Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Chloe Coleman, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass, Jack Champion, Dileep Rao, Giovanni Ribisi, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jeanine Clement
Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Story by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno
Based on characters created by James Cameron
Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau
Cinematography by Russell Carpenter
Production design by Dylan Cole and Ben Procter
Edited by Stephen E. Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua and James Cameron
Music by Simon Franglen

By Matt Neufeld
Dec. 15, 2022

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” James Cameron’s long-awaited, highly-anticipated sequel to his 2009 blockbuster “Avatar”–which, by the way, just happens to be the biggest money-making film of all time–is excellent, is quite often simply breathtaking and dazzling in its technologically groundbreaking beauty and pure cinematic brilliance, is a must-see for the 2022 holiday season, and is an epic film that deserves to be seen where all movies deserve to be seen–in a real movie theater, in the quiet darkness surrounded by other filmgoers, way up there on the biggest silver screen possible.

Steven Spielberg’s ” The Fabelmans” remains the best overall film of the year 2022, and “Armageddon Time” and the surprise hilarious black comedy hit “Violent Night” remain concurrent must-see movies, so along with the new “Avatar,” there’s four high-quality, above-average, smart, fun and entertaining films to rush out, see, enjoy and revel in during this holiday season. Each film has its own, unique and disperate qualities. However, in terms of pure cinematic technological wonders of pure flights of fancy, fantasy, the fantastical and science fiction action-adventure thrills and chills, “Avatar: The Way of Water” strongly delivers on all working filmic cylinders, gears, cogs, gizmos and gadgetry. The film simply soars, from start to finish, for three mesmerizing, continually entertaining hours.

And the film concurrently soars on innovative, startlingly beautiful, layered levels of filmic technology that not only contribute to an excellent film and cinematic experience, but also contribute to the advancement of filmmaking in general. And that’s no wide-eyed exaggeration; it’s just simply true.

This shouldn’t be any surprise, considering Cameron’s stellar record in continually topping, well, himself, in terms of virtuoso filmmaking technological inventions, innovations, improvements and literal scientific and mechanical breakthroughs. On four hugely-successful, highly-regarded, critically-praised and popularly-loved–and excellent–blockbusters, through four decades now, Cameron and his extensive, hard-working and ingenious technological, mechanical, engineering and scientific crews have literally invented, manufactured and created, again, new, groundbreaking film technologies: in 1981’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” in 1997’s “Titanic,” in 2009’s “Avatar” and now in 2022’s “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

And this isn’t just backstage, behind-the-scenes, press-kit, production-notes industry jargon, gobbledegook and mumbo-jumbo: Cameron, of course, clearly and enjoyably puts all of his crews’ hard work right up there on the screen for all to see, enjoy and wonder at and with–and, every time, the results enhance, move forward and improve upon the moviegoing journey that Cameron is intent on taking us upon. “Avatar: The Way of Water” uses multiple technology breakthroughs in the techniques alternately known as performance capture, motion capture, motion matching or match moving. Whatever the name used, this is a technology that, in general and simplified terms, uses a complex series of cameras, lights, markers, blocking, choreography, physicality, body movements, facial and eye movements and expressions, green and blue screens, mattes, specialized clothing and costumes, computers , machines, special stages, special sets and studios, sound effects and all manners of visual and computer effects to capture an actor’s specialized performance and motions and then use that movement in scenes and shots in a movie using numerous added, enhanced visual, computer and special effects.

(While that’s a very generalized and simplistic explanation, as an actor in film and television, I have performed in performance capture scenes for film and television projects several times. During these shots, I had to wear specialized, form-fitting, body-hugging, very tight costumes, specialized eyewear, specialized headgear and special footwear. Then, I had to carefully walk and move in very specifically-directed blocking on top of and in front of blue and green screens, with only a few previously-viewed outline planning pictures and my imagination to provide me with any suggestions about the specific look of the scene or set location where my character was actually moving. And there was very little interaction with other actors. It’s an interesting, unique acting exercise, but, sometimes, it’s also quite tedious and lonely, even. But the work subsequently pays off in post-production, where most of the real magic happens.)

Imagine, if you will, noted performance capture performances such as Andy Serkis playing Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy from 2001 to 2003, or Serkis playing King Kong in Jackson’s riveting 2005 version of “King Kong,” or Serkis playing Caesar in the new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy from 2011 to 2017. Now, imagine those performance capture scenes multiplied and enhanced and improved upon underwater, in the air, on land and atop mammoth flying creatures and mammoth swimming creatures, and then underwater some more, performed by most of your lead cast, and you’ll have the beginning of the idea of what to expect in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” But that’s only the start of what to imagine–to knowingly, quite knowingly, use a creaky cliche, you’ll just have to see it to believe it in “Water”–in the movie theater, up on the big screen.

The resulting performance capture scenes utilized in “Water” are just endlessly breathtaking, captivating, mesmerizing, peaceful– and beautiful. Cameron achieves what so many fantasy and science fiction filmmakers so continually, glaringly fail to achieve: to combine your dazzlingly, impressive visuals and visual and special effects with the attendant, other, basic filmic aspects of story, plot, script, dialogue, cinematography, production design, characterizations, messaging, themes and acting to deliver a whole, complete cinematic film–and not solely just a bunch of fancy effects propping up tired, repetitive, unfunny and needlessly dark and depressing stories and cliched, often ridiculous lines of dialogue delivered by embarrassingly miscast and misplaced actors.

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” then, much like Jackson’s similarly stellar “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” film achievements, delivers a wallop of a movie and moviegoing journey and experience.

One would think that that’s nothing too surprising in this age of the endless, continual, neverending barrage of comic book superhero movies. But a true, high-level fantasy and sci-fi filmic achievement these days is actually a rarity, as most of the Marvel and DC Comics movies have ended up being, alas, horrendously and embarrassingly plastic, form-fitting, cookie-cutter, boring, boorish, unimaginative, over-done, clunky disappointments–including the stream of clunkers that cluttered movie theaters in 2022. Too bad they didn’t spend some time studying Cameron’s, Jackson’s or Spielberg’s playbook just a little more carefully.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” picks up the story of the oppressed, brutalized and harassed–and beautiful, intelligent and peaceful–Na’vi people on the moon Pandora more than a decade after the events of 2009’s “Avatar.” Still, horrendously and nightmarishly, the Na’vi are being terrorized by jarheaded, lunkheaded, wayward, criminally psychotic militaristic, hateful and violent Earthlings who think nothing of bulldozing, tearing down and even murdering any indigenous folks and their peaceful villages in the name of mining, plundering, colonizing and taking over just to satisfy greedy militaristic, political, capitalistic and nationalistic goals.

And, amid the carnage, the evil Earthlings–yes, they, the bad guys, are us, in many ways and on many levels–send a team of particularly psycho military killers after Jake Sully, a human-turned-Na’vi who has been deemed public enemy number one–even though he’s done nothing wrong, has committed no crime and doesn’t deserve any of the vile and hatred directed toward him, his family or his people.

The killing squad, though, is determined to capture Sully, and their mission forces Scully to leave his home village with his family. That move, solely intended to be peaceful and to help the Na’vi, instead escalates problems on Pandora, as the military morons continue their hunt and subsequently carve out and explode out a path of idiotic warfare, death and destruction that end up threatening Sully, his family, all of the Na’vi and the equally peaceful, intelligent and peaceful Metkayina people, with whom Sully and his wholly loveable family seek refuge.

However, before the jarheads find Sully and his family amid the Metkayina, there are several establishing scenes of absolutely stunningly beautiful, captivating oceanic, marine and water-based life in the Metkayina’s homeland that form and establish the core foundations of the movie’s main, over-riding story and plot. These scenes show a wondrous, naturalistic people who live in such peaceful co-existence and harmony with and within their natural environment, ecosystem and homeland, they have established a method of naturalistic breathing and swimming underwater; they can communicate on several levels–words, sign language, forms of telepathy, mystical, spiritual–with the higher-level sea creatures who they associate with–and who they don’t eat for substinence; they ride lovable sea creature pets like horses and birds; and there are all manners of other deep connections with the intimate, nearby aquatic community and world around them. This aura and atmosphere, then, is the “way of water” that the film’s title references. And it’s all, again, just absolutely beautiful.

Too soon, though, and quite scarily, the military goon and loon squads track down Sully, his wife Neytiri and their four kids, teenagers Neteyan and Lo’ak, adopted daughter Kiri, adopted son Spider and 8-year-old Tuktirey, amid the Metkayina, and the violence, carnage, hate, war and destruction start again. Just like it always does on Earth. Alas, the peaceful Metkayina are eventually drawn into Pandora’s widening, expanding war, and they rise heroically to the challenge–all of the while drawing upon the way of the water to help defend their intimate world and the world-at-large of Pandora.

Cameron and his co-writers and story developers on the film, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno, have wisely centered their film (much as Spielberg did in “The Fabelmans”) on a loveable, caring, kind, smart and close-knit family you can’t help but care about and enjoy spending time with. The characters are just wholly embraceable, and that increases the tension and conflict as the military psychos chase after them and terrorize them. You will be rooting for Sully’s family, the Na’vi and the Metkayina. And you’ll be rooting against the Earthlings.

Cameron, who also directed, co-produced with Jon Landau and co-edited the movie, and his co-writers have, of course, filled the movie with enough morals, messages, themes and lessons to bring an underlying intelligence, importance and relevance to the proceedings, but they never hammer those messages over the viewer’s heads. The messages and lessons peacefully co-exist with the respective action, fantasy and sci-fi awe and wonder, much like how the Na’vi and Metkayina peacefully co-exist with their land and ecosystems.

“Water” presents messages about the utter evil, illegality and criminality of invading and colonizing indigenous peoples’ lands and countries; about the general evils of colonialism, imperialism and empire-building; about the dangers of macho-over-loaded and violence-over-loaded idiotic militaries and military operations; about the increasing and very real dangers of destruction to the environment, to land and sea and air creatures and to fragile ecosystems; about the importance of the preservation, conservation and protection of the environment; about the inherent stupidity and ignorance of bigotry, prejudice and biased hatred toward others; and about the dangers of runaway, unchecked capitalism and greed.

And the film presents a very simple lesson and message about the basic importance of love and family. Sully and Neytiri, and their Metkayina counterparts, want more than anything to protect their families, and they will do anything to keep themselves together. That’s a simple life lesson, of course, but it’s powerfully presented throughout “Way of Water.”

Cameron’s cast shines at all levels, and it’s a big, expansive cast. Sam Worthington as Sully and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri resonate and connect as their characters’ loving, caring parents. And a wonderfully inspiring cast of young actors deliver wonderfully naturalistic performances as the rest of Sully’s family. Jamie Flatters as Neteyam; Britain Dalton as Lo’ak; Trinity Jo-Li Bliss as Tuktirey and Jack Champion as Spider are all to be praised for their natural performances.

And then there’s Sigourney Weaver–and, no, the main character that Weaver plays in “Water” is not the human adult Dr. Grace Augustine from the first “Avatar.” Instead, the 73-year-old Weaver voices Sully’s and Neytiri’s adopted daughter Kiri–who is a teenager. And a Na’vi. This has to be one of the more bold casting moves–and acting performances–in a while, in any genre. To see, hear and follow Kiri, who fulfills an exceptional role in the film’s story and plot, one would never know that the character was being voiced and acted by Sigourney Weaver. Weaver’s performance as the teenaged Kiri is simply exceptional.

And no discussion of “Avatar: The Way of Water” can occur without acknowledging the long, hard, tedious, detailed, creative, artistic and exceptional work of the hundreds and hundreds of visual, special, computer, camera, sound and editing effects artisans who worked for ages to create the innovative images of the film. To watch the credits roll and to see just how many people worked on this movie is to understand, somewhat, in one level, just what it takes to get these elaborate effects onto the screen in the form enjoyed in the theaters. The special effects work is consistently exceptional. The same accolades apply to the same high level of the movie’s production, set, scenic and art direction.

Russell Carpenter’s cinematography, Simon Franglen’s musical score and the tight, fast-paced, but not too fast-paced, editing by Cameron, Stephen E. Rivkin, David Brenner and John Refoua also shine and contribute to the films excellence.

Are there some downfalls to “Water?” Of course there are. Several lines of dialogue and scenes are so cliched and tired, it’s a wonder they ended up anywhere in the movie. With three main scriptwriters on a such an otherwise excellent film, it’s a wonder that they allowed such cliche to live beyond the first rough draft. Even the most casual filmgoer will spot the cliches.

However, for once with such a huge, expensive, epic, tentpole blockbuster, the overall quality of the film, and the quality of all of its other filmic aspects, manages to overwhelm the cliches.

James Cameron has indeed struck again. For most of the past thirteen years, since 2009, he’s had the number-one money-making film worldwide with “Avatar,” and his 1997 “Titanic” currently sits at number-three on the all-time list. Will “Avatar: The Way of Water” join Cameron’s other two films in the top-five? For once in recent years, it’s nice to say that it would be great to see a new, huge fantasy sci-fi film end up being a deserved huge success at the box office–because “Avatar: The Way of Water” deserves to be seen, and enjoyed, by as many people as possible!

And this great new movie deserves to be seen and enjoyed where movies should be seen and enjoyed–in a real movie theater, in the quiet darkness surrounded by fellow moviegoers, way up there up on the big silver screen.

Happy holidays and happy new year!

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.