Although the last hour of “Avatar: The Way of Water” is where the real action starts – at 190 minutes, this movie seems like it’s too long, but it’s surprisingly fast despite not being action-heavy on a while — the middle section is where the film shines. Jake and his family drift away from the forest’s Omaticaya clan and land on the reefs of Pandora to join the Metkayina people in the sea, meaning it’s not just Jake who has to learn a new way of life, but his entire family. At first they are warily greeted by the leaders of Metkayina, portrayed here by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet (the latter of whom unfortunately has little to do in the whole affair, even considering the odd echoes of “Titanic” in the third act) . But over time, Jake and his family, especially his middle son Lo’ak (UK Dalton), become completely ensconced in… well, in the way of water.
If there’s one lesson to be learned for viewers of “The Way of Water,” it’s that special effects can really look this amazing in movies, and far too few movies do really has special effects. In the marketing campaign for this film, James Cameron has been outspoken about his opinion on the onslaught of comic book movies that have become the dominant form of cinematic entertainment for the past decade plus, and at least when you watch “The Way of Water,” you can see why the visuals in these films simply do not measure up. We’re just over a month removed from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” where a hero similarly becomes involved with a strange group of people who live in the water, culminating in a big battle on a massive ship. The parallels may not seem entirely solid, but the problem is less that the comparisons are not perfect as much as they are unfair. The special effects in “Wakanda Forever” are often full of seams, as you can almost imagine where the blue screen backgrounds exist in shot after shot.
The special effects in “The Way of Water” – especially in the sequences on the sea in the middle hour — are breathtaking to watch. Anyone with a passing knowledge of how movies work will inherently know that much of what appears on screen must be fake. Although the actors filmed in a water tank, or some kind of film set with an extensive amount of water, the characters themselves are as much a product of motion-capture technology as they are of computer effects and animation. (That’s not even taking into account the many sea creatures that Jake and his family encounter.) Any given image in this film appears to be partly, if not entirely, created via digital effects, and yet the seams are almost always invisible. (The words “Almost always” must be used here, because even though Cameron’s preferred viewing method is via 3D and 48 frames per second, when fast motion is visible on the screen during these high frame rate images, the viewing experience briefly becomes difficult. High frame rate can be the future, but the future isn’t here yet.) It’s to this film’s credit that if Cameron had just wanted to spend the whole time in the hangout vibes of the second hour, it would still be one of the most triumphant special effects experiences in cinema history.