[REVIEW] 'Avatar: The Way of Water' is very, very long but very, very stunning

Jake Sully, portrayed by Sam Worthington, and his firstborn son Neteyam, portrayed by Jamie Flatters, bond in the forest of Pandora in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” [THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

“Sullys stick together.”

The recurring theme of the three-hour-and-12-minute-long “Avatar: The Way of Water” is family. Thirteen years after the epic sci-fi film "Avatar" (2009) was first released, the sequel is finally out in local theaters and offering audiences a truly breathtaking, immersive experience.

The opening sequence features a beautiful panorama of the rain forest of Pandora, and the world reflected in the water, hinting at the setting of the next adventure.

Jake Sully, an ex-human and now-chief of Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi clan, lives happily with his mate Neytiri. The film fast forwards 10 years as their first son, Neteyam is born (reminiscent of the sequence in the 1994 film “The Lion King” when baby Simba is lifted up for everyone to see). The Sully family is comprised of Jake, Neytiri, and their four children — two sons and two daughters, including their adopted teenage daughter Kiri, whose biological mother is Dr. Grace Augustine.

Sigourney Weaver, who portrayed Dr. Grace Augustine in “Avatar” (2009), this time portrays Kiri, Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter. Dr. Grace Augustine is Kiri’s biological mother. [THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

Although Jake loves his children very much, he certainly has trouble showing it, particularly toward his sons. Their relationship seem to be closer to one between soldiers and their commanding officer rather than father and sons, which is not surprising considering Jake’s past as a marine.

Their decade-long peace is interrupted by a villain who comes back from the dead looking to exact revenge. Colonel Miles Quaritch, is resurrected as a Recombinant, or an avatar embedded with all of the past memories of his former human self. Jake and his family try to escape, mistakenly thinking that running away to another part of Pandora will somehow resolve everything.

Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis portray Ronal and Tonowari, reef people from the Metkayina clan of the Pandora planet. [THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

This is how the audience are introduced to the reef region of Pandora, the underwater exploration, and the Metkayina tribe — who, as the Na’vi tribe do with the rain forest, have a powerful connection with the ocean. Similarly to the 2009 film, humans and their attempts to exploit the natural resources of the ocean are the source of evil.

James Cameron, who has repeatedly mentioned his love for marine life as an explorer and a diver, said at a local press event last week that the film doesn’t “beat you over the head with its message” but instead merely “asks you to feel something for the oceans,” which he hopes will lead to a transactional outcome of saving it.

The scenes are often portrayed from the first-person perspective of different characters — mostly the Sully family — to engage audiences and offer them an underwater immersive experience.

The performance captures of the underwater scenes were truly amazing thanks to groundbreaking new technology perfected by Cameron. From the awkwardness of the Sully family as they adjust to marine life to the fluent, sure strokes of the members of the Metkayina tribe, every movement under the water was flawless. The cast is said to have trained in diving, swimming and holding their breath underwater for a year before they actually began filming. Audiences will be able to tell Cameron is a perfectionist from the minute details he captures such as the characters' facial expressions as they submerge into the water.

Lo’ak, Jake and Neytiri’s second son, bonds with the sea creatures of Pandora. Lo’ak is portrayed by Britain Dalton. [THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

The narrative itself is simple. The good and the evil are clearly outlined, which seems in this case, necessary to ground the audience to the story and sympathize with the characters who are not humans. The visuals of the Metkayina clan are similar yet again alien compared to the Na’vi people: While the faces of the cast such as Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang are implicitly visible in their characters, there are no traces Kate Winslet in her character of Ronal, a free diver of the Metkayina tribe.

The long screen time does not fly by, but neither does it feel like it’s unnecessarily dragging. Cameron likened the length to how one would feel finishing up a long novel — the narrative is divided into several chapters as the scenes black out and light up again. Audiences are advised to take their bathroom breaks before the film begins so that they don’t miss out on any of the immersive experience.

The film ends with heavy implications for the next sequel — yet again, the Sully family must face the antagonist Quaritch, portrayed by Lang. In an interview with American media outlet Empire published on March 2022, Cameron confirmed that Lang will feature as the main antagonist in both “Avatar 3” and “Avatar 4.” The director seems reluctant to part with the original cast of “Avatar.” He praised the cast for forming “a creative relationship[...] it was so joyful for me if we could reproduce that experience [...] I think we all wanted to do that.”

Colonel Miles Quaritch, portrayed by Stephen Lang, returns for the sequel as a Recombinant, an avatar embedded with the memories of their former human self. [THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

There are no post-credit scenes offering hints about the sequel leaving audiences scratching their heads about what will become of the next generation of the Sully family and this reporter wondering — will the next film be even longer than this one?