'Avatar: The Way of Water' Proves Me Wrong and Redeems Many of the First Film's Flaws

A man touches the fin of a whale
Britain Dalton as LO'AK

The first Avatar movie entered the scene to almost unanimous acclaim in 2009, mostly because of the groundbreaking visuals. Then the criticisms and grumblings began – that the movie denigrates white people, exoticizes Indigenous people, and posits Jake Sully as a white savior. Thirteen years later, the first Avatar has become something of a joke. The visuals now look dusty, leaving only a story that looks a lot like many other chosen one narratives.

I watched the first Avatar in preparation for seeing the sequel, and I mused that it was sad that James Cameron took 13 years to make a sequel, and if that history repeats itself, he will probably spend the rest of his career making Avatar movies. If you look at a catalog that includes such beloved movies as Terminator 2, Titanic, and The Abyss, that seemed a shame. Because I didn't consider Avatar even close to being his finest work. If Jordan Peele taught us anything in Nope this year, it's that spectacles only make a splash for so long before they get buried under the swell of the next big thing.

[L-R]: Kate Winslet as RONAL, Cliff Curtis as TONOWARI in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

Well, call me schooled. Avatar: The Way of Water is a triumph and celebration of James Cameron's entire career. He uses all of the accumulated skills from his previous works to craft a truly mind blowing, sensory experience. The story elements I missed from those previous Cameron films are alive and well in this sequel. You want the disaster and survival of Titanic? Cameron puts the Sully family through the wringer. You want an unstoppable villain and the technologically enhanced humanoids of T2? He's the king of that world. And did you marvel at the beauty of underwater seascapes of The Abyss, as well as weep at the love and sacrifice on display? It's the Cameron way.

Basically Avatar 2=Titanic + T2 + The Abyss + some of Spielberg's Jaws.

It's been over a decade since Jake (Sam Worthington) and the Omaticaya people made a stand against the Sky People at the Tree of Souls. Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now find joy in raising their family of four children. But their peaceful existence comes to a halt when the Sky People return, along with a vengeful avatar of Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), still hungry for the wealth of Pandora's resources. To protect his family, Jake seeks shelter amongst the Metkayina reef people, who spend much of their time underwater. For Sullies to stick together, they will need to adapt their forest-dwelling ways and prove their worth.

Britain Dalton as LO'AK in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

Avatar: The Way of Water has its shortcomings. There's a completely unnecessary 15-minute exposition from Jack Sully that could have been rolled into the narrative. Cameron seems to have settled on the need to explain everything that's happened for the past ten years through Jake's monotone speaking voice. The plot also repeats many of the beats used in the first Avatar. For example: In Avatar 1, Jake learned how to be Navi from Neytiri. Now in Avatar 2, the whole family must learn from Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), and their children. You have to wonder if Cameron created this story first but didn't have the technology to make it as he wanted at the time because it's so similar.

Blessedly, Avatar: The Way of Water redeems many of the flaws of the original, starting with its villain. Colonel Miles Quaritch is a boring, one-note villain. He's too completely mustache-twirling to be a compelling bad buy. For me, he was the worst part of the original Avatar. Once I saw his ugly face resurrected from the dead (it's not what you think), I groaned in dismay. And I would have stayed salty, if not for the brilliant decision to create a new character: Spider (Jack Champion), the son of the deceased Quaritch.


Spider helps to humanize Quaritch and make his character a little more black-and-white. Spider's origin story is explained in the comic Avatar: The High Ground by Sherri L. Smith, released earlier this year. We don't get any of that back story in the movie though. It's just understood that Spider is his son. When Quaritch meets Spider, his entire demeanor changes. He remains set on revenge, but Spider triggers the father instinct stored inside Quaritch's memories. Their budding relationship becomes one of the most complex things to observe throughout the movie. And it ultimately becomes the most likely seed for the next sequel. Just like Jake learned the Navi way from Neytiri, Spider becomes Quaritch's reluctant mentor and guide.

The focus of the story shifts from Jake Sully to his kids – a smart move all around. When you boil things down, Avatar is truly the story of a white colonizer becoming the chosen one to an Indigenous people group. He's not an interesting good guy. Sure, his disability put him in the position to appreciate the Avatar body more than most, but his personality left something to be desired. Pumped with the usual Marine level of machismo, most of his lines come out like, "Yeah baby. That's what I'm talking about." Neytiri told us he had a "strong heart," so we believed her. His best assets are his fighting skills and avatar bod. Now Jake and Neytiri's multiracial kids become the protagonists, and the movie is better for it. Their mixed race heritage places them as outcasts in society that have to prove their worth. And this positioning serves as a catalyst for many of the decisions that Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) make.

Sigourney Weaver as KIRI in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

And then there's the visuals of this movie, which truly must be experienced to be believed. Eye-dazzling sights abound, like the beauty of the underwater seascapes and the majestic Tulkun (whale-like creatures that have a spirit bond with the Metkayina people). It took me an hour to fully adjust to the razor-sharp animation and not feel as if I was in a video game, but once the switch flipped, I was able to fully engage with the new world. Our brains are not fully ready to process the experience of this movie. Cameron has once again gone beyond my wildest imagination and expanded into new biomes. 

I had to laugh when Tonowari warned the Sully family that it would be hard to learn their ways, only to see the Sullies master it all in one montage. But that suspension of disbelief evaporates in the act of soaking in the majestic craft on display. I fell for the underground world hard and especially for Payakan, the outcast tulkun. I must warn you – there is a scene where humans hunt the tulkun that almost made me feel physically ill. The way Cameron puts together that scene may have you shaking with rage. For the most part, the plot is not the point. The family comes first. They might as well merge with the Fast and Furious crew and pass around some Coronas. 

Avatar: The Way of Water sucked me into its three-hour runtime like the protection of a mother's womb. There was no headspace for anything else. I was on Pandora. Go for the biggest screen possible.

Release info: In theaters December 16, 2022

Final score: 4 out of 5