Over a decade after the events in Avatar, Jake Sully [Worthington] continues his role as chief and, along with Neytiri [Saldana], has raised a family. In addition to his three children, is Kiri [Weaver], a young girl miraculously born from the deceased Dr Grace Augustine’s avatar. But this peaceful existence on Pandora is disrupted when Earth’s military returns in full force. This time, not simply for mining unobtainium, but to completely colonise the alien world.
To address the positive elements, Avatar: The Way Of Water is a visually flawless work. What has been achieved over its three plus hour runtime is nothing short of stupendous. And I’m not necessarily talking about the alien fauna and indigenous populace, it’s the simple elemental things like fire and water. Effects which have been some of the hardest for artists to replicate since we put paint to paper. What’s more, the visual world building is undeniably captivating and never in question; as we’re presented with an array of charming eel-like plesiosaurs and crab mechs. And to compliment this, the action is clear, well-shot and engaging. But, ultimately, that’s where the entirety of the positive notes end.
**several plot spoilers throughout**
Avatar: The Way Of Water picks up exactly where Avatar left off thirteen years ago; feeling like no time has passed at all. But don’t misunderstand, that’s not a compliment. Other than the visual accomplishment, there is so little actual development, as we’re treated to the same flimsy plot points, painful dialogue and stupid narration. It’s like Cameron has learned and applied absolutely nothing, outside of improved visual effects. And for a film that’s been over a decade in the making, the time hasn’t been spent reflecting on the criticisms of the first outing, merely doubling down that it doesn’t matter as long as it’s pretty and makes all the money. Although, admittedly, crafting the highest grossing film of all time will feed that quixotic mindset.
Defenders of the film will say that the heart of this movie is the family dynamic and the emotionally relatable characters at the centre of the story. So let’s talk about that; firstly by covering the adversary. For those who need their memory jogged, in the first film, Stephen Lang played a menacing marine named Colonel Miles Quaritch. And, credit where it’s due, it was one of the highlights of that movie. Cartoonish, over-the-top and foreboding, Lang chewed the scenery like a champion and stood out. And with such a memorable villain, who do you get to replace him in your sequel? Cameron’s answer? You don’t. You clone him and wheel him out again.
And this is done with such a swift backhand, swatting away any misgivings, that the first 15 minutes feel like reheated leftovers. With the only added spice being a smattering of sad dad and virgin birth tropes. The humans have simply returned. That’s it. And who’s in tow? The adversaries from the first film, albeit in Na’vi avatars now. There’s no real nuance, it’s just bad guys being bad because that’s their role. I will admit there is a soupçon of growth as the film goes on but not enough to compensate for the inclusion of an entirely new and interesting threat.
So what about Jake and the Na’vi? Well Worthington continues to perform in the fairly competent way he always does and his children all have distinct enough personalities to not simply feel like carbon copies – which is a blessing. But the three standout roles are Kiri, Lo’ak and Spider, all of whom are sort of dealing with the same arc. Kiri is the chance for Sigourney Weaver to play a young girl and, being a skilled actor, the performance is a solid achievement. That being said, the character’s backstory sets up plenty of frustrating sequel bait (more than subtle bread-crumbing) surrounding the identity of her father. Which, as far as developments go, is incredibly weak and almost sank the Star Wars franchise.
Then we have Lo’ak [Dalton], who, it quickly becomes apparent, is actually the film’s new lead. The troubled and unruly middle child, Lo’ak feels like an outsider constantly messing up and finds a kinship with a similar brazen outcast, which ends up oddly satisfying. And that leaves us with Spider [Champion], a semi-feral young man who was a baby at the end of the first Avatar film. What’s that? You don’t remember a baby in Avatar either? Yeah, no one does. But who is this baby? Well, thankfully the film doesn’t beat around the bush for long with it: ‘Spider’ is in fact Miles Socorro, or Miles Quaritch Jr. Spider largely rejects humans and is accepted by the Na’vi but, in the words of the film, feels like a stray cat. But this all changes when the Quaritch clone turns up and forms a bond with the young man. And if that sounds like it doesn’t sit well, you’re right. Spider’s contradictory loyalty to his father and inevitable aiding him feels equally unjustified and unearned.
So, it’s a visually arresting movie with ropey characters and writing? That’s just Avatar, right? Well, not exactly. See, for a film so hinged on action and wonder, it’s somehow remarkably boring with surprisingly limited scope. Yes, the extended scenes of the Na’vi swimming around the ocean floor, surrounded by bioluminescent plants and creatures are gorgeous, but after ten minutes with little actual progression, it starts to feel like an incredibly expensive screensaver. Because no amount of VFX (no matter how jaw dropping) make up for compelling story and characterisation. Meaning Avatar: The Way Of Water is regrettably very hollow. In fact, the film can be clearly chopped into three hour-long sections: reintroductions, underwater escapades, fairly limited conflict that’s somehow smaller than the attack on the Tree of Souls in the last film. And that middle section is incredibly jarring when the urgency of the plot is put on hold for an hour to learn about the water people. It doesn’t seem to largely matter what the invading human presence is up to, until Kiri has a seizure, Jake makes contact with their friendly scientist allies, and the plot reminds itself that it needs to do something.
Finally, Avatar has always had a healthy dose of eco-consciousness to its narrative and, regardless of how blunt, it wears it proudly. While deforestation and reckless destruction are still present, the central message this time is now space whaling. And while I can get on board with the ponytail coupling stuff, riding dragons and being at one with nature, using sign language and echo location to talk to whales (which is all subtitled) just feels dumb. Maybe I’m being too cantankerous, but so much of the interactions between the Na’vi and the Tulkun could have been done without the literal subtitling of “How are you?” “I’m great, I met a boy!” Especially as it’s apparent from the expressions during the performance, and beaten over the head with the narration.
In 2009, Avatar wowed audiences worldwide with its ambition, scale and majesty. Its story was lacking and the script was littered with painful dialogue, but viewers could dismiss these failings because we were seeing something new and unique. I chose to see this release in IMAX 3D (as the director intended) in the hope it would serve as a reminder of what made the first one so impactful. But over thirteen years, this franchise has been in stasis, while cinema at large has moved on – and what was once fresh, now feels recycled, reheated and regurgitated. And on top of all that, it’s the first half of a sequel narrative, with the conclusion to follow in two years’ time. Undoubtedly, it will make a fortune but, if the first film’s impact is anything to go by, it will end up a remarkably forgettable experience.
16 December 2022
The Scene To Look Out For:
Lo’ak is led out beyond the hunting reefs and abandoned by his aquatic peers. You know, typical cinematic teenage bullying stuff. From this, we are treated to a shark chase. I appreciate it’s not actually a shark but it’s basically a shark. Anyway, this sequence is well directed and genuinely unnerving, illustrating that Cameron can still sink his claws in and keep you glued to the screen. But the scene ends with a space whale ex machina conclusion that feels anticlimactic. Moreover, it devolves into a Cameron wish fulfilment fantasy that tearfully cries out, “I just wish a whale would dance with me and be my friend!”
I mentioned Jake and his family but said little of his mate Neytiri. And that is because, while she has a handful of minor actions, she is effectively benched. As stated, the film steers us toward Lo’ak inheriting the franchise focus but Jake is still front-and-centre enough to feel like the lead. Neytiri, on the other hand, is relegated to crazy eyes and crying, in that ‘don’t mess with the crazy mum’ way that is entirely beneath Saldana; irrespective of how much she commits to the role.
“Teach them our ways, so they do not suffer the shame of being useless.”
In A Few Words:
“Once again, all spectacle, no significance.”
Total Score: 2/5