Avatar: The Way of Water

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ movie review: James Cameron’s return to Pandora a technical marvel

A technical marvel and genuine cinematic innovation, Avatar: The Way of Water might be an even bigger game-changer for the industry than director James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, but the narrative flaws are even more apparent this time around. The future of cinema is here, but it might take another Avatar sequel or two to give us a story we care about.

Still, Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the few feature films that eclipses such primitive storytelling devices such as plot and character, and demands to be seen in the biggest and best cinema possible. A Prague press screening was held in Cinema City Chodov’s Dolby Atmos theater, and presented in 48 frames-per-second and crystal-clear 3D thanks to a vibrant six foot-lamberts of brightness.

Genuinely impressive 3D experiences have been few and far between since the first Avatar re-invented the technology; while the extra dimension added documentaries like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim WendersPina, most Hollywood blockbusters seemed to employ it in effort to distract the viewer from shoddy computer graphics.

Avatar: The Way of Water, meanwhile, leaps off the screen and most likely represents the most impressive 3D ever seen in the cinema. Foreground characters and objects are captured in unparalleled clarity (those rack focuses are a real wow) and the technology is used to enhance, not distract, from the visual effects.

But the 3D is a secondary advancement for this Avatar sequel: the real innovation, and a genuine game-changer for the movie industry is the hyper-realistic detail and you-are-there immersion realized by the increased frame rate. Peter Jackson attempted it in his Hobbit films, and Ang Lee in Gemini Man, to mixed reactions that noted an unsettling video-like feel to the quality of images being processed.

But James Cameron accomplishes what previous filmmakers couldn’t and Avatar: The Way of Water does for increased frame rate what the earlier movie did for 3D. The clarity of the images surpasses video-like quality and becomes something hyper-realistic: the movement of the characters on the screen feels more lifelike than anything we’ve previously seen in moving pictures, even though the characters themselves are artificial creations.

The frame rate jump isn’t entirely consistent; scenes featuring human characters don’t benefit in the same way as those with computer-generated counterparts. But the Na’vi characters feel so real that the jump from even the first film is startling, and segments of this Avatar sequel feel as groundbreaking for cinema as images of a train presented by the Lumière brothers, or the first time audiences heard Al Jolson sing.

Of course, there’s also a story in this three-hour tech demo, and those who took umbrage at the simplistic nature of the first film’s narrative are going to be even more offended here. Instead of a mission to get unobtainium by any means necessary, in Avatar: The Way of Water, mankind now faces a more streamlined task: just kill Jake Sully. That’s it.

Sully (Sam Worthington), a human mind inside of an Na’vi avatar, has mated with love interest Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and raised four children in the decade-plus since the earlier film: first-born brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), middle child Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the half-Na’vi offspring of Weaver’s character from the first film.

Mankind is still establishing a presence on the planet Pandora, and former marine Sully is proving to be a big stick in the military’s craw, leading the Na’vi resistance against their human invaders. So General Ardmore (Edie Falco, in a disappointingly small role) resurrects the memory imprint of the first film’s villain, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), puts him in the body of Na’vi, and sends him and a team of avatars to assassinate Sully.

When Sully infers what their plan is, he goes into exile with his family to the land of Metkayina, a clan adapted to Pandora’s oceans led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). You’d think that’s it; the military has displaced Sully as the Na’vi military leader and can proceed with their plans. But no, the rest of Avatar: The Way of Water is them tracking down this one character across an entire alien planet and can kill him… for some reason.

Meanwhile, Sully and family adjust to the oceans in underwater sequences so vibrant and realistic you might wish the movie were a Planet Earth-like documentary exploiting Pandora’s depths. The bad guys led by Quaritch hijack a whaling vessel that extracts The Way of Water’s version of unobtainium from the brains of whale-like tulkun, and in one unsettling sequence straight from In the Heart of the Sea (or Orca) chase down a mother and her young calf.

Despite being the protagonists of the film, the Sully family has nary an arc: Jake is a stoic leader, Neytiri his emotional wife, Neteyam thinly-sketched as the upstanding brother, Kiri the mysterious outsider… only Lo’ak, as the outcast middle brother, seems to go through much of a personal journey during the film.

The most interesting character in the movie, meanwhile, is Lang’s Quaritch, a human mind who finds himself in the body of a Na’vi… but unlike Sully in the first film, is unswayed by any attachment to his new physical self or greater Pandora. The Way of Water, meanwhile, doesn’t really know what to do with him, and seems intent on using him as a cut-rate villain for most of the movie; though climactic moments hint that greater character work is yet to come in an eventual sequel.

The climax hints at things to come for Saldana’s Neytiri, too… but after three hours, we’d like more than a hint. And there’s also Quaritch’s human son Spider (Jack Champion), who now lives with the Na’vi, and finds himself torn, but not really, between his allegiances.

While short on story, Avatar: The Way of Water is big on world-building, and offers up glimpses of this alien planet that are truly transportative; it’s only a shame that the storyline, characterizations, and motivations all feel so ordinary. But whatever narrative faults this Avatar sequel possesses are far overshadowed by its technical achievements: like the original film, this is one of those landmarks that simply must be seen in the cinema.

While the visual images presented at Prague’s Cinema City Chodov Dolby Atmos theater were jaw-dropping, the cinema’s calling-card audio had a major issue. A center-front speaker sounded as if it had blown out, and scenes of quiet dialogue (not that there are many) were so flat and tinny it was sometimes difficult to even understand what was being said.

If you’re going to see Avatar: The Way of Water in Prague cinemas, choose carefully. The movie is being presented in no less than 15 versions on local screens: in Czech-dubbed and subtitled versions, in 2D and 3D, in 24 and 48 frames-per-second, in 2K and 4K resolution, in 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 aspect ratio, in 5.1 surround and Dolby Digital Atmos sound, and in 3.5, 6, and 14 (for 2D versions) foot-lamberts of brightness.

Which version should you see? The other versions may be a matter of preference, but Avatar: The Way of Water must be seen in 48 frames-per-second to really appreciate the technical advancements on display. Look for HFR in local cinema listings to catch the right version.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.