Spectacle has become the heart of mainstream movie-going. Big budget flicks like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Top Gun: Maverick reign supreme at the box office, while smaller-scale movies have failed due to heightened competition from streaming and changing viewing habits. In this new landscape, filmmakers are being forced to prove to audiences why they should go to the theater instead of just turning on Netflix.
With Avatar: The Way of Water, director James Cameron does just that. He creates a deeply emotional, must-see technological marvel that practically begs viewers to go out and watch it. Sitting for my third viewing in the span of a week over break, I couldn’t help but feel that seeing this film on the big screen was on par with the experience our parents and grandparents had watching Ben-Hur or The Lord of the Rings for the first time.
Avatar: The Way of Water is an epic in every sense of the word. 13 years in the making, it is a three-and-a-half-hour endeavor that takes classic themes of homecoming, family, and violence and packages them as a glossy modern blockbuster. It’s buoyed by excellent performances, jaw-dropping visual effects, and standout action scenes.
We once again follow former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) on the distant moon of Pandora. Now a full-time Na’vi and chief of the forest clan, he’s raised a family with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). However, when humans return to fully colonize the planet with a re-animated Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in tow, Sully is forced to seek refuge with a far-off sea clan.
This conflict sets up the main conceit of the film. While the first Avatar was focused on the horrors of deforestation in the context of colonizers taking native land, this film makes a powerful argument for the conservation of marine life and our seas. It takes a strong anti-whaling stance in particular, and the extensive second act featuring the Sully family adapting to the seas gives this message an emotional core.
This middle section of Avatar is where the visuals are especially stunning. Cameron showcases the underwater ecosystems of Pandora with the same reverence as documentaries like Planet Earth. The alien aquatic life looks spectacular on screen, especially in 3D. It becomes even more impressive when you consider that the effects team had to literally create a new form of underwater motion capture for Avatar: The Way of Water to be possible.
The immaculate visual effects allow the rest of the film to function near flawlessly. The action scenes are brutal and thrilling, especially in the final act, where Cameron pays tribute to his own filmography with references to Titanic and The Abyss. Well-written characters lead to a compelling and emotional Sully family dynamic. The dialogue is punchy, though on the nose. This is particularly true for Spider, a boy caught between the Na’vi and human worlds. Avatar: The Way of Water often feels like it’s looking for excuses to get where it needs to go, but I was always invested.
With Avatar: The Way of Water, lightning strikes in the same place twice. And with two billion plus made at the box office, it seems like people tend to agree. If there is anything else I can say in favor of Avatar: The Way of Water, it’s that even after watching it for the third time and spending ten hours of my life seeing blue people swim around and shoot at each other, I’m still ready to go on another trip to Pandora.