Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) Review
“Whoa, the movie never ends, It goes on and on and on and on...” - Journey, Don’t Stop Believin'
A sequel of any piece of art implies that the story of the first entry in a would-be series is incomplete. If said first entry concluded with a tight ribbon, the sequel will suffer. Contemporary Hollywood is releasing sequels more frequently than not, with an unofficial guarantee that if a film performs marvelously at the box office, within the next few years, there will be a sequel. This statement is proven by looking at any “Most Anticipated Movies of the Year” list. Every IP is being milked dry, and the artform is no longer populated by ideas formed by visionaries, but industrialized, elongated variations of past stories.
Admittedly, many were shocked when James Cameron actually delivered on this project that has seemingly been in production limbo for the past 12 or so years: a sequel to the behemoth that is "Avatar" (2009). This sequel, according to Cameron, has been planned since the release of the original Avatar with up to three more films, the majority of which has already been shot during the filming for "Way of Water," which, at least to me, bodes ominously for the series.
The original "Avatar" is highly divisive. It was, and still is, a technological miracle. It has some of the greatest visual effects ever. It sweeps you from normalcy, taking you to the far away moon-planet of Pandora, where nine-foot-tall blue people exist. It is practically the pure essence of escapism, but escapism is not all it takes to craft a good motion picture.
The storyline and writing of the first "Avatar" was not given the same amount of time and attention that the CGI received, and it isn’t hard to tell. The story, which can be summed up as “environmental Dances With Wolves but in space,” was at some points sloppy and undercooked. Characters were either flat, one-dimensional, or comically stereotypical, and the big plot target, the whole reason why we should even care about the battle between an army of humans and giant blue aliens was a metal named (get this) “unobtainium.” Isn’t that the most clever writing ever? Suffice to say, it was this underwhelming performance of the dramatics that made it fall flat.
Did they fix the flaws of the first film? Short answer: no. But that’s not to say it was a bad movie. "Way of Water’s" visuals, its wide sweeping vistas, landscapes, ocean depths, and underwater spectacles are some of the greatest visuals ever put to film. I did not think that it was possible to make the first film look more realistic, but "Avatar 2" manages to accomplish just that. A smaller screen does not do it justice, as when projected on giant canvas, you can tell just how much detail every single little object and element has. It is overwhelming to think that this is what modern computer technology is capable of, and that something so fantastical and absurd can appear so tangible and telluric.
It is, however, this constant stream of spectacle that distracts the watcher from analyzing what the film is about. Unfortunately, both "Way of Water’s" story and message are pretty-looking, pretty lackluster rehashes of the original movie. This sequel’s thin plot is a retelling, in which Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is revived in the form of a Na’vi so that he can raise an army once again and attempt to terminate Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Following Quaritch on a journey shockingly similar to Sully's in the first movie (including a few sequences replicated shot-for-shot) came off as second-rate. Meanwhile, the other half of the first act has Sully and his family learning how to become water Na’vi, again, similar to the first film. In fact, one of the main complaints of the entire picture is just how much is not happening.
The entire movie’s bloated three-hour and twelve-minute runtime is far too long for the amount of substance that the film delivers, even when taking into consideration the many frequent beauty shots that we are spoon fed to keep us in our theatre seats. Of course, it was those beauty shots which got us into the seats to begin with, but that doesn’t mean that there can't be a beautiful story to go along with the action. You have to remind yourself that this is the same writer/director who did "Terminator 2," which had some of the greatest action ever, as well as a powerful and meaningful story, and also "Titanic," which still managed to pull its weight to be one of the most famous romantic-dramas ever. In comparison, the story of this movie is underwhelming.
At times, the relationship between Jake Sully and his family does bring good scenes of emotion and distress. However, while you do feel weight and risk in some of the action, it sometimes fizzles out. It seems as if many script meetings must have consisted of finding out how many times they could make Jake’s children plunge themselves into danger so that Jake could save them. I understand that it's the kids who are ultimately meant to save the parents in the end, but it fails to weave this thread in a satisfying way.
Another issue is the cliché of the children, who do not develop out of their dumb disappointing dispositions and temperaments. Watching them interact with one another feels more like you’re watching an episode of "The Animaniacs" than a multi-hundred million dollar A-list production, with them annoyingly calling each other “bro” to a cringeworthy degree. Is this what older people think kids sound like? At the same time, Kiri, one of Sully’s children and basically the main one important to the plot, is played by a now 73-year-old Sigourney Weaver and although she is always a welcoming voice to hear, her voice, frankly, does not belong to a child. It is a matter of bad casting.
As the film ends, after the grand battle and all the final emotions spill out, there is no confusion on the point that Cameron wanted to make. Save the oceans, protect the ecosystems, and feel the pain of the animals who inhabit the world with us; all of the same points as in the original, but this time in the sea. It’s something that Cameron clearly believes just as much as he did 14 years ago, and for what it’s worth, he does set up the next films. Quaritch lives in the end, and you know that the army and their guns will keep coming back again and again.
I wanted this film to be great, and it was a wonderful aesthetic experience. The visuals carry this otherwise slightly-better-than-mediocre movie. Just like the first film, where people remember "Avatar's" enchantment rather than the story, "Avatar 2" will surely go down in the same fashion. This film is definitely divisive, and how you feel about it depends on whether you can be entertained by a pretty picture and comfortably sit through three hours on environmental activism. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I’d suggest saving yourself some money and seeing "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish," which is the better picture out right now.