December 19, 2022

“Avatar: The Way of Water” Returns to Pandora in Spectacular, But Still Underwhelming Fashion (Review)

13 years ago, James Cameron revolutionized visual effects and 3D imaging technology with the release of Avatar, which quickly became the highest-grossing film in history. A sequel was inevitable, but few could have predicted that it would take a Disney acquisition and almost $500 million to make that dream a reality.

Even longer in runtime than its predecessor (and twice as filled with character and supplementary storylines),
Avatar: The Way of the Water picks up after a real-time jump on the alien planet Pandora, where former human Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has fully adopted the ways of the alien Na’vi after helping them defend their land from imperialistic human invaders. He’s started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their life seems as idyllic as can be. But unfortunately, the depiction of domestic life on an extraterrestrial world is not sustainable for three and a half hours of action sci-fi.

Stephen Lang also reprises his role from the 2009 original as Colonel Miles Quaritch, somewhat interestingly, as Quaritch was killed in the climactic battle of Avatar. His resurrection (and some other plot mechanics) are part of what makes The Way of Water feel like a reset, a gathering of all the elements Cameron wants to re-establish for this new era of the franchise he’s come to love. Unlike its predecessor, this is not a solely self-contained story, and sets up a number of threads that will undoubtedly be resolved (or, at the very least, addressed) in the already-in-production sequel, due for release this time in 2024.

It would be hearsay to claim that Avatar: The Way of Water is not incredibly beautiful to look at. Every frame is rendered meticulously, and because most of what we’re seeing on-screen is composed entirely of visual effects, it’s unequivocally awe-inspiring. I also had the opportunity to see it in 3D, a medium I’m not always the biggest fan of — in fact, I was worried about subjecting myself to it for the three and a half hours this movie runs — but it seemed effortless more than anything else, like the 3D is a natural part of the world that Cameron has created.

The biggest letdown was an issue that plagued the first
Avatar as well: I couldn’t, for the life of me, care about most of these characters. They’re not developed nearly well enough, despite the inordinate amount of time we spend with them. For example, Jake Sully and Neytiri’s children are a major focal point of the film, and I couldn’t tell you any of their names without looking it up. The Way of Water’s story, by itself, is very interesting, but the characters are still not compelling enough to merit my investment. You’d think that after a cumulative six hours with them, I would have more of a stake in this world, but the sad truth is that the more there are, the harder it is to care.

I will hold true to the fact that James Cameron is still a fantastic director. The performances he elicits from the actors are genuinely great (despite many of them, including the multi-faceted Saldaña, being largely sidelined in The Way of Water), and the visuals alone are worth the price of admission. He’s also still very much in the action groove, as proven by the final hour of The Way of Water — it’s some of the best effects-driven action I’ve ever seen, and it’s by far the best act of the film. It makes sense that the aforementioned visuals would be at the forefront of Cameron’s priorities; after all, that’s what made the first movie almost three billion dollars.

Another MVP is Sigourney Weaver, who does not reprise her role from the original but instead plays her character’s 14-year-old daughter, the biological origins of whom are as yet unknown. It’s sometimes hard to tell that Weaver’s even there under layers of CGI, but her performance shines through, and it’s good to know that she’s still a part of the franchise even after her death in the original.

However you feel about
The Way of Water, there’s more Avatar on the way. The third film is in post-production, with two more ready to begin filming, and another two already in development. I’d advise Mr. Cameron to slow down, but it seems he’s trying to make up for lost time by overcompensating on a franchise that’s close to his heart, and that (he believes) is beloved in the hearts of many others. I’m leaving my mind open to the possibilities, while being cautiously optimistic in Cameron’s plan.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual spectacle on every conceivable level, yet there’s still something lacking here in the human (or, in this case, the Na’vi) factor. Unfortunately, it’s just about as testosterone-fueled and vaguely offensive as the original, and absolutely more indulgent than it should be. A solid 192 minutes is still 192 minutes.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters.

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