Review by Daniel Blackaby December 16, 2022
Avatar: The Way of Water (Christian Movie Review)
Verdict: A spectacular display of classic cinematic storytelling.
About The Movie
After thirteen years, the lush planet of Pandora is once again open for visitors. The long-awaited sequel to Avatar is not only charged with continuing the story of the big blue Na’vi alien species but also with combating another narrative—the popular internet talking point that despite being the most successful movie in history, Avatar is irrelevant and overrated. Well, mission accomplished on both fronts. Avatar: The Way of Water is a triumphant return, a spectacular display of classic cinema and a masterclass in filmmaking by director James Cameron.
Before taking the plunge, family audiences should be aware of some content elements. The movie maintains its PG-13 rating by the (blue) skin of its teeth, with plenty of juuust covered alien flesh on display, consistent profanity, and a heavy focus on pantheistic spirituality. More on those elements below. Simply taken as a movie, however, The Way of Water soars as high as the majestic floating islands of Pandora.
As with the original film, the story has a simple plot. The “sky people” (aka people from Earth) return to the planet of Pandora to harvest its valuable resources and get revenge on Jake Sully. Leaving the forests, Sully is forced to take refuge in the seafaring Na’vi tribes and learn their ways, as a forest Na’vi in water and metaphorical fish out of water. But when the war eventually finds him, he must lead the people to fight back.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because, to a degree, it is largely a recontextualization and repackaging of the original story. James Cameron leans into broad-brush, classical “hero’s journey” storytelling. The plot may not be complex, but it has a mythic quality. While the basic story beats are similar to the original, the central difference is that it is now a story about family. No longer just star-crossed lovers, Jake and his wife, Nettiri, must confront the threat as parents. While some viewers might be unimpressed by the similar plot beats, having the characters take a comparable journey in a drastically different stage of life is an effective way to explore the central theme: the family as a fortress of strength (see below).
Visually, the film is stunning. I saw the movie in 3D on a large Dolby screen, and I’d be hard-pressed to recall a more immersive experience in a theater. It’s not just empty spectacle; there is beauty as well. Almost every scene showcases the sublime natural beauty of the planet, with perhaps the most believable CGI ever put to film. A movie is not a book; the visuals are as much a part of the experience as the story, and few—if any—films have achieved such a masterful and artful level as this. Particularly once the story shifts to the ocean locations, both above water and below, the film is spectacular to watch.
The movie is essentially a war film, and almost the entire final hour is non-stop action and battle scenes. At the same time, much of the 3+ hour runtime is allocated to purposeful exploration of both the world and its inhabitants. Avatar: The Way of Water is the type of movie that simply doesn’t often get made. An original epic that captures the best of both classic storytelling and cutting-edge visuals. It may not be as novel as the original, but the sequel surpasses its predecessor in many ways and is a worthy continuation of the story.
On the Surface
Profanity: 1 F-Bomb and frequent other profanities (“s—,” “d—,” “b—ch,” etc.). Several religious exclamations (“Jesus,” “Good God”). There are also several other rude/crude words or name calling.
Violence: Many characters are killed during mostly bloodless battle scenes (shot with arrows, slammed against walls, consumed by explosions, etc.). The only gruesome death is when a character has his arm severed (he is tossed from a boat and both the man and the limb are shown flying through the air and landing in the water).
Sexuality: Most of the aliens wear scanty tribal outfits that reveal all but the most private parts and leave the backside bare (although they are more or less obscured by the aliens’ tails). It’s mostly done in the vein of National Geographic rather than as highly sexualized, but there is plenty of blue alien flesh on display. The one unfortunate exception occurs at the beginning, when one such alien is shown floating in a liquid-filled medical tank, fully nude, with an exposed breast and nipple briefly visible. One male human character essentially wears a loincloth for the duration of the film.
Spirituality: The Na’vi have a pantheistic religion. Characters pray to the “Great Mother” and commune with the spiritual entity by connecting to “spirit trees.” While connected to the trees, characters are given visions of a sort of quasi-afterlife in which they speak with deceased characters. Characters talk about how all of nature is connected, and they perform various religious rituals (more on the faith elements below).
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
Family as a Fortress
Avatar: The Way of Water is a story about families. Almost every storyline in some way ties back to this theme. It is refreshing for a Hollywood film to focus so directly on the importance of family. Whereas the first Avatar was largely a Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden lovers coming together, The Way of Water charts the seldom-explored Hollywood path by exploring how that initial relationship matures over time and how the romantic pair grows into a family.
An opening voiceover by Jake Sully declares, “Happiness is simple . . . but the thing about happiness is that it can vanish in a heartbeat.” Family is what matters, where true happiness is found, but how does a family protect itself from the internal and external forces that try to separate them? That’s the question the rest of the story probes.
On two occasions, Jake muses, “Fathers protect their family. It’s what gives them meaning.” Jake had no fear charging into battle in the first movie. Now, with four children to look out for, he views life differently. He is less a reckless warrior on the attack and more a protective guardian willing to sacrifice everything for those he loves.
Two other quotes establish this theme: “This family is our fortress,” and the family’s mantra, “Sullys stick together.” While much of the story is about the protective role of parents and what they do to shelter their children, it also shows how the children stand up for each other. Brothers learn what it means to be brothers, despite their differences, and are also protective of their sister when she is being mistreated by young males from the other tribe.
There is also a pivotal element of children saving their parents. There is a powerful scene at the end of the movie in which both parents are trapped and defeated before their children guide them to safety—daughter leading mother and son leading father. The Sully family is far from perfect (Jake is overly hard on one son, among other struggles), but they believe in each other and fight to stay together.
Faith and Spirituality as Strength
The spiritual elements in the film can be approached in two ways. Focusing on the specifics, the pantheistic spirituality is clearly not consistent with a biblical worldview. It brings to mind the scripture, “They…worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator” (Romans 1:25). While the film does not necessarily espouse spirituality outside of the fictional world of Pandora (James Cameron is not suggesting that a Great Mother embodies spirit trees and all living things on Earth), Christians should recognize the ways that the religion is inconsistent with biblical truth.
On a broader level, there are some aspects Christians can affirm. While the faith in question is clearly not Christian, there is a theme about the power of faith and belief. There is a moment when one of the Sully children has a “religious episode.” One of the doctors (a human in a Na’vi avatar) attempts to explain it away as “frontal lobe epilepsy,” but as the audience knows, the doctor’s assessment is not true. Later, her spiritual connection is put on full display when she rescues her family in a time of need.
There is a motif all throughout that what makes the inhabitants of Pandora strong is their faith and spirituality, in stark contrast to the non-religious and more scientifically minded human colonizers. Christians with no tolerance for fictional stories containing non-biblical faith are unlikely to appreciate the spiritual elements in this movie. But for Christians who instead look to the bigger theme of how characters wrestle with faith and spirituality, there are perhaps some interesting themes to explore.