Reel Thoughts: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is cinematically brilliant but falls short of the first movie


Illustration by Gemma DeCetra

“Avatar: The Way of Water” explores new themes and environments as Jake tries to protect his family.

Courtney Kim, Reporter

This article contains mild spoilers. 

“Avatar: The Way of Water” tells a simple, yet captivating story in an enchanting world. 

The “Avatar” franchise made an epic comeback last December — more than 13 years after the first movie’s release. Director James Cameron once again pushed the limits of computer-generated imagery, now in a new age of breakthroughs, to deliver a film of the utmost quality. 

As expected, the visuals of the movie are nothing short of breathtaking. From the luscious forests to the dazzling ocean tides, the scenery evokes a stirring appreciation for nature. Despite the three-hour running time, each scene carries an undeniable beauty that holds viewers in a magical trance.

The plot is rather straightforward, accompanied by cliché dialogue at times, but not predictable or boring in any manner. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now a full-time Avatar and has several children with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The first few scenes transmit the placidity and warmth of this loving family, but this is merely the calm before the storm. As Jake says, happiness doesn’t last long. 

In the meantime, the humans that traveled back to Earth at the end of the first movie have returned to Pandora with reinforcements to build a new base. Among them is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who takes on an avatar Na’vi version of himself to finish his mission on Pandora, with a personal goal of seeking revenge on Jake for killing his human form. Jake recognizes the danger his family faces against the colonel and decides to flee the forest.

In contrast to the first movie, a major theme of the sequel is family harmony. Jake’s story hinges on the critical question of whether to fight the colonel or flee to keep his family safe. He initially chooses to leave the forest tribe so they can remain undetected by the colonel. But when the colonel tracks him down with his huntsman, Jake mobilizes the water tribe’s forces to push back. 

Jake’s compulsion to keep his family safe at all costs shows his streamlined character growth from a soldier to a father. While his ingrained military demeanor causes a rift between him and some of his children, he acts purely out of love and concern for them. Recurrences of family strife between the “disobedient” teenage child and the overbearing, strict parent clearly reflect the real-life experiences of many homes with children that age. The film carefully balances both perspectives to show that family members unconditionally love one another, even if it means risking their lives. 

Like the first movie, themes of environmentalism and colonialism are present. There are many parallels between the destruction humans inflict on Pandora and its people, and the acts colonizers on Earth have historically committed in their conquered territories. 

The new movie certainly falls behind in the surprise element. When the first Avatar was released, James Cameron was an unmatchable pioneer not only in 3D technology and CGI, but also in ideation and creative storytelling. However, “Avatar: The Way of Water” carries less of this wow-factor. The story can come off as basic for those that were expecting something better than “Avatar.” It portrays the same villains and themes, and with the action only beginning in the last third of the movie, some may call the plot slow-moving. 

Yet, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a rare cinematic masterpiece that delicately touches on the topics of love, sacrifice and conservation, all while providing an exhilarating experience.

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