After over a decade of development, James Cameron has unleashed Avatar 2: The Way of Water on the world. With next-generation motion capture CGI backing up a powerhouse cast including Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, and Sigourney Weaver, can The Way of Water successfully pick up where Avatar left off in 2009?
In the years since he sided with the natives to oust human forces from Pandora, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Hacksaw Ridge, Clash of the Titans) has settled into his role as clan head, raising a family with his beloved Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek). When humans start returning to Pandora in force, the former marine must juggle his responsibilities as a father and resistance fighter to keep his loved ones safe. With an old enemy out for revenge, Jake and his family must seek out and join a new tribe in order to survive.
Return to Pandora
Despite the original Avatar’s status as a (barely-) reskinned version of Fern Gully, Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and/or The Last Samurai, this writer stands by it being a rousing, well-made blockbuster that delivered one of cinema’s all-time greatest 3D experiences. As directed by the man who gave us Titanic, Aliens, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the film would go on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time, a title it would reclaim multiple times through various re-releases to the tune of US $2.9 billion.
The Way of Water opens with laborious narration that catches us up on the premise and characters, while introducing us to the new status quo. After the main threat is established in the first half hour, we get to the water-centric movie Cameron clearly wanted to make, trading in the previous film’s glowing forests and mountains for open seas and glowing underwater wildlife. While the idea of Jake and Neytiri adapting to a new environment with a threat looming over them would have probably made for a fine survival thriller, nearly the entire middle section of this 192-minute film is devoted to the Sullys’ children and their adopted siblings.
The Sully family has expanded to include two teenage sons and an 8-year-old daughter who — despite having names — are entirely identifiable as, “responsible eldest”, “irresponsible middle child”, and, “precocious youngest”. As uninspired as those “characters” may sound, they pale in comparison to the adopted siblings, who exist solely as plot points:
Spider (Jack Champion) is the abandoned human son of the previous film’s villain, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe), while Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, Aliens, Ghostbusters) is the teenaged daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine’s (also Weaver) avatar body, which was (apparently) pregnant at the time of her (human) death. While the identity of Kiri’s father is clearly being set up for some sort of big future reveal, the film doesn’t do anything to make us really care enough to find out.
The magic is gone
However gifted as Cameron may be at world-building and big-budget spectacle, dramatic nuance has never been his strong suit, and it shows in nearly every scene where the kids are the focus. While the previous film was built on the bones of multiple (better) “white savior” movies, the grandeur and novelty of the visuals made up for the narrative’s lack of originality – it was an old story, well told in a new and exciting way. But with the sequel’s incredible visuals being a given, there is little to distract from the main characters’ absence, much less their children’s near-total lack of personality.
The disproportionate nature of the narrative rears its head during the film’s climax, when Kiri literally takes time to explain to Neytiri how to breathe underwater (despite Jake having told the entire family to learn as much as they could about living in their new oceanic surroundings, Neytiri apparently missed the lesson on how to avoid drowning).
The returning heroes
The previous film’s heroes, Worthington and Saldana’s Jake and Neytiri, get precious little to do aside from fulfilling the film’s action requirements. Basically, Worthington gets to act stoic and reprimand the children, while Saldana is either doting on said children or screaming emotionally. If anyone was hoping to see how these two had grown, matured, or otherwise changed in the 14 years since entering into their inter-species relationship, they’ll probably have to wait for whatever Avatar 3 and (allegedly) 4 will do.
As a performer, Weaver is always a joy to watch, but the decision to cast the beloved 73-year-old as a mostly-naked 14-year-old bipedal cat alien will never not be eerie. Compounding matters is her instantly recognizable voice, which, combined with the unnatural framerate, makes buying into her youthful character exceedingly difficult, if not outright impossible.
The returning villain
As far as villains go, the first film’s big bad Col. Quaritch is back in full force, a digital backup of his consciousness having been downloaded into a cloned avatar body. Joining him is a squad of formerly deceased soldiers, all hellbent on getting revenge on Jake for his role in their deaths.
The notion of Quaritch learning the ropes as a N’avi juxtaposed against Jake adjusting to his new surroundings is a potentially fascinating one, so it’s a shame that Cameron decides to use standard-issue teenage angst and a weak nature versus nurture subtext as this film’s emotional throughlines. How or why anyone thought bullying, peer pressure, and questions of parentage would be more engaging to watch than a resurrected madman out to murder everyone in a sci-fi epic is anyone’s guess.
It’s a 3-hour tech demo
As expected, the visual effects are superb, rendered in the franchise’s trademark immersive (as opposed to obtrusive) 3D. Having proven their ability to render a living, breathing world, Weta Digital’s (Lord the Rings, Black Adam) geniuses go beyond forests and mountaintops to take on water-based environments, and it looks phenomenal. The fidelity to “real” world physicality, featuring lighting, particle effects, and character interactions is astounding and truly needs to be seen to be believed.
Even the motion capture of the actors’ movements and facial expressions — much of it performed underwater — has an ineffable quality that is sufficiently convincing, despite not being 100% photoreal. Perhaps the greatest achievement here is the depiction of the film’s marine life, proving every bit as awe-inspiring as their land-based counterparts from 2009.
Unfortunately, the visuals’ appeal is offset by Cameron’s insistence on presenting the film in 48 frames per second (as opposed to the industry-standard 24fps) — while the colors and details undoubtedly pop, objects and creatures move in the unnaturally smooth, overly-animated manner of video game cinematics and department store TV displays. Cameron is far from the first director to attempt shifting to a higher frame rate, but as Ang Lee’s Gemini Man and Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film showed, audiences have so far proven unimpressed, and the aforementioned films were reformatted for 24fps on streaming and home video.
The bottom line
With Avatar 2 and 3 having been shot simultaneously, the latter is scheduled for release in December 2024. Of course, it’s highly likely that production of Avatar 4 won’t start until The Way of Water proves itself at the box office; but given that Cameron himself has said that Avatar 2’s budget was so high, it would, “have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history,” to break even, it remains to be seen how many more of these films will actually wind up getting made.
Avatar 2: The Way of Water may represent a massive technical achievement, but at 192 minutes, whatever affection audiences have for this franchise will be pushed to the breaking point. Between the runtime, meandering story, and uninspired, unappealing characters, this is a deep dive not everyone will want to take.
Thank goodness for Disney+.