I don’t think I’ll ever understand the hype surrounding Avatar. The film stands as the highest-grossing movie of all time with a devout cult of fans around the world who hail the film as a masterpiece. Honestly, I don’t see it. I do get why the movie was so successful though. The film reintroduced 3D to cinemagoers in a way that made it a must-see theatrical experience. After Avatar, every film needed to have a 3D component to compete with it, whether it enhanced the film or not. It spawned one of the worst trends of the last decade, but you can’t hold that against Avatar for being the progenitor and for doing it so well in the first place.
Fast-forward 13 years and after a protracted development cycle, Avatar: The Way of Water is here. A lot of things have been said about this sequel and the astronomical dreams that director James Cameron has for the film and the larger series. He’s touting the future scripts for the potential sequels and how beautiful they are. He claimed that the film needed to make at least $2 billion to break even. Early reviews have been hailing it as the second coming of Christ and the film has already been nominated for a slew of awards. After seeing the film, do I finally understand the appeal of the series and why it has such a strong following?
Avatar: The Way of Water
Director: James Cameron
Release Date: December 16, 2022
Set several years after the first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has fully embraced becoming a Na’vi. He has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and started a family of his own. However, humans have returned to the planet Pandora and plan on colonizing it for them to live on since the Earth is apparently on its last legs. At first, Jake begins to fight the humans, but once he realizes that Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has returned as a Na’vi clone with all of his original memories intact, Jake takes his family and flees to the ocean to hide out in a tribe of water-based Na’vi in the village of Metkayina. It’s only a matter of time, though, until the humans discover where Jake is, but Jake also has to worry about his family adapting to life in a different society with different customs and cultures.
As far as plots go, Avatar: The Way of Water is about on the same level as the first film. We have an elongated sequence where Jake learns the customs of the natives and fully acclimates to their society. But whereas that was somewhat okay in the first film since we were being introduced to this new alien world and the movie was basically space Pocahontas, here it’s not nearly as interesting. Those sequences serve one purpose and one purpose only: to show how pretty the visuals and camera techniques are.
And yeah, the film looks wonderful. Several of the sequences were incredibly impressive thanks to the meticulous detail used for the special effects and also the underwater camera work. Once the film leaves the rainforest about an hour in for the ocean, that’s when the visuals really get a chance to shine and show what they’re made of. Those sequences are genuinely great and left me impressed, but once you see the same effects and techniques for nearly an hour, they lose a lot of their luster.
The keyword that I would use to describe Avatar: The Way of Water is self-indulgent. Nearly everything about it is protracted and elongated just for you to see how well-executed the movie is but the film doesn’t really have any other tricks to fall on. The film is adamant that you look at the amount of effort placed into its craft and acknowledge how much time and effort was put onscreen. It will shove it down your throat until you just say that they look spectacular even if you’re bored of them to the detriment of everything else. It’s remarkable how little I knew about the characters after following them for the film and the only ones I do remember I remember for mixed reasons.
One of Jake’s kids, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), arguably has the most screen time out of any character in the film. We follow his arc throughout the film as a child who feels like he’s in the shadow of his older brother and can’t seem to ever impress Jake. When they move to the water village, Jake bonds with a whale-like creature called a Tulkun that is known by the villagers for being an outcast. The film drives this comparison home to the point where by the time we reach the end of the movie, Jake just feels like the protagonist out of obligation and the real soul of the film lies with Lo’ak. Not only that, but basically every major event in the film is initiated by Lo’ak and not Jake, so who’s really the driving factor of the film?
Regardless of who’s the real main character, everyone is written so poorly! The dialogue in general is written in a super clunky and heavy-handed way that never really connects together. Jake’s family all speak with modern lingo and phrases, like how his male sons all call each other “bro” nonstop, and the natives all have a formalized way of speaking that is very proper. I get the symbolism that this is trying to convey, but there’s no really excusing dialogue that feels outdated the second it’s spoken. Then again, cliches in Avatar go hand in hand so I’m not too surprised the dialogue feels like it was from anything Cameron did in the 90s. The humans have the best dialogue since they’re allowed to speak and behave naturally, with Quaritch’s dialogue having the most nuance as he grapples with being a clone and having the memories of someone else inside of his head.
Then you have Jake’s “daughter,” Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), whose entire existence comes across as sequel baiting. She’s a magical child from immaculate conception with several unexplained abilities and uses those abilities to deus ex machina her allies at the last possible second. What’s most frustrating with her is that they clearly try to set up risks and dangers associated with those abilities but leave them on the cutting room floor. Towards the end of the second act, a character warns that if she attempts to use her abilities underwater, it could lead to her death. Cut to a half hour later when she uses those abilities underwater and there are no repercussions and the film doesn’t even draw attention to the fact that she’s using them. Want to know where she gets her powers from and who her mysterious father (?) is? Go see the sequel.
So the plot is clunky. Big whoop, so was the first film. But that’s the problem ultimately with Avatar: The Way of Water: it’s just the first film again. It hits a lot of the same beats, but swaps out the save the rainforest message of that film for a save the whales message here. You could argue that the first film could get away with those problems solely because the film succeeded at its technological merits. There’s nothing about Avatar: The Way of Water that makes it stand out because outside of those technological advancements, everything it does have been seen and done before.
The film just isn’t all that special and impressive when compared to other films that were also released this year. The character drama is handled much better in things we’ve seen earlier this year. The message of family is conveyed infinitely better in movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once and Turning Red, and the action that’s present here pales in comparison to other blockbusters like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In fact, the climax of both movies shares a lot of similarities to a startling degree, making me wonder if audiences who saw both will think that Avatar: The Way of Water is just aping Marvel.
The problems are only made even more apparent when you factor in the movie’s laborious three-plus hour runtime. It’s excessive. Appropriately, that’s Avatar: The Way of Water in a nutshell. It’s an excessive approach to filmmaking where everything about it tries to impress you, but this isn’t 2009. If the film was released in 2014 like it was originally supposed to do, then it would probably be impressive, but after living through an entire generation of films that are all about special effect spectacles with more depth and more complex emotions, I can’t help but feel unimpressed by Avatar: The Way of Water.
The film isn’t a disaster by any definition of the word. As I said, the special effects are impressive when you see them for the first time. The character beats surrounding Colonel Quaritch are well done, and the movie delivers a decent amount of thrills, but it’s so unremarkable when you combine it all together.
You know, I think I do know now why Avatar has such a strong following. It’s accessible, doesn’t challenge audiences, and delivers a complete experience. The same can be said here, but Avatar: The Way of Water is not a complete experience since it’s now trying to establish a franchise with Cameron’s god-forsaken five-film plan for the series. When I saw this film, I was the only person in the theater. I was absolutely shocked by this since I figured that there would be more of a fervent demand to see this in theaters as James Cameron ideally wants. Truthfully, I think audiences may no longer have an appetite for Cameron’s passion project and if they saw Avatar: The Way of Water, I think that would only confirm it for them. It certainly did for me.