Avatar 2 review: James Cameron has done it again

Cameron Frew
Neytiri in Avatar 2

Avatar 2 is an awe-inspiring, cinematic hallelujah; James Cameron is back, and maybe he is the king of the world after all.

The Terminator, stripped by flames to its cybernetic frame, limping viciously after Sarah Connor; Ellen Ripley equipping the mech suit; the pseudopod; the T-1000 emerging from a tiled floor and morphing through bars; Jamie Lee Curtis swinging from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arm on the Middle Keys bridge; and the bubbling, harrowing rise and fall of the Titanic.

Cameron is a man of moments at the movies; they transcend time and enter legend with their slap-your-knee, “how the f*ck did he do that?” insanity, with an eight-strong filmography (your Piranha 2 pedantry isn’t welcome here) beloved for constantly pushing moviemaking to new heights, and depths.

Avatar: The Way of Water, the long-awaited sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time, doesn’t have one big scene to enter the same echelon – the movie is the moment, and you’ve never seen anything like this before.

Avatar 2 introduces The Way of Water

The clouds welcome you back to Pandora. The mists break to reveal the spectacle of old; the floating mountains, banshees soaring across epic cliff faces and forestry. This moon holds many dangers, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) warns, “but the most dangerous thing about Pandora is that you may grow to love her too much.”

After the events of the first film, which saw the RDA’s Hometree-wrecking, unobtanium mining operation brought to an end by the Na’vi, life is peaceful for Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). They care for five children: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), their biological offspring; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), whom they adopted; and Spider (Jack Champion), a human born on Pandora who prefers the branch-swinging ways of the natives.

Their peace is shattered by the “sky people”, who return with terraforming beams that engulf the land like a hellish tsunami. With the consciousness of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) also resurrected as an Avatar, they eventually seek the help of the oceanic Metkayina clan (with Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, and more), who teach them the way of water.

Zoe Saldaña is the cast’s MVP

Worthington doesn’t give returning audiences much of a reason to remember Jake’s name – he’s sketched somewhere between a naggy dad and the gun-blazing hero, and lumbered with Cameron’s weakest component: his screenwriting, even when co-penning with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. He’s not unlikable – if anything, he’s nice! – but he certainly isn’t memorable.

On the other hand, Saldaña may be the best actor to have ever portrayed an alien species, emphasizing all of Neytiri’s emotions with raw vulnerability and anger, while Lang’s reprisal as Quaritch allows him to chew on all sorts of we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore cheesy charm, while setting him up to be one of the great big bads.

Champion’s Spider is a victim of the story; it’s a game performance, but his place in this world is far from formed, while the other younger actors put in excellent turns, easily making an impression in a movie where wonder was always going to be the main takeaway. Weaver delivers something rather exceptional, balancing the weight of two roles across two movies with seamless ease; she’s a tether across two generations, and an icon to both.

Avatar 2 is a historic feat in VFX

Let’s not water it down: Avatar 2 may be the 21st century’s single-greatest visual effects accomplishment. The ambition is staggering; Cameron flows in and out of higher frame rates, often within the space of short scenes. At worst, it feels like your eyes are running too fast (if you’ve ever switched from Performance to Fidelity on a PS5, you’ll know), but when it succeeds, it results in dynamic action the like of which has never been realized in the medium.

The final act, essentially a rip-roaring bonanza of splish-splash, arrow-impaling, face-thudding violence, is thrilling and flawlessly directed, but you’ll leave mostly despaired at not being able to take a dip in Pandora’s seas. The underwater cinematography, devised by Cameron and shot by his trusty DP Russell Carpenter with groundbreaking technological advancements, is so astonishing it takes you out of the movie, before submerging you even deeper into its grip.

A still from Avatar 2 in the post-credit scene with the Avatar rerelease

It’s dreamy beyond my own comprehension of the moving image – think of the most beautiful documentary you’ve ever seen, and it’s not even close – but small influences are clear: the way the camera moves through the reef, with stingrays and other fish whooshing by vibrant, glowing coral, is reminiscent of Finding Nemo (the score, composed delicately and respectfully by Simon Franglen in lieu of the late James Horner, even evokes Thomas Newman’s twinkling calm in some moments). I’m also dead certain Cameron squeezed in a Deep Blue Sea reference.

The whales. The whales. You’ll fall in love with the Tulkun as soon as you lay your eyes on them. The majesty is more than a spectacle; they serve as an important throughline for the movie’s themes, summoning more emotional resonance and impact than any human ever could. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to see someone get “finned” (splatted by a whale’s fin), you’re in for a treat.

I hear the cries of the cynics, the pre-decided whataboutism of the bores: what about the story? The first Avatar stood firmly on its own as a complete entry point. Avatar 2 isn’t as full a picture narratively, with groundwork being laid for the third, and possibly fourth and fifth entries.

You may be left questioning the reasoning of certain decisions, or the inclusion of some people altogether, but a grand saga is being sketched here, and the movie does a terrific job of illustrating this scope across a huge runtime without a single dip in pacing or attention. Cameron has always been a master of the heart, and the plot packs as much suspense as it does poignancy – sincerity always wins. The drums of the end-credits title drop will be the only thing to muffle your groan at having to wait two more years for what’s next.

Avatar 2 review score: 4/5

Avatar 2 almost feels like a peek into an era we’re not ready for – if only because we’ll never want to leave. The post-Pandora blues are back, and they can only be cured with the cause: The Way of Water is ultra big-screen escapism.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas now. You can read our review here, find out the best way to watch the movie here, and check out the rest of our coverage here.