Avatar: The Way Of Water Review: James Cameron Strikes Gold Again With A Gorgeous, Thrilling Return To Pandora

The sequel expertly expands the world Pandora, while also keeping the story centered and family-driven.

Tuktirey swimming in Avatar 2
(Image: © 20th Century Studios)

James Cameron's name is synonymous with massive blockbusters and record breaking box office numbers. The pinnacle of his creativity seemed to be reached with 2009’s Avatar, which debuted groundbreaking motion capture, visual effects, and kickstarted a new 3D craze. But while world of the Na’vi captured the attention of the public when it was in theaters and inspired some stellar attractions at Disney parks, moviegoers have waited 12 years for Cameron’s sequel to finally arrive. Luckily its time has come, and Avatar: The Way of Water does not disappoint.

Avatar: The Way of Water’s timeline actually matches up well with the real world, as we catch up with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) over a decade after the events of James Cameron’s record-breaking original movie. They’ve formed a family of biological and chosen children, including the Na'vi Kiri (Sigourney Weaver’) and the human Spider (Jack Champion) – both of whom were adopted by the couple. 

Their family unit is put into jeopardy when the RDA returns to Pandora, including a vengence-minded Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). While he died in the first movie, Quaritch and his fellow fallen soldiers had uploaded their consciousnesses first. They are brought back via new Avatar bodies, which evens the playing field of combat in an intriguing new way. This assault results in the Sully family leaving their home and seeking refuge with the water tribe Metkayina, lead by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). 

As no surprise, Avatar 2 is visually spectacular.

Part of why Avatar became the highest grossing movie of all time was because of the movie’s gorgeous visual language and impressive CGI/live-action synergy. A lot has changed in the time between 2009 and the making of The Way of Water, and moviegoers have grown accustomed to seeing some rushed visual effects in major blockbusters. But that is certainly not the case with James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel, which is similarly awe-inspiring in scope, sound, visuals, and use of 3D.

James Cameron had some high expectations to live up to with Avatar: The Way of Water, but he has surpassed the visual accomplishments of the original. The same sense of cinematic magic and discovery is present thanks to the sequel’s water-based setting and the way that the Metkayina live with the elements.

The use of 3D is particularly impressive in Avatar 2, helping to truly immerse the audience in the magical world of Pandora. Moviegoers are able to enjoy the moments of wonder along with the Sullys, and feel the stakes of Cameron’s thrilling action sequences. 

Despite motion capture and out of this world circumstances, The Way of Water’s cast delivers strong performances.

While it is an actor’s job to inhabit a character, the performance capture process can sometimes be a hindrance. After all, there are bulky head-mounted cameras involved, as well as bodysuits and dots on one’s face. Add in the extensive underwater scenes throughout Avatar: The Way Of Water, and there are plenty of potential distractions for actors to deal with while bringing the story to life.

Luckily, James Cameron assembled a killer ensemble  to make this blockbuster happen, all of whom perform admirably. Zoe Saldaña once again puts all of her heart into Neytiri, carrying the emotional weight of the movie’s story on her shoulders. Sigourney Weaver impressively transforms into her new teenage Na’vi character, which was no doubt a challenge for the Aliens star. Newcomers Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis also seamlessly bring their characters into the burgeoning franchise, although I’ll admit I wanted to see more of the Titanic icon– especially after she notably broke a world record for holding her breath while filming.

Speaking of newcomers, much of the story of Avatar 2 actually revolves around Jake and Neytiri’s five kids, as well as the children of Tonowari and Ronal. These young performers really rise to the occasion, despite the aforementioned circumstances that accompany such an ambitious shoot. Interview with a Vampire actress Bailey Bass shines as Metkayina freediver Reya and Britain Dalton brings a ton of heart as Sully son Lo’ak. Jack Champion has a unique job as a human who lives with the Na’vi, and had to find that physicality without his appearance being altered by visual effects, and he rises to the challenge.

James Cameron tells a sweeping story, but succeeds by not trying to overstuff it during Act 3.

The scale of the first Avatar movie was epic, so cynics have been concerned about how James Cameron would expand the world in The Way of Water, and if it would still have the same magic so many years later. But the film finds a way to instantly drop us back into the story while expanding Pandora thanks to the Sulley’s new home with the water tribes. The Na’vi continue to be a fascinating presence in the cinematic world, and learning more about the planet will no doubt help buoy excitement for the burgeoning franchise.

But while Avatar 2’s story features a time jump and a cast of new characters, it remains a grounded story because it’s ultimately about family. By focusing on the two families of Na’vi, James Cameron makes sure that the visuals of The Way of Water never overtake the plot. He uses the movie’s long runtime to allow the audience to truly understand each of the main characters of Pandora. This includes the Na’vi, humans, and the creatures of the sea whom we come to know. 

Things really step into high gear in Avatar: The Way of Water’s third act, where the Na’vi and the RDA once again clash over Pandora’s natural resources. Here, James Cameron is able to perfectly tap into his Titanic past, creating various conflicts around a sinking ship. At one point a capsizing affects three separate action sequences, showing how methodically Cameron and company approached the movie’s thrills. But the action is always plot driven, and never feels out of place. What’s more, Act Three isn’t overstuffed with a secondary conflict as many modern blockbusters are wont to do. While the length of Avatar 2 might be daunting for some moviegoers (and indeed second act has pacing issues), it all perfectly pays off in the finale. And that’s not including the various set-ups for the next movie that the filmmaker includes. 

Overall, Avatar: The Way of Water manages to exceed expectations, and is the perfect follow up to the groundbreaking original movie. The sequel expertly expands the world Pandora, while also keeping the story centered and family-driven. Hopefully fans won’t have to wait another decade for the third and fourth movies to arrive in theaters.

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.