“Avatar 2: The Way of Water” plays in the shallow end


Justin Chan

Released on Dec. 16, 2022, “Avatar 2” bridges the stories between the first film and potential future films in the franchise as Jake Sully must defend his family from old threats and new challenges.

Released on Dec. 16, 2022, James Cameron’s “Avatar 2” plays in the shallows with a friendly storyline, all the while hydrating, nourishing and rejuvenating viewers with a visual smorgasbord of a production. 

The long-anticipated sequel to “Avatar” (2009) features Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana returning as Jake Sully and Neytiri respectively. Sully and his family are members of the Na’vi, the indigenous species of the fictional world of Pandora, while Sigourney Weaver takes on the role of their daughter Kiri. Other newcomers include Kate Winslet as Ronal, queen of the Metkayina reef clan whom the Sullys flee to for refuge, and Britain Dalton as Lo’ak, the Sullys’ youngest son.

The film introduces Jake Sully’s family to the wary reef clans of Pandora after humans invade Sully’s forest home and put his family at risk. Attempting to acclimate to the reef clan lifestyle, each of Sully’s children goes on their own journey of burgeoning self-discovery while bonding with elements of the ocean world. Along the way, boats are sunk, villains are resurrected and family ties are put to the test. While these individual storylines were enjoyable, the end result — Sully’s family finally being welcomed as reef people — was anticlimactic and largely underwhelming considering the drama and heartache it took to get there.

But Cameron makes a point that if the real treasure isn’t in the ending, then it most certainly is in the friends we made along the way. More than anything, the potential to explore more of the Avatar world with new and familiar faces makes the movie worth watching.

Notably, “Avatar 2” introduces a new generation of kids in Sully’s family, and indeed, the whole movie felt more geared toward children with woven-in messages emphasizing “family first.” Lo’ak — the black sheep of the family — has the most enticing and relatable arc in the film. He bonds with an outcast Tolkun (a species of guardian whales that share spiritual bonds with the reef Na’vi), allowing the audience to see his maturity grow. He is rough around the edges, a bit reckless, and probably too stubborn for his own good. Despite this, he has a big heart and lets his belief of what’s right guide him until the very end. 

But Cameron makes a point that if the real treasure isn’t in the ending, then it most certainly is in the friends we made along the way.

In general, the movie did a splendid job of making characters that viewers could fall in love with. The character that stood out the most was Tsireya, the daughter of the reef clan’s chief, Tonowari. She melded in with the Sully family right off the bat. Out of all of Tonowari’s children, Tsireya became the closest to the Sully children and helped them get accustomed to the Metkayina setting. She is resourceful, tough, sweet and obviously smitten with Lo’ak — a development to see unfold in future films. 

For a three-hour long film, the story tended to lag, but Cameron also makes a good case for the long-term investment of indulging in such a film. Spending time exploring a new part of Pandora will allow for more possible plot threads in future films, which is a great idea for a five-part franchise. And even on their own, the plot and visuals create a wonderfully immersive experience; the characters amidst the detailed ocean setting are genuinely fun to watch. On the whole, “Avatar 2” is like a bridge between films, allowing for more exploration and deeper development in the next movies, while expanding on the world of the first.

Don’t let the idea that Avatar 2 is a mere bridge to future movies deter you from mining the gold nuggets of a thoughtfully crafted film, though. Cameron peels back the curtain to more serene and spiritual sides of the characters, whether it’s Kiri examining the sand beneath gentle waves on the beach, or scenes depicting the bonds between Na’vi and Tolkun. The movie still has its fair share of action with machine gun fire and feral knife fights, but fighting isn’t exactly the point. Rather, peace — peace with nature, with the world and its inhabitants — surrounds the movie and its audience. And Cameron proves, by spending time on such peaceful moments, even by making them the best moments of the film, that peace can be something worth going to the theater for.

“Avatar 2” is an overall balanced movie — good for family and friends at the next movie night, and a benchmark for an invigorating future franchise. And though it’s already appealing as a standalone film, the storyline also serves as a good build-up for the events of the third movie and beyond. Cameron’s vision for future films aims to develop the framework laid out in the first two, allowing viewers to explore more of the vast culture and environment of Pandora; for example, more new tribes of the Na’vi people will be introduced, including a fire-centered group called the “Ash People.” Furthermore, subsequent films will be narrated by characters other than the original narrator Jake Sully, with the third movie being chronicled by Lo’ak — this change helps explain the emphasis on family, and specifically Lo’ak’s character focus, in Avatar 2. Finally, future installments will feature the return of the outcast Tolkun Payakan, as well as a deeper dive into his backstory, which was only briefly explored in Avatar 2. With all these exciting features to look forward to, we can forgive Avatar 2 of some of its expository tedium in anticipation of countless new adventures in future films.

Hopefully, the next three movies will continue to build on the family viewers have just begun to love, deepening their storylines and fleshing out the Avatar world. A combination of savvy technology, big-hearted Na’vi and directorial ingenuity make Avatar 2 and its successors a worthwhile monetary — and emotional — investment.