Review of Avatar: The Way of Water

Max Knight

It’s no controversial statement to say that Avatar is a strange franchise. Despite its massive budget and even larger box office revenue, the reception of the first film was mostly lackluster, aside from a few extreme reactions on either side. The trailer for the second film, which was released in May 2022, was met with much of the same reaction. Last December, the long-yet-only-somewhat awaited sequel arrived in theaters. Did it do anything to change the first Avatar’s cultural reputation, or is it also destined to fade into indifference like its predecessor?

The Way of Water maintains (and often improves on) the first film’s approach to character and world-building. The characters are all archetypes, basic character tropes whose traits and desires are expressed purely through heavy-handed dialogue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–archetypes have their place in stories, and The Way of Water executes them better than its predecessor. Part of this results from the dynamics that they’re placed in: The Way of Water centers around the engaging family dynamics of Jake, Neytiri, and their four children. The archetypes play off of each other and grow in ways that are often genuinely emotional. Furthermore, the world-building is just as intricate this time around, now introducing the oceanic region of the Metkayina and all of its new lore. This is where The Way of Water reaches its weirdest point–a solid hour of the film is dedicated to meditative sequences of characters interacting with nature and simply exploring the world around them. For example, one of the most important plotlines in The Way of Water is when the characters bond with a hyper-intelligent whale-like creature called a Tulkun. Overall, The Way of Water is dedicated to doing what it wants, which is admirable, even if it often does leave the story to be a bit meandering and unfocused. Above all else, The Way of Water succeeds on the basis of its gorgeous visuals. In an era where you can expect every big-budget film to be mostly built on CGI, The Way of Water is one of the few films to truly take advantage of these techniques. Every creature and environmental design–conceived by director James Cameron and his creative team and painstakingly rendered by the talented VFX team–is beautiful. Everything looks tangibly real while never losing that distinct feeling of otherworldliness. It’s all colorful, fluid, and expressive. Even the third-act CGI battle, a tired staple of modern blockbusters, is executed with such clarity and intricate visual extravagance that it’s always more thrilling than exhausting. 

Avatar: The Way of Water is out now in theaters.