It was a thuddingly obvious no-brainer to make a sequel to the highest grossing movie of all time. The question always nagging the future of the Avatar franchise was “Given that James Cameron tried to show us everything he imagined about the distant planet of Pandora the first time around, would there be enough fresh and new material to sustain anywhere from two to four sequels? And how would Cameron make us really care about the characters this time? And similarly, would we care about returning to a world that was more a vessel for breakthrough SFX than an entity we embraced in and of itself?” Yes that’s a pretty complicated three-part question, but don’t tell me you’ve never asked it.


Cameron provides satisfactory answers and then some in Avatar: The Way of Water, which does, indeed, bring back the wows that floated the first Avatar to so many box office records. The subtitle The Way of Water is a nod to both the shift in location of this film, from Pandora’s forests to its oceans, and a raison d’etre for the film from Cameron’s perspective, which was that he could use his prized technological advances to depict underwater scenes like never before. You’ll have to go somewhere else if you want someone to dive into that technology, because this critic prefers just to be wowed – and was, repeatedly.

We need these thrills more than ever as we continue to come out of the pandemic. If Top Gun: Maverick revealed our appetite for big spectacle, The Way of Water catches us primed and ready for another whiz-bang show that there’s no way we’d want to watch streaming, even on our increasingly impressive home televisions. The 192-minute running time might limit some of the repeat viewership that was a major component of the first Avatar’s success, but maybe the best thing you can say about The Way of Water is that at the point it starts to wrap up, it feels like it’s been going on for about two hours and 20 minutes.

It’s years after the original film and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has settled into life as a full Na’vi with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and now four children. All is blissful as their tribe continues to live in harmony with the forests of Pandora and all the creatures with whom they physically bond via their lengthy ponytails. There’s always an “until,” though, and one night, Jake and Neytiri see a star that’s brighter than the others and wasn’t there the night before.

The humans who were vanquished years earlier have returned with more guns, more mech suits, and more desire to twist Pandora to their own wills. The mission is described as an attempt to take the planet as a new home for humans with Earth dying, but there’s a part that’s not being said out loud that reveals itself as the story goes. Leading this group is Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose character was killed at the end of the original film. That’s not a problem when you’ve proactively cloned the man as a Na’vi avatar in the event of his death, and injected the avatar with all the man’s memories. His fellow mercenary soldiers are also decked out as Na’vi, and there’s an emotional complication for Quaritch on the planet – his human son who was left behind because babies can’t survive cryogenic sleep, and has been raised by the Na’vi into a young man nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion).


Sure they’ve got their prime directive, but Quaritch would love to fit in a little revenge on Jake, who battled him to the death the first time around. This Quaritch didn’t experience that, of course, but he knows it happened and wants to even the score. To avoid putting his tribe in the crossfire, Jake and his family – oldest daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their younger brother Lo’ak (Brittain Dalton) and their quite young sister Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – relocate to a coastal region to live among the Metyakina clan, an oceanic sub-species of Na’vi with a green tint to their skin. The outsiders will have to work to prove their value to the tribe, a tall task when they are biologically designed for forest life, and, of course, try to keep Quaritch and his men from finding out where they went.

Before we get to the effects – on which one could spend multiple breathless yet largely uninformed paragraphs – let’s start with the story. The Way of Water benefits from what you might call “middle movie syndrome,” where it doesn’t have to have a strong and self-contained narrative arc within the movie – it can be an adventurous series of getting in and out of scrapes, with its themes draped over them. It’s the same advantage enjoyed by other successful middle movies like The Empire Strikes Back and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and is a massive improvement on the groan-worthy Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves ripoff that was the first movie. Because it’s Cameron, these set pieces are fantastic and exciting and in some fundamental way, the reason we go to the movies.


The improved story wouldn’t matter as much without a big upgrade in our feelings about the characters, which may go hand in hand with the ability to present them with ever greater nuance. Cameron’s script (co-written with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) makes the smart decision to sort of sideline Jake Sully, a decision which Sam Worthington’s middling charisma fully justifies. It’s not that Jake isn’t still central in some way, it’s just that his children are the far more interesting characters. That starts with Kiri, who should be sort of uncanny given that she’s voiced by Weaver – a result of the fact that she was born from Weaver’s avatar, which also died in the first movie but was suspended in fluid to allow the birth. She has a mystical connection with her new environment, and the character is rendered with a heart-melting sense of youthful awe. Her younger brother Lo’ak is the other central character, and his own relationship with the Pandora version of a whale is central to the story.

The ability to create sea creatures such as this “whale” – a really lovely character, who seems wise even though he only speaks in whale noises – is not really the technological step forward. Cameron could have done that last time. It’s the way the characters move underwater that is really astounding, the way these scenes have a glorious third dimension that makes everything feel hyper real. On the hyper real front, though, it should be said that The Way of Water physically looks different from scene to scene, with its more effects-heavy shots looking a bit more like the wrong setting on your TV – even if they are indeed astonishing. In the shots that don’t rely on that technology it looks a little more like a “regular movie,” if you follow. Still, you wouldn’t trade it – whatever Cameron had to do to give us what he’s giving us is worth it.


Overall, The Way of Water just has a comfort in its own skin that the first movie never had, even as massively successful as it was. The thirteen years since didn’t just get spent on Cameron personally willing the technology forward. Enough effort has been expended on the the story and the characters to minimise those issues from the first time around, allowing us to bask in all the wonders we’ve never seen before without too many narrative quibbles. Even if it doesn’t make for a perfect film, it leaves us amenable to the possibly three more movies that will occur if The Way of Water is a success, rather than only one if it isn’t. Assuming most of us do want to see this spectacle on the biggest screen possible, it probably will be some version of that hoped for success. Whether Cameron has to take us to the barren plains, the icy poles or the rocky mountains next time, it’s clear he still has places to go on Pandora.


Avatar: The Way of Water is currently playing in cinemas and in IMAX 3D.

8 / 10