Thirteen years ago, James Cameron released Avatar, a sci-fi actioner that changed how audiences saw their movies and how the studios made their blockbusters. The technology that the director used was years in the making and well ahead of its time. A film of this magnitude was something that could not be accomplished overnight. It pushed the limits of visual storytelling in ways that no rival studio could ever reach or mimic. All that, including its $2.9 billion box office performance, justified a sequel. And over those 13 years, Cameron would develop new technologies that pushed those technologies even further by immersing them in tangible elements like water. We see those magnificent results in the visually stunning “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Unfortunately, while the sequel is undeniably breathtaking to look at on the biggest screen possible, its three-hour and 12-minute runtime don’t justify its hollow story.
Set roughly 13 years after the events of “Avatar,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” opens with a brief prologue that chronicles the lengthy gap between the two films and follows how Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) helped their fellow Navi drive the humans off of Pandora. Since then, the former paralyzed human soldier has transferred his consciousness into this Navi Avatar and has become a part of the tribe. He’s even made a family with her, having two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and a daughter, Tuktirey(Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). But, though things remain peaceful with the Navi, trouble starts brewing when the RDA returns to colonize the moon because Earth is dying. To succeed, the military resurrects Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his fellow troop as Recombinants, Avatars with the memories of their human counterparts. So Quaritch learns about his fate from previously recorded footage explaining his situation. And in a cruel twist of irony, he had become the thing he had been assigned to kill when he was stationed on Pandora. But at the same time, having the body grants them the speed and strength they didn’t have as a human. And that makes him a very dangerous weapon.
Knowing that Quaritch has returned, Jake decides to run with his family and seek refuge with the Navi of the ocean. There, he and his family must acclimate to their new surroundings and learn their host’s customs. As you can imagine, that isn’t easy for kids who have grown up in the forest and know nothing about free diving or the animals that inhabit the oceans. But as Jake and Neytiri do all they can to protect their family, a bitter Quaritchseeks to finish what he started, including getting revenge on Jake. And he will do that by any means necessary, including kidnapping Jake’s kids, deforestation, and killing the wildlife, with the private sector making a profit by whaling Nalutsa. These six-gilled behemoths live near the coastal waters of the Pandoran ocean and are just as majestic to look at.
Soon, the war between Jake and Quaritch reaches new depths, and their battle to stay alive extends outside their circle, which results in tragic casualties that break their promise to keep their respective families together.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a hugely exciting genre-crossing and visually stunning spectacle that leans into its gorgeous world-building. Cameron immerses you in a world whose dense and lush flora and fauna are beautiful. At the same time, its oceanic visuals give us a greater appreciation of the efforts it took to marry the filmmaking technology with tangible elements. As a result, every frame feels incredibly real and unified. And when combined with the 48fps and 3D presentation, it creates a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience unlike any other. The way the water trickles down the Navi’s skin or even glistens on it is almost as if the aliens themselves are real. And the same can be said about the realism of the oceanic creatures inspired by those found here on Earth. Watching Kiri interact with it and Lo’ak connect with his spirit animal is majestic. The screen literally lights up with the former. Even the simplicity of swimming looks beautiful, as it gives us a look at Cameron’s ability to marry the CGI technology with the actual element. And when combined with that Dolby sound, it almost feels like you are right there with them.
At the same time, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is tonallyinconsistent and lacks narrative clarity to keep things engaging. The characters are one-note, and the dialogue lacks heart. Cameron doesn’t give us any reason to connect with these characters or their plight. And it isn’t so much about the decisions that any of the characters make – Jake and Neytiri’s choices come from a place of genuine concern, while their kids act rebellious or want to prove themselves to their parents.
And because “Avatar: The Way of Water” moves at the pace it does, all of the character arcs are rushed and underdeveloped. Twists and reveals don’t make as much of an impact as intended because they aren’t given their dues, except for Quaritch, who went through the most significant and most emotional transition when he learned about what happened to him since his human counterpart died in the first “Avatar.”
Despite the lack of nuanced character arcs, everyone does as great a job as they can with the weak script they are given. While Worthington and Salada are standouts as Jake and Neytiri, who transition their roles from soldiers to parents, Lang brings some new depth to Quaritch, who now has to adjust to his recent changes in body and fatherhood. But with so much going on, many of the character decisions critical to moving the story forward have a minimal payoff. The sequel tries to establish these emotional connections that should resonate with any parent, but in the end, it all feels hollow because the film has tomove on to the next action set piece or striking visuals.
And because “Avatar: The Way of Water” emphasizes glorifying the majestic visuals, the story is more of an afterthought. The stops and starts happen far too often, so the film lacks the narrative fluidity necessary to keep things focused and clear. For example, when we are reintroduced to Quartich as an Avatar, General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco) informs him that the mission is to colonize Pandora because Earth is slowly becoming unhabitable. But the next time we see him hunt Sully and his family near the reefs, he has teamed up with Captain Mick Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), who whales the Nalutsa. See, the Nalutsas brain matter could be used to give humans immortality. Even if the environmental concerns are real, the plot device is an anecdote that doesn’t do anything for the story overall.
There are even moments with other characters like Kiri, who has a surprisingly powerful connection to the elemental spirit of Pandora. Unfortunately, while the film treats this as a vital aspect of her arc, it forgets about that aspect and treats the entire thing as if it were a mere set for the subsequent sequels.
As weak as the script is and its uneven pacing, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a visually stunning work that proves you never bet against James Cameron. Sure, the second act may lag as it spends a lot of its time focusing on the absolute beauty of the oceans, but it makes up for it with some of the most thrilling action set pieces we’ve ever seen in his films. And you never know what to expect with Cameron finding ways to up the ante and raise the stakes. If only the character work were more robust.
Still, a lot of the good outweighs the bad. And a lot of that comes through in the visual storytelling. In fact, the film could have benefitted from a lot less dialogue and let the imagery guide audiences through the story. The breathtaking vistas and corals are eye-popping, while the action-packed third act pulls from the drama and suspense of films like “Free Willy” – yes, that movie.
And Cameron does not hold back on immersing his audience in the water elements. It’s hard to believe that most of these shots were created in a tank made explicitly for “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The characters’ free diving and interaction with the oceanic beasts are breathtaking. But the film’s second act is an exercise in overindulgence. The images look spectacular in their high frame rate, yet they also need to be longer for us to enjoy the presentation. At the same time, many of these characters spend their time connecting with the spirit animals or appreciating the ocean itself. Of course, that may sound contradictory at first, but because “Avatar: The Way of Water” lacks emotional depth and its characters are one-dimensional, the highly anticipated sequel looks epic but feels less so.
What’s more, the ratio inconsistencies can have some dizzying effects, especially for those who have to wear 3D glasses on top of their glasses. And let’s remember how some of those empty anecdotes are merely set ups for a sequel. They are coming, whether you like it or not.
Despite “Avatar: The Way of Water’s” tonal inconsistencies, much of its strength comes from its visuals, its coming-of-age story, and its themes of parenthood. Cameron’s long-awaited sequel is undoubtedly epic in every visual way possible, and the way the technology works in conjunction with its set pieces brings an added layer of realism to the artificial world. And while the script lacked a certain depth and was populated with one-dimensional characters, there wasn’t enough for me to care about what was happening on screen. But hey, at least it looks epic, and there’s never a dull moment.