of the lush inviting jungles of Pandora and into a labyrinth of cold hard steel is an effective choice. This is not a warm, comforting place like Pandora itself, but an endless, alien tomb. It’s a great set piece to finish the film off with.
But beyond that, another reason Way of Water may have resonated more with me was simply that I went into it without any baggage. The original film was released during the height of internet film culture, where numerous personalities would voice their opinions on movies by way of commentary and sketches. This content was meant to be more comedic than academic, but at the time a lot of people, myself included, took such content far too seriously, mistaking the comedic overacting and endless nitpicking of films as a legitimate form of academic analysis. Suffice to say, none of these people really liked Avatar that much, so the idea of it being a success was completely asinine to someone stuck in that echo chamber.
But that’s just what it was. An echo chamber. Those entrenched in that world either as a consumer or creator of such content didn’t really stop to think that there were others outside of that sphere who had different opinions, and liked to look at the more positive side of art as opposed to the alternative. That there was another world outside of this area of influence should have been obvious, since Avatar remains the highest-grossing film in history. I’d disconnected from such content a long time ago now, which allowed me to see this film not with the views of such performers whispering in my ear. Could it be that doing so will eventually allow me to view the first movie in a similar light? Perhaps.
I do know that without that echo chamber, I was struck by a curious revelation about Cameron’s space epic, one I likely wouldn’t have come to with all those voices screaming in my ear. On my way to see Way of Water, I was suddenly struck by memories of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels. The tales of the heroic John Carter’s adventures on the red planet, fighting alongside four-armed green strong men and saving Martian maidens from death seems dated by today’s standards, but at the time, the idea that worlds such as these were taking place simply a star away was revolutionary. What Cameron does with Way of Water, for me at least, recalled such grand epics of the past, which makes sense given Cameron likely grew up on Carter and other epics. Viewing Avatar as something similar to John Carter and other such classic sci-fi works gives it a retro quality that makes it seem more timeless, and for me, more enjoyable.
And I think that’s something not a lot of people realize about Avatar, in part because it’s such a simple idea. Avatar‘s story is an old story. It’s a fish out of water tale about the hero from another place becoming entangled in an adventure along with a fair princess who must learn to lead her people to freedom. It’s all been done before. But so what? Originality in art is less coming up with new ideas, but rather finding ways to make old ideas fresh again. Why can’t Cameron put his spin on an old story? Now outside of that echo chamber, I can’t help but think ‘yeah. what’s so bad about that?’ That attitude was key to finally allowing myself to be emersed in the world of Pandora.
I’ve heard some say that Cameron is letting more ambitious and unique projects slip through his fingers in favor of making other Avatar sequels. Maybe that’s true, but Cameron has also achieved the dream of many narrative artists. James Cameron started his career with a low-budget action/horror film about a killer robot (aka The Terminator), and through that film paved his way towards almost complete creative freedoms. Avatar is how he expresses that freedom and is it really fair we demand he sacrifices that for our own gratification? I may prefer the gritty feel of his earlier works like Aliens and the first two Terminator movies, but now Cameron has new tools and freedoms that he wishes to express himself with. After this last film, I’m interested in seeing what the future holds for Pandora and the wealth of characters and possibilities that live there.