February 26, 2024

Film Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

4 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | Jan. 7, 2023

Opening on over 12,000 screens in today’s full cinematic array of DCP, IMAX, and IMAX 3D choices and flavors, James Cameron’s sequel Avatar: The Way of Water arrived in December after a 13-year wait. This critic fell for the visual hype and took 3D, which created the closest thing to a legally psychedelic experience you can currently have in Michigan.

Most anticipated was how the film would stand on its own, since only Rip Van Winkle might still be on the edge of his seat from the original’s haunting ending in 2009, involving multiple hanging plotlines and leaving the spiritual endings of the lead characters in balance. (Most notably actor Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, who both return in the allegorical sci-fi follow up to reprise their roles. Sort of).

When you re-enter the world of Pandora and the N’avi peoples again, things pick up where they left off, but you won’t need that context to understand the film’s central emerging dynamic: a power struggle between Indigenous societies living in The Great Balance and the resource-grabbing automatrons of The Sky People, who look a lot like the industrial colonists of our past in one of the film’s scariest sequences as they set Pandora on raging Agent Orange fire in their terrifying descent from above.

From that point, it’s a quest for survival centered by the main characters of the Jake Sully family, forced now to “fight back until the fighting stops.” Jake is haunted by the vendettas of the past and torn between his role as protector and understanding the dangers he’s putting his family into. The Sully family unit is made up of those not born to each other but who still call themselves family—with all the same history, fears, and dysfunctions. As Jake says, “Sullys stay together, always. It was our greatest strength, and our curse.” It’s director Cameron’s great talent to say more with less, and the fluid dynamics between all the familial actors are intense and familiar to any species.

While grounded in a kind of cosmic humanity, Avatar will no doubt be remembered best for the stunning action sequences that push the very limits of stimulation, flowing quickly between worlds of air, water, land, and inner spirituality. Thrilling, logical, and amazing, each one builds on the other until a finale with the most haunting whale hunt since Moby Dick.

Among other notable things is how effortlessly the epic 3 hour and 12 minute running time goes by. If the future of theatrical movies is, as it seems, on the ropes, then perhaps Cameron’s “go big or go home” attitude is a fitting and perfect swan song for a format that, in his hands along with other notable others, still shows it can contain real audience power.

That is, if the big screens are still around for Avatar 3 (2024), Avatar 4 (2026), and Avatar 5 (2028) to see how it all ends.

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