Avatar: The Way of Water First Reviews: A Magical, Visually Sublime Cinematic Experience Well Worth the Wait

Early reviews of James Cameron's long-in-the-making sequel say it feels like an immersive theme park thrill ride with interesting characters, breathtaking action, and a better story than the first.

by | December 13, 2022 | Comments


The first of Avatar’s sequels is finally here, 13 years after the release of the record-breaking original. For those who’ve been anxiously looking forward to Avatar: The Way of Water and those who have been doubting its necessity, the good news is that the movie is worth the wait and another work of essential theatrical entertainment from James Cameron. The first reviews of the follow-up celebrate its expected visual spectacle as well as its slightly improved script and new cast members. You’re going to want to return to Pandora after reading these excerpts.

Here’s what critics are saying about Avatar: The Way of Water:

Does it live up to expectations?

The Way of the Water is a transformative movie experience that energizes and captivates the senses through its visual storytelling, making the return to Pandora well worth the wait. – Mae Abdulbaki, Screen Rant

Spending more than a decade pining for Pandora was worth it. Cameron has delivered the grandest movie since, well, Avatar. – Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

This latest and most ambitious picture will stun most of his naysayers into silence. – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Is it better than the original?

Like all great sequels, The Way of Water retrospectively deepens the original. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

Avatar: The Way of Water is as visually exhilarating and sweepingly told as its predecessor; the plot is more emotionally vigorous. – Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

So it’s not just more of the same?

Any “been here, actually do remember this” déjà vu washes all the way off the minute the action finally plunges under the surface. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

[It is] meticulous world-building as astonishing and enveloping as anything we’ve ever seen on screen. – Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

The brand-extension imperatives that typically govern sequels are happily nowhere in evidence. – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Does it have a better script?

The sequel’s story is spread a bit thin, though there is certainly more depth than the first film. – Mae Abdulbaki, Screen Rant

In terms of narrative sophistication and even more so dialogue, this $350 million sequel is almost as basic as its predecessor, even feeble at times. – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

The story is still just okay. – Owen Gleiberman, Variety

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana as Jake Sully and Neytiri in Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Will we care enough about the story and characters regardless?

Avatar: The Way of Water is such a staggering improvement over the original because its spectacle doesn’t have to compensate for its story; in vintage Cameron fashion, the movie’s spectacle is what allows its story to be told so well. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

The movie’s overt themes of familial love and loss, its impassioned indictments of military colonialism and climate destruction, are like a meaty hand grabbing your collar; it works because they work it. – Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

Watching The Way of Water, one rolls their eyes only to realize they’re welling with tears. – Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

I’m sorry, but as I watched The Way of Water the only part of me that was moved was my eyeballs. – Owen Gleiberman, Variety

Are there any standout performances?

Saldaña and Winslet have poignant moments…and Dalton and Champion are standouts among the young newcomers. – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

The most dynamic portrayal probably belongs to Lang, whose Quaritch is so relentless in his pursuit of Jake that he becomes a force of nature. – Tim Grierson, Screen International

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana as Jake Sully and Neytiri in Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

How is the action?

The open-water clash that dominates the final hour is a commandingly sustained feat of action filmmaking. – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Any hack can make stuff blow up real good; Cameron makes stuff glow up real good. – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Are the visuals as spectacular as they’re supposed to be?

One can’t say enough good things about the film’s visuals — each frame is more breathtaking and magical than the last. – Mae Abdulbaki, Screen Rant

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. – Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

What’s most astonishing about The Way of Water is the persuasive case it makes for CGI. – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

On the set of Avatar: The Way of Water

(Photo by Mark Fellman/©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

But how is that high frame rate?

It’s a rather soulless feel, as it was in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. But it can make you feel like you’re sharing the same space with the characters. – Owen Gleiberman, Variety

While the approach can sometimes prove distracting, the film is far more persuasive than Ang Lee’s recent experiments in the form. – Tim Grierson, Screen International

The use of high frame rate (a sped-up 48 frames per second) tends to work better underwater than on dry land, where the overly frictionless, motion-smoothed look might put you briefly in mind of a Na’vi soap opera. – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Does it feel like more than just your average movie?

At times you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie so much as floating in one. – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

There are times when it can seem as if there isn’t a screen at all, and that the action is unfolding right in front of you. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

It’s truly a movie crossed with a virtual-reality theme-park ride. – Owen Gleiberman, Variety

Trinity Jo-Li Bliss as Tuk in Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Do we need to see it in a theater?

It’s the most rapturous, awe-inducing, only in theaters return to the cinema of attractions since Godard experimented with double exposure 3D in Goodbye to Language. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

Will it leave us excited for Avatar 3?

Where it will flow next is a mystery, and it’d be disingenuous of me to suggest I’m not eager to find out. – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Avatar: The Way of Water opens everywhere on December 16, 2022.

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