James Cameron is still the best at what he does. After 13 years working on Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to his 2009 blockbuster Avatar, Cameron is back in theaters to show everyone how it's done. The Way of Water is much like its predecessor, pushing the limit of film creativity with a dizzying array of technological genius poured into every frame. This new film introduces countless audiences to countless more traditions for Pandora's residents, but it comes at a sacrifice to the story. The Way of Water also shows Cameron fully committing his life to this franchise, much to the disappointment of those who would love to see him branch out.
The Way of Water picks up a decade after the events of Avatar, and not much has changed on Pandora. Sure, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is leading the clan with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and they have four children. But the "sky people" of the Resources Development Administration are still mining resources for humans back on a dying Earth. Jake is even leading an insurgency to sabotage their efforts. The militarized company resurrects Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as an Avatar so he can lead a squad of other Avatars to hunt down Jake. This inspires Jake to hide out with a clan of water-based Na'vi called the Metkayina, hence the sequel's subtitle. Of course, Jake and his family can't hide out long and chaos ensues.
Cameron, who worked with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver on the script, has once again crafted a story that is as simple as possible to play out on the incredible stage of Pandora he has created. The introduction of a water-based Na'vi clan means we are also introduced to more creatures and new characters. These are immaculately created visions from Wētā FX that fill screens with eye candy. It is incredible how these creatures that have never existed before look realistic. If you see it on IMAX and in 3D, the way Cameron wants us to, you could reach out and touch them.
All these introductions do, though, is draw out the story. These creatures are gorgeous to look at, but how many times do we need to see Na'vi flying on different beasts? How many different parts of Pandora do we need to be introduced to before the story can play out? Why didn't Cameron create a new villain instead of using a clone of Stephen Lang's previously deceased character? Cameron's script doesn't effectively weave in these new elements without begging the viewer to be patient so his FX team can show off the incredible technological progress they have made in 13 years. The use of a high frame rate also makes some action scenes appear as if you are on the Avatar Flight of Passage ride at Animal Kingdom.
The real achievement of The Way of Water is the editing work Cameron and his co-editors Stephen E. Rivkin, David Brenner, and John Refoua did. Somehow, it never really feels like 190 minutes. Their work keeps the movie flowing, even as it indulges Cameron in his world-building. When we finally get to the incredible action set piece that makes up the film's third hour, it feels like a reward for making it through the rest. It is an example of a true action master at work, building tension through editing and upping the stakes with each moment, even if we have a good idea of how this is ending.
Cameron fans will be happy to see plenty of references to his other work. Spider (Jack Champion) is the long-lost brother of Newt from Aliens. Scenes from the boat climax are completely ripped from Titanic, except with Na'vi replacing humans. Even the story itself feels like a nod to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, as Cameron takes the best elements of his original film and ups the ante for the sequel. Sigourney Weaver also gives the best performance in the film as Jake and Neytiri's adopted daughter Kiri. Despite all the effects, it's impossible to hide Weaver's presence.
The Way of Water is going to make a dizzying amount of money because no one should ever bet against James Cameron. The guy just knows intuitively what makes an audience tick. He fills the screen with incredible action and visuals that make people want to spend three hours on Pandora. The Way of Water's flimsy story of a family unit makes it perfect for the holiday season. Cameron is the best at what he does, but unfortunately what he does best does not include crafting a detailed story that demands that three-hour runtime.