The 10 Best Moments In Avatar: The Way Of Water

"Avatar: The Way of Water" is James Cameron's magnum opus, a spectacle 13 years in the making. While at times it feels like an updated retread of 2009's "Avatar," the sequel contains more cinematic wonder and stronger effects, suggesting that it's the movie that Cameron really wanted to make over a decade ago. Familiarity aside, "The Way of Water" really is filmmaking at its most cinematic. Not to echo those theatrical ads before the feature, but if "Avatar: The Way of Water" is being watched on anything less than a stadium-sized screen, it isn't being watched the right way.

Your mileage may vary, of course — not unfamiliar territory for those familiar with Cameron's filmography — but "Avatar: The Way of Water" is every bit the groundbreaking achievement that audiences had hoped for. It's big, it's visceral, it's emotional, and it's a staggering technological achievement, a movie so indelible on the eyes that it truly feels like magic. 

However, with a monumental 3-hour-plus runtime, it can be difficult to narrow its herculean achievements to just 10 standout moments. From the opening devastation on Pandora to a knife fight on a sinking ship, "The Way of Water" abounds with sensational scenes. These 10, however, are the best of the best, and serve as a firm reminder of just how powerful and transportive moviemaking can be.

Stranded at the reef

"Avatar: The Way of Water" never sufficiently unpacks Aonung's (Filip Geljo) prank on Lo'ak (Britain Dalton) — he genuinely tried to murder the poor Na'vi kid — but it does lead to one of the most tender moments in "The Way of Water." While it can be easy to get lost in the spectacle, the movie is often at its best when it slows down, letting the stellar visuals augment the entire ordeal's humanism.

Stranded beyond the reef, Lo'ak is nearly done in by a dangerous creature (a moment that echoes a deleted scene from Peter Jackson's "King Kong"). With the help of a little cetacean ex machina, Lo'ak is saved at the last minute by Payakan, an exiled tulkun. The two communicate, bonding over their outsider status while helping each other heal. Payakan shows up several more times in the film, though his introduction remains his best scene. It's a moment that gets to the core of what makes movies work: the relationships therein. And, yes, sometimes those relationships are between a boy and a fish.

Payakan saves the day

Midway through "Avatar: The Way of Water," Cameron shifts the script and begins focusing on a full-borne ecological disaster. With the return of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who's been resurrected as a "recombinant," or an avatar with human memories, the humans are desperate to coax Jake (Sam Worthington) out of hiding. In the climactic final battle, they do so successfully by tormenting some tulkun. As Jake moves toward their boat, all hope seems lost.

That changes, of course, when Lo'ak's friend Payakan, the exiled tulkun we met before, senses that his friend is in trouble. At the final moment, Payakan emerges from the sea, flopping on the deck of the whaling vessel and all but capsizing it. It's pure chaos, giving everyone — including Jake and the Metkayina troops — the motivation they need to attack. What follows is as visually spectacular a battle as any ever filmed, all incited by one space whale with one giant heart.

A severed arm

While it might be fair to say that the entirety of the climactic battle deserves a nod here — seriously, never doubt Cameron — it has just too many incredible moments to mention. It would do a disservice to "The Way of Water" to bundle it all together as "everything after the two-hour mark." While Cameron has never shied away from depictions of graphic violence (PG-13 violence, in this case, although the film pushes those boundaries), the battle at sea is full of particularly gory deaths as the humans and the Metkayina square off.

Some whalers try to stop Payakan with explosive harpoons, but he manages to get the better of them. He strategically wraps the cable attached to the devices around their vessel, pulling it as taut as possible. Then, he swims beneath some rocks, emerging on the other side, with the cable now wrapped like a cincher. The cable constricts even tighter, and as it severs the boat in two, it takes Captain Mick Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) — and his arm —  with it. It's a gruesome moment, sure, but it's also poetic and well-deserved. After all, it was Mick and his crew who first severed Payakan's fin.

A routine extraction

One of the best moments in "Avatar: The Way of Water" comes early on. Before Jake and his family seek refuge with the Metkayina tribe, they have a base of their own, from which they strategically combat the humans who are desperate to rid Pandora of everything but themselves. The clan takes down an entire train, and loots its cache of weapons. The Omaticaya aren't messing around! However, their peace is broken by the arrival of the resurrected Colonel Miles Quaritch. Now a Na'vi himself, he can evade the tribe's defenses easily. While scouting one day, he stumbles upon Jake's children as well as Spider (Jack Champion), who is (sort of) his son.

While the humans mount an extraction, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and Jake rush to save them. It's a tense piece of guerilla warfare, and the first preview of the film's sensational action beats. As Neytiri gets a few choice shots with her bow and the rain pours down, it's impossible not to marvel at how incredible the Na'vi look. It's a visual tour-de-force that feels like Cameron's flexing his "Aliens" muscles to create a contained bit of frenetic mayhem.

The way of water

While the previews for "Avatar: The Way of Water" were full of Cameron's awe-inspiring underwater world, the director makes the audience wait quite some time to see it. After Jake and his family arrive at the home of the Metkayina tribe, you get a taste of it, but the full breadth of its depth and spiritual beauty isn't apparent until a brief, yet astoundingly effective, monologue from Bailey Bass' Tsireya.

Having taught the Omaticaya children their ways, including showing them around their new home and introducing them to the wildlife around the reef, Tsireya helps immerse the kids in the water's spiritual properties. Describing the titular "way of water," Tsireya expounds on the beauty of the deep, the secrets it holds, and how it forms the core of the Metkayina way of life. All the while, Cameron pans the camera over gorgeous underwater vistas that abound with bioluminescent biodiversity. It's simply magic.

The tulkun hunt

Sometimes, the best moments in a film are also the hardest to watch. Thanks to Cameron's technical wizardry and a brief cameo from Jemaine Clement as Dr. Ian Garvin, a marine biologist working on Pandora, the audience gets a full picture of what hunting the tulkun entails. Captain Mick is killing them for their brain enzymes, a substance that allegedly contains anti-aging properties and sells for $80 million a vial — not that money matters much on Pandora, but still.

With robotic crabs, explosive harpoons, sonic speakers, and some deep-sea diving vessels, the entire sequence is technologically astounding in the harshest way possible. As the space whalers track, torment, and kill a tulkun, Dr. Ian Garvin explains to Spider (and the audience) what's being done and why. Mess with the creatures' echolocation; isolate the new mother and her calf; and so on. It's a barbarous sequence and arguably the movie's most upsetting, though as a window into how cruel the human antagonists can be, it's incredibly effective. After all, nothing makes an audience root against someone like a display of animal abuse.

The reef chase

Don't worry, fellow robot crab lovers. Those nasty mechanical beasties get the spotlight again right before the film's climactic battle. As Lo'ak and company attempt to free Payakan from a tracking device, the human whaling vessel emerges on the horizon, desperate to capture Jake's children in order to use them as bait. They liberate Payakan just in time, diving into the reefs below as the humans send out a barrage of machines to track them down.

In the remarkably tense set piece that follows, the children duck, dive, and dodge through the reefs in an effort to evade their human captors. While they're ultimately unsuccessful, they put up a good fight, repeatedly outsmarting their pursuers by exploiting their innate knowledge of the underwater ecosystem. Additionally, the technical achievement here simply cannot be understated. It's an entire chase scene set underwater, and it looks incredibly real. Everything is vivid and gorgeously rendered. It'll make audiences hold their breath for the entire duration.

An underwater seizure

Sigourney Weaver is the secret weapon of "The Way of Water." Born from the Na'vi avatar of Grace Augustine (Weaver's character in the first film), she possesses a distinct but not-yet-fully-explained connection to life on Pandora. She's simply in tune with the ecosystem in a way that others are not, a characteristic that results in her being labeled a freak by the young children of the Metkayina tribe.

Late in the second act, Tsireya and the others take the Omaticaya children to their Tree of Souls. While there, Kiri bonds with the tree, seeing images of her mother while in a dreamlike state. While her seizure helps lead the humans to their tribe, it also works as a hallucinogenic foray into Kiri's distinct mind. The visuals are gorgeous, Weaver briefly returns in human form, and the whole sequence poses worthwhile questions about the future of the "Avatar" franchise. Kiri clearly possesses something unique, and the nature of her gifts remains one of the most fascinating questions that Cameron hasn't answered.

Some Pandora tentacles

Sure, after her seizure, Kiri is wary of her connection to Pandora and the spirits within. She's uncomfortable, reserved, discouraged at every moment, and not really emotionally present for much of what's going on. Yet, during the climactic fight at sea, Kiri has no choice but to get involved. While the others wield bows, guns, and spears, Kiri must rely on her wits — well, those and her unique ability to control organic life.

While pursued by several deep-sea diving vehicles, Kiri calls on some luminescent underwater tentacles to attack her foes. They puncture vessels' glass, and as the pilots try to escape, wrap themselves around the humans, squeezing the life out of them. Honestly, this is a thread that "The Way of Water" should have tugged on a bit more. It's such a fascinating (and visually outstanding) ability that we want to see more of it. What's there, though, is fantastic. All hail Sigourney Weaver and her underwater tentacles.

Boarding the ship

Just as the eclipse hits, the reefs descend into darkness both metaphorically and literally. Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) has just been killed, and both Kiri and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) are trapped aboard the sinking whaling vessel. The humans are all set to abscond with their Na'vi hostages. Jake and Neytiri have no choice but to fight. While they've been plenty active until this point, they've largely been part of the crowd. Sure, they've racked up a few kills and executed some Na'vi tactics, but they haven't yet unleashed all of their fury.

But when they do? Whew, watch out. Like they're in some kind of "Splinter Cell" adaptation, Jake and Neytiri board the vessel and go full Kratos on every human they come across. It's the most violent beat in "The Way of Water," with the two heroes slaughtering an entire ship full of people in glorious, gory fashion. 

In addition, this sequence poses interesting questions for the future of the franchise. While it's gorgeously conceived, the audience is left unsettled by the savagery on display. Even Spider seems alarmed at just how monstrous the Na'vi seem at that moment. Still, as a capstone to the film, it's about as perfect as they come. Cameron really can't go wrong when he gives Neytiri a bow and lets her loose.