As I write this on Wednesday, December 14, a few of the main news stories of the day on The Washington Post are:

  • An article about how Tijuana has evolved into a trafficking hub for fentanyl
  • The arrest of Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, and the various politicians he allegedly donated to
  • The tenth anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary
  • The Texas attorney general’s office sought information on transgender residents
  • The discovery that soccer journalist Grant Wahl died of an aortic aneurysm
  • A science article about why some parts of Earth warm faster than others

In lots of ways, it feels like the world is engulfed in chaos, horror, and cruelty. With all of that to contend with, is it any wonder that lots of us would prefer to live on Pandora?

If you’re reading this, you have an opinion on Avatar. Odds are you’ve seen it, at least. It literally made two billion dollars, and to call this 2009 blockbuster a financial success is like saying Schindler’s List is a bit of a bummer. That must make it a cultural touchstone in cinema, right? Well…I don’t know.

There were plenty of Extremely Online film people (myself included) that scoffed at the idea of Avatar actually mattering. Very rarely do you see Na’vi cosplay, fan-fiction, merchandise, all of the indicators that something is part of the culture. I figured that people showed up for James Cameron’s extravaganza, ooh’d and aah’d, then went about their business. 

I think I was wrong, and here’s why. At Disney World, there’s an entire area of the park devoted to Avatar’s Pandora. A little research tells me it’s a success, by and large. I think that’s because, while most people couldn’t give a damn about the characters or their relationships, they love the idea of dwelling within that world. Are you someone like that? If so, you’re going to lose your frickin’ mind with the next cinematic installment, Avatar: The Way of Water.

If you’re a little hazy as to the goings-on in the first Avatar film, I get it, but my summing that up here will take all day. Besides, this is why the Good Lord invented Wikipedia. So, go bring yourself up to speed…and you’re back! Onward!

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is living in familial bliss as the chief of the Na’vi clan, the Omaticaya. He’s still married to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and not only have they not killed each other, they have a passel of kids. The oldest son is Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), a young man eager to live up to his father’s expectations. Next is his younger brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who’s a delightful combination of hothead, knucklehead, and sweetheart. The youngest sister is the cute-as-a-bug Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). There’s also their adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who was born from the immobile avatar of the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine, and yes, those are all words that I hope make sense to you. Lastly is Spider (Jack Champion), a human teenaged boy who was the son of Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain who bit the big one in the first Avatar.

Life is decent for this family. When they’re not doing totally normal Na’vi things like swinging dozens of feet in the air and mentally bonding with flying steeds, Jake is leading guerrilla warfare against RDA, the Earth-located company determined to stripmine Pandora of all its natural resources.

Things get complicated when the memories and life experiences of Quaritch are downloaded into a cloned Na’vi body, meaning that the murderous Marine is back. He wastes no time and immediately begins firebombing the bejeezus out of the Omaticaya’s territory, hoping to draw out Jake and enact his vengeance, like you do.

The Sully family makes a decision. Jake abdicates his Chiefdom and the family decides  to decamp to safer climates. They journey to a small cluster of islands within Pandora’s oceans and meet the Metkayina clan, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). Reluctantly, Tonowari offers the Sullys shelter and a new life. But as they struggle to acclimate to a new way of life, Quaritch is coming for them.

So…here’s the thing about Avatar: The Way of Water. On the one hand, it’s a titanic (Haw!) achievement in filmmaking. No big surprise there considering that director James Cameron is, next to Stephen Spielberg and Akira Kurosawa, the most accomplished blockbuster filmmaker in film history. Like Orson Wells, Cameron has had to literally invent technology in order to fully realize his cinematic ambitions, and this film is proof positive. The Na’vi performance capture looks lifelike. That apparently wasn’t enough for Cameron since he opted to blend the performance capture with groundbreaking underwater filming methods. The visual effects by Weta are astounding and Cameron seems to be the only filmmaker who understands how to effectively use 3D. He creates a kind of hyper-reality. Overall, this is one of the most technologically impressive films in the history of film. 

For a movie with a punishing three hour and twelve minute run time, Cameron’s pacing is pretty solid. The first act catches us up from the previous installment. The second act moves the actions from the forest to the oceans, and the third act is pure chaos. Cameron does crib a little from his previous work, including a certain movie about a certain ship that certainly went to the bottom of the ocean. Still, there’s a great deal of excitement with explosions, stabbings, fisticuffs, narrow escapes, drownings, and insulting language. It’s all a lot of fun.

On the other hand, the script could have used some work. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay with Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno. All of those writers have written movies we love, so why does the screenplay feel like, at best, it’s acceptable? Dialogue tends to be on the nose and characters state their motivations, then re-state them later for the cheap seats. While I was gobsmacked by the visuals, there wasn’t much about the story that took me by surprise. At times, it feels like Cameron is wildly in love with the ecosystem and inhabitants of Pandora, and considerably less in love with the actual story being told. I wish that the narrative could have been as revolutionary and breathtaking as the filmmaking.

Along similar lines, the cast is mostly solid without being wildly impressive. Sam Worthington is the stable center of the film, and his Sully is a good guy trying to do right by his family. Zoe Saldana as Neytiri and Kate Winslet* as Ronal give performances that are bigger and more raw. I think the MVP of the cast is the seventy-three year old Sigourney Weaver as the snotty teenager Kiri. She does excellent and frequently hilarious work rolling her eyes, sighing, and being frequently unimpressed by the dumbass adults she’s surrounded by. The film is often a little ponderous, and Weaver is just what is needed to puncture the self-seriousness.

If there were ever a movie designed to lure the masses back to movie theaters, it would be Avatar: The Way of Water.** If you’re looking for a transformative experience on a purely sensory level, I implore you to find the biggest screen you can and check out the new James Cameron joint. My only advice? Pee first.


*A fun fact I learned is that Kate Winslet is now the holder of the world record for “longest breath held while shooting a film scene underwater.” Winslet held her breath for seven minutes. Next time you run into her, maybe tell her she’s pretty awesome.

**Considering that COVID is still a thing and a bunch of other viruses are wreaking havoc, should we be going back to theaters? Ah…that’s debatable.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.