Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Premise: Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their home.
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Cast: Sam Worthington. Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, and Kate Winslett
For all the filmmaking innovation and spectacle in James Cameron’s long and storied career, one thing has almost always been evident in his work. The man simply isn’t a good storyteller. Yes, he has created icons of cinema and recreated history on the screen, but his scripts almost always fall flat and feel like first or second passes. Aliens succeeds because it embraces a military action aesthetic that’s a far cry from the original Alien‘s tonal masterpiece of isolated horror. Titanic is a meticulous recreation of a doomed ship with a hackneyed love story at the center to fill a bloated runtime. But the most egregious example of Cameron’s Achilles heel came in 2009 with Avatar.

Avatar revolutionized 3D filmmaking and gave us one of the highest grossing films of all-time only to all but disappear from the cultural zeitgeist. It only crept back into the public consciousness when people started debating the film’s cultural significance. But for all the spectacle and all the money at the box office, Avatar was a narrative bust. Borrowing heavily from Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, Avatar only served to introduce us to a moon called Pandora and greedy humans looking to exploit its resources for their own gain.
The world-building of Pandora felt half-hearted as the Na’vi, their customs, and their beliefs were overshadowed by a bland protagonist in Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully and a comic villain caricature in Stephen Lang’s Quaritch. While it was visually stunning to see Avatar soar in 2009, it betrayed its visionary auteur’s seeming lack of imagination when creating the story for the world which he is committed to making his legacy.
Thirteen years have passed and now Cameron is taking us back to Pandora with Avatar: The Way of Water. Set more than a decade after the first film, The Way of Water catches us back up with Sully and introduces us to his Na’vi family. When humans return to Pandora, Jake and his family must defend their world from humans with a grudge.
To further explain The Way of Water‘s plot would be to dive deep into the nonsensical and underdeveloped. At nearly 3 and a half hours, this mammoth film does eclipse the shrewd and derivative narrative of its predecessor. However, that is a spectacularly low bar for Cameron to clear. There’s lip service given as to why the humans have returned after so long an absence. Instead of corporate greed, humans want to colonize Pandora and make it humanity’s new home. This poses a clear and immediate threat to the Na’vi. For the audience, however, it’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” piece of exposition that has zero bearing on any of the film’s plot.
Instead of exploring the human side of the invasion, Cameron doubles down on the comic villain caricature of Avatar by re-introducing us to clones of the original film’s antagonists. This time they’re designed as Na’vi, though, and meant to blend in with the indigenous population (and nature) of Pandora. However, the villains’ Na’vi designs are of course tatted up with human military designs and clothed in military gear. So it’s less of an infiltration and more of an awkward and violent costume party.
When Sully and his family cross paths with Quaritch and his militarized fake Na’vi compatriots, any potential for rich backstory or below the surface motivations are jettisoned. Instead, The Way of Water becomes a sloppy revenge story clearly meant to span the full 5-film odyssey Cameron hopes to create. Narrative threads are left dangling for hope of resolution in a sequel and emotional scenes have their punches severely pulled by lacking character development.
After a head scratcher of a time jump following the humans’ initial invasion, Sully and his family inexplicably relocate to live among the “sea people” of Pandora. There’s another “blink and you’ll miss it” explanation as to why the Sully family relocates, and unfortunately, this reviewer blinked when Sully gave that particular voice over. The explanation doesn’t matter and, shockingly enough, the animosity and prejudice the “sea people” have toward Sully’s “forest people” is mostly a non-starter. The tribe leader’s children tussle with and bully Sully’s children. But the movie gives no time to organically develop any bonds among these characters. Instead, Cameron gives the kids a single conflict and then rushes through the reconciliation in order to expedite the story.
This is particularly troublesome as nearly 1/3 of the movie is spent on Sully and his family learning about the “sea people” and their way of life without deepening any of the characters among the menagerie of Na’vi. All the characterization and depth within this section of the film is reserved for…a giant whale one of the Sully children befriends. Seriously. It may also come as a surprise that the whale’s backstory is pretty uninspired and as by the numbers as it gets.
The most ill-fitting and lackluster subplot in The Way of Water involves the new character Spider (Jack Champion), a young human boy on Pandora raised among the Na’vi. It’s a tired and derivative plot on the surface that’s only worsened by a shoe-horned in test of his loyalty when he is confronted by Quaritch and his troops. This subplot does give the film a small amount of insight into the human antagonists’ motivations, to an extent. Unfortunately, like most of The Way of Water, it is underserved by a plot that feels as if it’s meant to tease out the greater saga Cameron has mapped out.
Therein lies the biggest issue with The Way of Water. As big and expansive as it seems, the sum of all its parts is an underwritten chapter of an overarching narrative meant to span up to five entries. Given that this is the second of those entries makes it even more maddening. The Avatar franchise now spans six hours and there’s simply not enough story developed to keep most viewers interested in the third installment and beyond.
The vast narrative issues aside, The Way of Water does deliver on visuals and spectacle. This is a gorgeous film with 3D that proves to be as immersive as the script should aspire to be. But even the film’s biggest selling point isn’t without its setbacks. James Cameron employs an occasional high frame rate technique where the frame rate jumps from 24 fps to 48 fps in the middle of sequences.
For the most part, this isn’t that perceptible given the cacophony of images on the screen at any given time. However, it becomes a reality breaking strain on the retinas in the film’s climactic set pieces. In particular, when the frame rate switches while humans are on screen, the film looks really unnatural and distracting. It creates an awkward motion smoothing effect that only serves to undo most of the immersion the film’s visuals provide. Given that a weak script means the burden of storytelling rests on the visual immersion, any issues with the look of the film definitely stand out.
It would have been naive to think James Cameron’s storytelling abilities would have changed for the better in the thirteen year span between the first two Avatar films. There’s no denying that Cameron is responsible for some of film’s biggest and most innovative titles. Since Avatar is his passion project and Pandora is where he’s looking to park himself for the remainder of his career, it’s simply mind-boggling that this (and 2009’s Avatar) is the best he can muster.
Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theaters December 16th, 2022.

About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive ViewerAnthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll. 

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