In 2009, James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar took the world by storm. Its incredible visuals gave it a true event feel that led to it becoming the highest-grossing movie of all-time. Made to be experienced in 3D, its tremendous success caused a massive surge for the format (which was then tempered; still, the majority of big movies are released in 3D). Avatar was a phenomenon and truly one of the most important movies of this century. Despite all that praise, the question persists: Is it actually good?
Viewed again today, there is no doubt that it looks amazing, even at home. However, its plot is paper-thin, the characters are poorly-drawn stereotypes and the dialogue feels like nobody cared enough to write something interesting. The imaginative world it introduces is certainly sufficient to keep a viewer’s attention, but it isn’t great entertainment on any other level. For reference’s sake, I’d rate it a 3 out of 5.
Due to its immense popularity, sequels were inevitable. Though now that the first one is here after a thirteen year wait, there doesn’t seem to be as much excitement as expected. I believe that will change once people see Avatar: The Way of Water.
The second of at least five installments, The Way of Water is predictably gorgeous. As it turns out, Cameron has a lot of ideas for Pandora. He explores more of the planet this time, taking us from the forest to the water. That gives him the excuse for some marvelous underwater photography (a real favorite of his) and the chance to linger on his breathtaking sea creatures. The visuals are once again the strength, but there is genuine emotion. Plus, the characters are fleshed-out. They aren’t deep, per se, yet they don’t come off as empty plot devices (well, the good guys don’t). That is a big improvement. The plot is also far more involved, while still being pretty simplistic. It is a noticeable step up from the original and makes a return trip seem a lot more inviting.
A little refresher: Avatar is set in the future on the planet Pandora. A large corporation has brought a military force across the galaxy to mine Pandora’s resources. They are facing resistance from the indigenous Na’vi, tall, blue, humanoid beings who have a strong connection to their land. Part of the group wants to attack the Na’vi. The other wants to try getting to know them. They are able to create avatars for that purpose; Na’vi bodies genetically designed for a human to insert their consciousness into. That is how Jake Sully ends up infiltrating the Na’vi, falling in love and becoming one of them.
Now onto the sequel. Following a decade or so jump, we learn that Jake and his wife, Neytiri, have four kids and are leading their tribe. Unfortunately, their paradise is ruined by the return of the humans, who have their own Na’vi avatars and no interest in messing around with diplomacy.
While the first movie featured a lot of scenes with the human actors, there are far less here. The audience is mostly watching the Na’vi, whether it is the heroes or the villains. Cameron’s reliance on familiar tropes is definitely the weakest aspect of The Way of Water. There is nothing surprising or new about the story, which makes it a bit long at 183 minutes (not including the end credits). The father-son dynamics between Jake/his boys and the resurrected Quaritch/his son tread no new ground (the females are sadly backgrounded for a lot of this). Even saying that, the screenplay milks a lot of emotion out of Jake’s need to protect his family, giving this entry higher stakes. It isn’t particularly compelling storytelling on its own, but the characters, plot and (especially) dialogue don’t distract from the good stuff this time.
Pandora is lovelier than ever. The forest is wonderful. Then, when Jake and his family must flee their home, seeking shelter with another tribe by the sea, things take on an entirely different dimension. The bond between these people and the creatures they protect is legitimately touching. It leads to many scenes of Na’vi swimming underwater among the fish. At times it is almost a CGI-augmented nature documentary and that calmness is absorbing. There is a lot of action (some of it is very well-done, though the final action sequence drags on longer than necessary), but Cameron doesn’t rush things. Now that this is a major franchise, world/character-building is paramount. He really lets this breathe. Probably too much.
Where Avatar was groundbreaking style and clunky substance that felt obligatory, Avatar: The Way of Water is groundbreaking style and much larger in scope. The substance is on the thinner side, yet it feels like thought was put into it. The story may be reminiscent of a lot of sci-fi blockbusters, but it accomplishes its purpose: giving viewers something to at least kind of care about, so the images don’t have to do all the work. While I wouldn’t quite call it great entertainment, it is a wondrous achievement.
3¾ out of 5
Sam Worthington as Jake
Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri
Britain Dalton as Lo’ak
Sigourney Weaver as Kiri
Jamie Flatters as Neteyam
Trinity Jo-Li Bliss as Tuk
Jack Champion as Spider
Stephen Lang as Quaritch
Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver