AVATAR: THE WAY of Water is a long time coming. The newest chapter in James Cameron’s spears-versus-guns, aliens-versus-predators epic has been planned all along, and its own sequel, Avatar 3, is already set for a 2024 release (the movies were filmed simultaneously). Avatar 4, partially shot, has been slated for 2026. The fifth installment’s got a script. These are movies in which the colonizing empire is the bad guy, the destroyer and abuser of a new world and the people — called Na’vi — inhabiting it. Maybe there’s some irony in needing to prove this point with a five-movie empire of one’s own.
But irony isn’t really Cameron’s game. The Way of Water is like its predecessor: sincere to the point of being brash, wide-armed and open-hearted toward the world it loves and vengefully, comically violent toward the people who arrive to destroy that world. It’s a better movie than the first outing because Cameron lets things get weirder, wilder. He dwells on details that most streamlined modern blockbusters, even some of the most bloated among them, do not dare. Repeated images of an eclipse begin to hang over the entire movie like a curse. Complex, whale-like creatures called tulkun are given full social lives, backstories, and systems of communication so sophisticated that their conversations are subtitled. A Rambo in avatar’s clothing has an encounter with his old body — a skull — in one of the stranger deployments of military undead this side of Universal Soldier: Regeneration. These aren’t really spoilers — the world of this movie is big enough and, like the environs it depicts, much too interconnected to rest on any one detail.