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Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)- Nearly Drowned Under Its Ambitions

Back in 2009, James Cameron delivered another cinematic masterpiece in the form of Avatar, using groundbreaking visuals to tell a simple story. It was so successful that it became the highest grossing film EVER! So it was inevitable that a sequel was gonna be made. But the three planned sequels production continually got delayed to develop more groundbreaking technology to expand upon the world of Pandora. 13 years later, Avatar: The Way of Water has finally been released but did it live up to the hype?

Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) formed a family after they sent the humans off of Pandora. Now over a decade after the events of the first film, the humans have returned to Pandora in hopes of creating a colony, restarting the war between humans and Na’vi. However, the humans have an ace up their sleeve in the form of an avatar clone with the mind of Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) who is tasked with hunting down and killing Jake and his family. With no other options, Jake and his family must run and hide with a different Na’vi tribe before Quaritch finds them.

The first Avatar had its fair share of issues when it came to its story, with the film falling victim to the “white savior” trope. Although I found no issues with the simplistic story itself, I did find issues with the film not tying up loose ends very cleanly by the end. One such instance was Kiri's parentage and her connection with Eywa. We didn’t need questions answered right away but the way it was handled in the film felt like forced sequel bait for Avatar 3. Additionally, for the film’s 3+ hour runtime, it really felt overstuffed with how any new characters they introduced, such as Jake and Neytiri’s children, Spider and the Metkayina Tribe. There were so many new characters I couldn’t catch all their names, to the point I had to google them.

With the film introducing so many new characters at once, it never feels like all characters get a true time to shine; putting some main characters and fan favorites on the backburner. Avatar: The Way of Water puts more focus on Jake and Neytiri’s children as everyone adapts to a new community. I have no complaints over this story, however, it did lead to underutilizing characters like Neytiri and left me wanting more from other actors like Kate Winslet’s character, Ronal. The film somehow managed to underutilize Kate Winslet of all actors! Regarding Neytiri, she has established herself as a fierce warrior and not one to cross. However, she rarely appears in the runtime, which I personally found annoying. She did get a moment to shine in the climax, there could have been more done to explore her character in the new environment.

Now that I have finished blabbing about what I didn’t like, now it is time to talk about what I and everyone else came to see the film for: the visual spectacle. James Cameron again pushes the boundaries of visual effects, as he managed to find a way to capture motion capture suits/cameras underwater hence why the film took so long to make. But when Avatar came out in 2009, the visuals were unlike anything anyone has ever seen. And again the visuals are breathtaking, majestic, insane, I could go on and on. The environments and littlest details feel so realistic that I nearly forgot I was in a theater watching a screen. With these visuals comes more exquisite worldbuilding than the previous film. More creatures, more locals and a more expansive look at Eywa. What I didn't expect was the types of relationships and personalities we would get from these creatures, like the Tulkuns. The Tulkuns managed to steal the show whenever they came on screen.

No matter if the story is questionable, or the visuals take charge in a James Cameron blockbuster, one thing he does not skimp on is phenomenal performances. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana slip right back into their blue skins as our titular couple and shine with their limited screen time. Sigourney Weaver returns as Kiri, Grace’s Na’vi daughter, and while I was skeptic at this due to the age of Kiri’s character, she slips into the role well and manages to bring innocence and compassion as Weaver shows her range compared to her sassy Grace in the first film. Bailey Bass as Tsireya was a wonderful addition as she teaches our fish out of water her ways. The most relatable performance however was Brian Dalton as Lo’ak, at first I didn’t like him but the more time we spent with him the more sympathetic and lovable he became, despite his flaws. My favorite performance by far in the film is Stephen Lang as Quaritch. His ruthlessness and relentless nature are on full display, making him a frightening adversary. However, they still manage to add some layers to his character as he learns the Na’vi culture and even tries to reconnect with his child. I’ll say it right now, get Stephen Lang more work!

I really don’t want this to come off as me hating Avatar: The Way of Water, as I truly enjoyed the movie and my theater experience. The visuals lead the charge and I will not be surprised when it wins all the visual effects awards and its worldbuilding is so eloquent. However, the story gives more questions than it does answers in what feels like shameless sequel bait (even though Avatar 3-5 is already confirmed), along with underutilizing certain actors or sidelining main characters. Even with some limited screen time everyone gives a fantastic performance, with the stand outs being Weaver as Kiri and Lang as Quaritch, with some welcome newcomers like Bailey Bass as Tsireya and Brian Dalton as Lo’ak. I do not agree with every decision in this film but it is still thoroughly enjoyable if you can sit around for a little over 3 hours.

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