‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ reviews: You will ‘leave starry-eyed and in disbelief over what you’ve just seen’

On December 16, “Avatar: The Way of Water” was released in theaters. Director James Cameron‘s long-awaited sequel to the 2009 original has  Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver reprising their roles alongside newcomers Kate Winslet and Edie Falco. The plot, centered a decade after “Avatar,” focuses on Jake Sully (Worthington). He lives with his newfound family on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri (Saldana) and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their home.

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The sequel to the highest grossing film of all time has skyrocketed in our Oscar predictions since it first screened. It was further buoyed by Golden Globe nominations for Best Film Drama and Best Director as well as Critics Choice Film Awards bids for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects. The film currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 80% from critics and 94% from audiences.

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Brian Lowry of CNN.com calls the film “a state-of-the-art exercise that rekindles that sense of wonder and demands to be seen by anyone with lingering interest in watching movies in theaters.” Cameron utilizes everything in his bag of tricks and even adds a new group of reef dwellers, “wedding the original to Cameron’s well-documented love of the ocean and its exploration, an impulse he’s been indulging since ‘Titanic’ a quarter-century ago.” When the inhabitants of Earth return once more, this time led by Falco’s General Ardmore, Jake and his people turn to the water dwelling Metkayina, led by their ruler and his wife, Ronal (Winslet). “Far from shying away from the minutia assorted with all that, Cameron luxuriates in it and invites the audience to do the same. From the first striking 3D images that practically leap off the screen, ‘The Way of Water’ basks in speed and movement, as if this was all an audition for the inevitable additions to Disney World’s theme-park attraction.” In the end, this film “deserves to be seen, not from the comfort of the couch, but on the biggest screen you can find.”

Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post begins with a wave of nostalgia asking, “Whoever thought that a 10-foot-tall blue alien would be such a sight for sore eyes?” Praising the film, Oleksinski also notes the film “is as visually exhilarating and sweepingly told as its predecessor. The plot is more emotionally vigorous, and you’ll once again leave starry-eyed and in disbelief over what you’ve just seen.” The plot is not overwrought as Cameron “embraces universality and powerful images to move his audience. Lo’ak’s coming-of-age story involving a behemoth sea creature is not only touching, but gorgeously reminiscent of Elliott and E.T., Harry Potter and Buckbeak the hippogriff and ‘Pete’s Dragon.'” Oleksinski concludes, “The climactic action of ‘The Way of Water’ feels full-circle for Cameron, even though he’s hardly retired, with three potential ‘Avatar’ films still on the way. There are undeniable glimpses of ‘Titanic,’ ‘Aliens’ and ‘T2’ during the harrowing water-and-fire-filled sequence. However, with his incredible effects, the director is still breaking new ground for film decades later.”

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Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly writes, “’The Way of Water’ is, indeed, spectacularly aquatic, though not quite in the way that the six-time Oscar winner’s eerie deep-sea thriller ‘The Abyss’ was, or even the vast, ruthless North Atlantic that swallowed Leonardo DiCaprio and 1,500 other doomed souls in his ‘Titanic.’” The script is solid but the visual effects stand out most. “The world both above and below the waterline is a thing to behold, a sensory overload of sound and color so richly tactile that it feels psychedelically, almost spiritually sublime.” Greenblatt continues, “The actors, performing in motion capture, do their best to project human-scale feelings on this sprawling, sensational canvas, to varying degrees of success. Saldaña’s mother-warrior makes herself ferociously vulnerable, and Weaver somehow gets us to believe she’s an outcast teen; Worthington often sounds like he’s just doing his best to sound 10 percent less Australian.” 

Richard Roeper of Chicago Sun-Times begins by praising the visual aspects but dings the script as “A borderline corny, frequently repetitive, cliché-riddled storyline that features elements of everything from ‘Free Willy’ to ‘Titanic’ to ‘Die Hard’ to ‘Apocalypse Now’ and I swear there’s even a sequence that reminded me of that scene in the ‘Karate Kid’ where poor Daniel gets jumped by those bullies in the Halloween skeleton costumes.” He adds, “A miscast Edie Falco plays the ruthless Gen. Ardmore, who clomps about in a giant robotic getup that mimics her movements, and guess who is charged with taking down Sully? None other than Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was killed all those years ago but returns as a recombinant, i.e., an autonomous avatar embedded with the memories and personality of the human whose DNA was used to create it. In other words, Quaritch is as bloodthirsty and cunning as ever, but now he has the size and strength and speed of a Na’vi warrior.” Roeper finally eases up, writing, “Pandora remains one of the most amazing worlds we’ve ever seen on the big screen.” 

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