Review: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ Gobsmacking in Its Visual Audacity and Diverse Beauty

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis and Sigourney Weaver star in director James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel. 

A spectacular must-see in 3D, Avatar: The Way of Water is more like a three-hour amusement park ride than a movie. But what a ride!

My seat shook and thundered in tune with the thundering sound. Gobsmacking in its visual audacity and diverse beauty, the “film” — I’ll call it that for lack of a better word — is incredibly compelling to watch, at least for the first 20 minutes or so. Then my eyes started to settle down and I began to consider what was unfolding before me. 

Designed especially, it seems, for non-movie buffs who may need a reason, excuse or justification to spend possibly big money for a night out, director James Cameron often appears intent on bludgeoning the audience with an overwhelming amount of visual information. But he’s too skilled a storyteller entertainer to do that, which is a characteristic of his films over the years, from The Terminator (1984) onward. (My personal fave remains The Abyss, 1989).  

Cameron borrows liberally from literary, cinematic, and other sources to cobble together his storylines, which serve as skeletons that allow him to tell his stories in visual form, which always takes precedence over his characters. Cameron has consistently bent lights into odd and unexpected shapes and shadows to suit his stories, which may be why he takes full advantage of 3-D filmmaking. 

To be sure, I was distracted throughout the opening 20 minutes or so by the extreme brightness of the lightning, something that looked more like a cold live television show than what I associate with the warmer colors of celluloid and more recent digital productions. The very practical aspects of 3-D — the ever-present, if slight, weight of the 3-D glasses, worn over my own prescription eyeglasses — become a bit uncomfortable over the movie’s three-hour running time. 

As a film buff, though, I was eager to see what Cameron had wrought. The story feels like one might expect from a sequel to a movie that was released years ago, in that the characters have aged. Some of them have married and given birth to one or more children, while others who died in the original film have now been resurrected as avatars, or clones of their original selves. 

Thus,the blue-skinned Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are raising their four children on the peaceful, paradisaic planet known as Pandora when a military force from Earth returns on their quest to conquer Pandora so it can become the new home for humans. As part of their mission to dominate the planet, the humans (or Skyriders) have placed a bounty on Jake’s life, since they think he has an outsized role of influence upon the natives. 

In truth, Jake can barely manage his own family, much less anyone else. However, he realizes the danger that his family’s presence poses to their tribe, and so they move on in secret, soon finding refuge with a seaside community of people who have green skin and a great capacity for breathing and hunting underwater. 

Cameron and his co-writers on this film, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, have trouble dreaming up sufficient plot to cover three hours, so they tend to repeat story beats with a certain degree of variety in setting and outcome. Really, the plot is just an excuse for the visuals to play out, and they are lovely. 

If you haven’t suffered from 3-D overkill already, that may be sufficient. With its simple-minded, catch and release dramatic rhythms, accompanied by mind-blowing visual effects that overshadow a shallow collection of characters, Avatar: The Way of Water features more than enough eye candy, if that’s your primary motivation for spending three hours staring at a screen bigger than many palatial estates. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, December 16, via Fox and Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site.