No less than 13 years after James Cameron introduced the world to the land of Pandora in Avatar (2009), the long-awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water finally saw a theatrical release in December 2022. Now, on the heels of a wildly successful run in cinemas which saw Cameron’s film gross $2.3 billion worldwide (good enough for third all-time at the global box office), The Way of Water is now available on 4k digital and VOD for audiences to visit Pandora from the comfort of their couches.
With a runtime stretching more than three hours, the screenplay for The Way of Water is written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), with additional story credits to Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) and Shane Salerno (Armageddon). The story structure follows a textbook three-act formula. Act one efficiently reintroduces audiences to the world of Pandora, the returning characters of the Sully family, and the conflict between the native Na’vi and the invading human forces of the Resources Development Administration. Act two progresses further to reveal another ecosystem within Pandora, that of the Metkayina clan on the barrier reefs. This portion of the narrative is comparable to a nature documentary, although all of the “nature” in this case is a virtual world built by Weta Digital. Perhaps the highest compliment I can bestow to the crew in this regard is that the world feels totally tangible and physically reactive to every single element within it. There are multiple extended sequences that do little in terms of advancing the overall plot, but are significant in developing an emotional connection between the characters, the world of Pandora, and the viewer. Considering that the Sully family comes from the Omatikaya clan in the rainforests, they are completely unfamiliar with the oceanic region of the Metkayina tribe. As audience members, we are learning about this new side of Pandora in real-time along with the Sullys. Simultaneously, Cameron and the remarkable crew from Weta Digital are presenting viewers with a spectacle of new technological and scientific filmmaking methods that have never been seen before, ensuring that the industry will be permanently changed moving forward.
When the third act transitions into a war story, viewers may find themselves experiencing physical anger as the ecosystem and natural resources of Pandora are ravaged by the invaders without any care for the devastation they incur. Because so much time in the middle of the film is devoted to establishing the sanctity of this environment, its destruction is all the more impactful. Still, in the midst of the action-packed final act, the story holds onto its roots in the emotional arc of the Sully family. This thematic through-line of familial love is verbalized aloud as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) says, “I know one thing: Wherever we go, this family is our fortress.” In its purest form, this is a story about empathy and what it means to connect with nature and the world around us, very literally, in some cases. The characters feel each other’s pain, grief, and loss, but also their joy, peace, and contentment. This extends to their bond with other wildlife on Pandora, and most of all, their relationship with Eywa, the Na’vi All-Mother deity. Spirituality and physicality are innately linked in all aspects of life on Pandora.
Conversations surrounding the relevance of the theatrical industry in an ever-evolving cinematic landscape have only been heightened in the years since Covid-19 changed the general structure of society in 2020. Despite this uncertainty, Cameron has maintained his passion as a champion of the big-screen experience. Speaking personally for a moment, I would not consider myself to be a theatrical purist. Some of the most meaningful cinematic experiences from my life have come from watching films at home in various formats. Whether it’s displayed on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming, a good movie has the power to move you regardless of the specifications of its presentation. But, make no mistake, an effective theatrical exhibition can amplify the effect of any film. As someone who saw The Way of Water twice in Dolby Cinema 3D and has now had the chance to view it at home as well, it is fair to say that while the extent of Pandora’s immersive nature is not quite as potent on the small screen, it is still pretty darn mesmerizing nonetheless. The 4k digital picture and Dolby Atmos audio play beautifully in a dark, quiet room at home. Granted, the picture and audio quality will vary from system to system, so my experience in watching on a 70-inch 4k television may differ from someone watching this digital release on their laptop computer. Regardless, the staggering detail of the Oscar-winning visual effects is rendered so exceptionally, and the envelope of sound design blending with Simon Franglen’s gorgeous musical score is so transportive, that it is difficult to imagine a viewer walking away disappointed on either front.
If the 192 minutes of feature runtime in The Way of Water still leave you wanting more, well, you’re in luck. Inside Pandora’s Box is a series of 14 behind-the-scenes documentaries that break down a variety of technical, narrative, and thematic processes in the making of the film. You can press the “play all” option and watch the series in order, which rounds out at 152 minutes. No stone goes unturned in this comprehensive look behind the curtain. Whether you want to know more about the practically unparalleled challenges of underwater filmmaking, are interested in learning about the vast expansion of the Na’vi language in this sequel compared to the 2009 film, or want more direct insight from the star-studded cast on their philosophical approaches to their characters, the special features have you covered. In an interview on the Building the World of Pandora featurette, production designer Ben Procter effectively gives a thesis statement on the energy stemming from James Cameron that the entire crew channeled into making this film: “The challenge of designing for Jim, whether it’s on the technical side or the natural side, is in Jim’s mind, all this stuff is real. We’re not making a movie, we’re filming some reality that just happens to exist on another planet. To him, every detail of every woven structure, every creature and its evolutionary biology, led it to look the way that it does.”
Beyond that, More from Pandora’s Box contains four more featurettes which place the focus on unique teams within the production crew, including the casting department, the stunt team, the Lightstorm Lab virtual production unit, and the Troupe, a group of performers referred to as the “Swiss Army Knife of acting” who portray dozens of roles depending on the needs of the film.
As an individual who usually gravitates toward physical media, I do intend to purchase The Way of Water on 4k Ultra HD at the time of its release, a date which has not been announced at the time of writing. Taking this into account, I am more than pleased with the quality and features of this digital release. It may not win over those who remain ambivalent on the idea of a journey to Pandora, but fans who never bet against James Cameron will find everything they are looking with the addition of The Way of Water to their digital collection.
Avatar: The Way of Water Special Features:
Inside Pandora’s Box (A series of featurettes on the challenges facing cast and crew as filmmakers devise new technologies to push the limits of cinema)
- Building the World of Pandora
- Capturing Pandora
- The Undersea World of Pandora
- The Challenges of Pandora’s Waters
- Pandora’s Returning Characters
- Pandora’s Next Generation
- Spider’s Web
- Becoming Na’vi
- The Reef People of Pandora
- Bringing Pandora to Life
- The RDA Returns to Pandora
- The New Characters of Pandora
- The Sounds of Pandora
- New Zealand – Pandora’s Home
More from Pandora’s Box (Additional featurettes that highlight special teams within the production)
- The Lab
- The Troupe
Marketing Materials & Music Video
- “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength)” Music Video
- Theatrical Trailers 1 & 2
Available on digital March 28th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official 20th Century Studios Avatar: The Way of Water webpage.