When the first installment in James Cameron’s Avatar universe was released in 2009, no one would argue that it was visually groundbreaking, but we could all agree the story itself had been done before: natives are saved by a colonizer who’s come to sympathize with their cause, turning his back on the imperialist system and leading them to victory. It’s been criticized at book length, so I’ll try not to rehash long-standing interpretations in this review. That being said, when the sequel was announced to be released almost thirteen years later—in an era where CGI is common and much more developed than Cameron’s last offering—I couldn’t help but think: is there really room for this kind of movie anymore? After watching Avatar: The Way of Water, I think my answer is yes. Like the last movie, this follow-up is very messy in how it handles its themes, relying on tropes in a way that I’m not sure is purposeful, but at its heart, we can sense a deep passion for the worldbuilding, as well as the characters that inhabit it. Visually stunning and bursting with enthusiasm (perhaps too much at times), this is maybe the most spectacular family drama you could hope to watch this year.
Set years after the events of the first film, we now see Jake and Neytiri with four children, living in harmony with nature—until humans return. But this time they’re not just after Pandora’s resources; they’re determined to permanently settle on Pandora at any cost. Cameron uses this sci-fi epic framing to explore themes of family, often showing how the very term is as shapeless as water, determined not just by blood but by care and sacrifice. I think the values onscreen can definitely lean toward the patriarchal, especially given how little we see of Neytiri in this movie. I wish Cameron had shown more of her as a mother, considering the passing of her father in the first movie and how that was likely to affect her as a parent; but overall, it’s a powerful meditation on love and bonding. This was really fleshed out when the Sullys are forced to flee from their home, seeking refuge in a coastal Na'vi tribe. A lot of reviews berate this sequence, saying Cameron lingers here far too long, self-indulgently basking in the grandiosity of his CGI creation; but I actually disagree. Without us seeing the Sully children support each other as they all struggle in adapting to life on the coast, far from the forests that were once their home, the aforementioned family dynamic wouldn’t come through as potently as it does.
That being said, even if Cameron just wanted to let audiences sit with these images, I wouldn’t be among those who’d complain; the visuals here were pretty phenomenal. There were parts of the first film that almost looked cartoonish, but I’d chalk that up to the limits of technology at that time. Over a decade later, with underwater motion-capture now much more efficient, Cameron’s vision is really a sight to behold. I’ve seen a few reviews mention motion smoothing being a problem, probably due to the high frame rate the movie was filmed in, but I honestly don’t think most moviegoers would notice this, so it’s hardly worth complaining about. The lighting is amazing, especially in scenes shot underwater or in the forest, and the use of color is eye-popping. Considered alongside the designs for the wildlife and Na’vi themselves, I can’t imagine a more visually engaging movie this year as far as VFX are concerned. This aesthetic not only helps create an incredibly immersive viewing experience, but also highlights the environmentalism at the film’s heart.
Much like the first movie, the Na’vi and their relation to the environment are a big part of this movie. Throughout the film's runtime, we get shots of the characters diving into oceans teeming with life, or running through woodlands bursting with sounds and color, sometimes literally connecting with the flora and fauna. It helps form a contrast against how disconnected humans are from nature, often showing them in huge steel machines, burning down trees and killing local wildlife. While I can appreciate the general progressivism of these statements—especially when showing how the military industrial complex necessarily hurts the environment—there’s something to be said about Cameron’s romanticism of indigeneity as a whole, but more specifically how it relates to nature. Many would say this is unfair, considering how the Na’vi are fictional 9ft tall blue humanoids with tails, but I think it’s something work keeping in mind, especially since there were critiques from indigenous people regarding the first movie. Films’ politics can be messy, as imperfect and flawed as the creators themselves; this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch them, but that we should do so with a more critical eye while still appreciating the intentions behind the movie.
While I would’ve liked to have seen some areas being given more attention, no one can deny that this movie is the best spectacle we’re likely to get this year. There’re enough good intentions at the heart to make its environmentalist concerns feel emotionally authentic, and the actors are remarkably expressive given how many layers of computer graphics they’re hidden behind. As we follow Jake Sully on his journey to discovering what a father really is and does, along with his children’s coming-of-age, all while fighting against further colonization, viewers are given a kaleidoscopic view of not just family, loss, and love, but life itself. As I said, this is not a perfect movie—far from it—but if you do choose to watch, I don’t see why in the world you’d choose to stream it or wait for a home release to come out. See Cameron’s almost-overwhelming visuals as they were meant to be seen, on as big a screen as possible, in a theater near you!