“Avatar: The Way of Water”: groundbreaking or underwhelming?

by Vishnu Potharaju (’24) | February 3, 2023

Art by Tessa Gross (’24)

After almost 13 years, James Cameron released Avatar: The Way of Water, the highly-anticipated sequel to his blockbuster science fiction and action movie Avatar. Set on the fictional planet of Pandora, Avatar told a compelling story of the Na’vi people battling human attempts to conquer their world. A story of suspense, love, and family, Avatar was highly praised for its groundbreaking CGI and unique world-building. The question, since then, has remained: can Avatar 2 ever match its predecessor?

Avatar: The Way of Water picks up with Jake Sully, the human protagonist who became one with the Na’vi people through his Avatar, and his partner Ney’tiri as they begin to raise a family. The two continue to face danger from the human race’s attempts to conquer the Na’vi. As a result, Jake and Ney’tiri make the daring decision to venture away from their own tribe to the water-dwelling Na’vi tribe known as the Metkayina. The three-hour movie follows the family’s journey as they explore this new tribe while also coping with familial conflict and the never-ending threat from humans.

Avatar 2 received mixed reviews, with some incredible praise but also considerable backlash mostly surrounding the runtime. Many argued that parts of the movie were dragged out and could have been removed in order to make it smoother and fast-paced. Some went deeper, however, noticing how the film draws directly from Native and indigenous cultures without crediting these tribes. The Metkayina were modeled after the Māori people, but the majority of the characters were still voiced by white actors. Cameron also received criticism for the very obvious white-savior complex present throughout both Avatar films. Both are focused around Jake, who is not actually a Na’vi (drawing parallels to white settlers in native tribes), which places most of the attention on the one non-native character rather than the tribes that would better portray indigenous culture. After centuries of oppression and marginalization, indigenous communities feel strongly about this movie’s lack of credit and respect for the people it was inspired by.

Like the original movie, however, Avatar: Way of Water was nonetheless celebrated for its incredible CGI and animation. The movie was designed using motion capture imagery, with actors training for months to film scenes underwater. Cameron, who has experience with scuba diving, went through this painstaking process in order to get the most authentic representation of the water that he could, and the efforts certainly paid off. Avatar 2 is visually stunning, arguably even more than the first; while fight scenes were an absolute visual feast, the CGI truly shone in the quieter, slower scenes underwater. Jake and Ney’tiri’s son, Lo’ak, spends a significant portion of the film learning how to swim and connect to the spirit of water, which eventually leads him to his friendship with an outcast, Talkun (the Avatar equivalent of whales). Lo’ak’s scenes as he learns to swim and explore underwater were absolutely amazing, arguably a highlight of the whole film. While the plot overall felt more formulaic, the story portrayed its themes of family and imperialism incredibly well, and Avatar: The Way of Water sets up future sequels extremely well. 

If you haven’t watched this famed sequel yet, I wouldn’t exactly tell you to run to the theater, but you can definitely walk there. The film’s complex relationship with its colonialist and imperialist themes are important to consider when watching, and it can sometimes be a difficult three hours to sit through (why was there so much about whales?). But nonetheless, it is visually incredible, and if you’re going, make sure to book 3-D tickets for a life-changing experience. Overall, the franchise may have taken a decade-long break, but Avatar: The Way of Water tells an incredible story and only makes viewers more excited for how the story will continue to unfold.

Categories: Entertainment

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