Well, this has certainly been a long time coming. James Cameron’s Avatar was released in 2009, introducing a new benchmark for visual effects. A film Cameron spent years planning, he literally waited until visual effects technology could keep up with his vision in order to make it. Upon release, Avatar smashed the worldwide box office, eventually becoming the highest-grossing film in history, overtaking Cameron’s own previous film, Titanic. Avatar would briefly lose the crown in 2019 to Avengers: Endgame but a re-release in China would bump Avatar back in the number one spot.
The interesting thing about Avatar is that, despite the ludicrous amount of money it made, it really didn’t leave much of an impact or influence on popular culture. Oh sure, the Avatar Land at Walt Disney World is cool, but as far as movies themselves go, has Avatar had any kind of lasting impact?
Truth be told, there may be a reason for that. For all its eye-popping visuals and boatloads of cash, Avatar was really just a so-so movie. Its man vs. nature story, while well intentioned with its environmentalism, had been told in much better stories in the past (most notably in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which Cameron claimed as one of his inspirations, yet a film that he could never hope to match in his wildest dreams). Avatar was a movie that borrowed story elements from other movies, and made them shallower and simpler (Avatar’s depiction of humans as nothing but irredeemable killing machines who only care about profit basically made them cartoon baddies, to the point it’s almost surprising the villain didn’t have a mustache he could twirl). In short, Avatar was a movie that used its brilliant visual effects technology to try and gloss over a not-so-brilliant story. Whereas works like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned Princess Mononoke all created worlds that felt alive because of their thematic and character depth, Avatar felt like a shallow spectacle. Pretty to look at, but not something that lingers in the mind or truly touches the heart.
Still, with all that money Avatar made, sequels seemed inevitable… until they didn’t. Despite James Cameron promising three (later four) sequels to Avatar not long after the original’s release, a number of issues (not least of which being the need to pioneer new technology for the sequels’ visual effects) meant delay after delay for the follow-up Avatar movies to the point that they became something of a running joke. But here we are in 2022, thirteen years later, and the second film in the Avatar series (shot back-to-back with the third) is finally a reality in the form of Avatar: The Way of Water.
The question is was Avatar 2 worth the wait? After all, the many delays to get to this point have more or less shown how little long-term impact Avatar really had on the world of cinema (despite Cameron’s – and other filmmakers’ – protests about Marvel, the MCU has proven to have had more influence on movies than his own work). Visual effects have also continued to move forward between Avatar films, so even with The Way of Water pushing things even further on a visual front, it couldn’t really hope to recapture the same giant leap forward that the 2009 original had in that department.
I think, to put it simply, your feelings towards The Way of Water may be reflected of your feelings for the first Avatar. If you liked Avatar, you’ll probably like The Way of Water. If you didn’t like Avatar, then The Way of Water probably isn’t going to win you over. I personally felt that this sequel may have been a marginal improvement over the first movie simply because it spends more time with the creatures of the world of Pandora. But it still succumbs to its predecessor’s weakness of simply ‘making due’ with its plot and characters and hoping the visual sheen will be enough to hide this weakness.
For those who may not remember, the basic premise of Avatar is that, in the future, Earth is a dying planet, and so humanity takes to other worlds for their resources. Most notable among those worlds is Pandora, a lush moon of brightly colored flora and dangerous yet beautiful fauna. Every creature of Pandora is connected through a global neural network (don’t call it a god), which Pandora’s native sentient species, the Na’vi, worship as a goddess they dub ‘Eywa.’ The Na’vi are tall humanoids (about 10 feet in height) who have striped blue skin, lanky limbs, feline facial features and monkey-like tails. The Na’vi can communicate with the other creatures of Pandora through linking a band of tendrils hidden in their hair (gross) to share thoughts and memories, as well as speaking their own language and able to learn those of humans.
Humans, as mentioned, frequent Pandora for its resources (in the first film, they were after a material hilariously dubbed ‘unobtainium’). When humans aren’t just mindlessly ravaging the forest, they try a more civil approach to dealing with the Na’vi in the forms of Avatars. Avatars are artificial Na’vi bodies that humans link their minds to, so that they may communicate and socialize with the native Na’vi. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was a human soldier in the first film, whose human body died (spoiler alert for the thirteen-year old highest-grossing movie ever), but who lives on through his Na’vi Avatar. He even married a Na’vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and became the leader of the Omaticaya tribe.
Now that we’re all caught up, The Way of Water takes place umpteen years after the first film. Jake and Neytiri now have four kids: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their oldest, headstrong son. Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), their younger son who tends to act before he thinks. Tuktirey (“Tuk”), their eight-year old daughter. And Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter, born from the inert Avatar of Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver) under unknown circumstances in what seems to be a mystery to be resolved in a future installment. Kiri also seems to possess powers unique from the other Na’vi, making her perhaps the most memorable new character, though the fact that they’ve aged down Weaver’s CG face while retaining her normal voice makes for an awkward mix. There’s also a human boy whom they call Spider (Jack Champion) who lives both among the human scientists left on Pandora and among the Na’vi, and who also happens to be the retconned into existence son of the first film’s villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).
Speaking of Quaritch, even he manages to make a return despite dying in the first film (don’t worry, the film is a bit more elaborate than just saying “Somehow, Miles Quaritch returned”). It turns out the Resources Development Administration (RDA) has initiated the “Recombinants Program,” creating Avatar bodies implanted with the memories of fallen soldiers, with Quaritch’s recombinant leading a new group of soldiers, as the RDA plans to terraform Pandora into a new Earth. So it’s the whole “a clone embedded with someone’s memories to bring back a dead character” sci-fi trope, though at least here they acknowledge that this Quaritch is actually a separate person than the original instead of pretending otherwise (sorry sci-fi, just because a clone has someone’s memories doesn’t make them the same person. They didn’t live that person’s life. But now I’m getting sidetracked and philosophical).
So the RDA builds a new base on Pandora, with Quaritch and his goons sent on a mission to kill Jake Sulley, as he united the Na’vi tribes in rebellion in the first film. With Quaritch’s pursuit of Jake proving relentless (Quaritch even kidnaps his own kind-of son Spider in order to get more information of Sulley), Jake passes down his role as Omiticaya leader so he and his family can go into hiding. The Sulley’s find refuge with the Metkayina tribe; aquatic Na’vi with green skin and fish tails. Though welcomed by some Metkayina, the tribe also has some less friendly members, who distrust the Sulleys – particularly the Sulley children – for not being water Na’vi, and more specifically for being “half-Avatar.” So yes, this Avatar sequel has something of a “kids in a new school” story going on, if you can believe it.
The Metkayina are also strong allies (“spirit siblings”) with the other sentient species of Pandora, the Tulkun; large whale-like creatures which a marine biologist character informs us are “smarter than humans. More emotional, more spiritual.” And now I’m just curious as to what metric one uses to measure the spirituality of whales.
Anyway, the Tulkuns are important to the plot, because they possess a brain enzyme that can be used to stop human aging, which has made it the most valuable substance known to man (unobtainium be damned!). Naturally, this means that whaling (tulkuning?) is another threat that Pandora faces. And soon, the Sulleys find themselves caught in the conflict between the Metkayina and Tulkuns against the RDA.
It’s frankly a whole lot of details for what amounts to a very simple plot. And that’s reflected in the runtime of the film, which runs at a staggering three hours and fifteen minutes, but feels like it could tell the same story in half that time. I suppose, on the plus side, much of that bloat comes from the moments in which The Way of Water takes a break from the plot, and just lets us enjoy the scenery and the creatures therein. I almost feel like the best possible Avatar movie would be one that foregoes the plot, and just lets the audience bask in Pandora. But persists the plot does, and while I’m all for its pro-environmental message (especially its love of animals), I do think we live in a time in which people care more about what a story is saying than they do how well it says it. And I think many films have said the same things as Avatar, and said them far more eloquently.
I think my main criticism with the Avatar films is how dark and dreary their depictions of humanity are. Yes, it’s true, mankind has screwed up the environment, but humans are also capable of fighting to protect it. And while Avatar may showcase the occasional scientist who’s capable of compassion, on the whole the films have a big “Trees good. Humans bad” thing going on. The Avatar series just seems so defeatist when it comes to humanity, that it often comes across as a pessimistic series masquerading as a hopeful one. Hell, whenever the Na’vi kill human construction workers (who are hardly to blame for the overall plight) it’s treated as something to cheer. But if anything happens to a single tree, the film relishes in showing us the anguish of the Na’vi to emphasize the tragic loss (if I had a dollar for every time we see a Na’vi shriek in anguish, I’d be as rich as James Cameron). Again, I’m all for the environment and what the film is trying to say, but it does seem strange how the Avatar series seems to respect all life except for that of humans.
Compare this to Princess Mononoke: the “villain” of that film, Lady Eboshi, was destroying a forest, but did so because she firmly believed that its resources and ridding it of its animal gods would help her people prosper. She rescued women from prostitution and housed lepers. She had remorse for her actions, but was doing what she felt she had to do for her people. By contrast, Quaritch and the other human villains of Avatar seem to just get a kick out of blowing up trees. There’s no depth to their reasons or dimension in their actions. And while the past few years in real life may have made cartoonishly simple villains in positions of power a real thing, it still comes across as lazy writing in a movie.
I guess the upside to this is it makes Quaritch (unintentionally) the most entertaining character in the Avatar movies. His utter disregard towards the environment and the lives of anything that isn’t human makes him so outrageous, I can’t help but get a kick out of him. Still, introducing a more nuanced villain or two would definitely help add something to these Avatar movies.
As was the case with the first Avatar, The Way of Water is a very simple film that treats itself as something deeper, and hopes that its visual effects will cover up its narrative shortcomings. On the bright side, said visuals are as dazzling as ever, perhaps even more so when one considers that the film’s focus on water meant that James Cameron and company developed new technology to create underwater motion-capture.
That is where Avatar’s strength has always lied, the technology. Although we are more accustomed to CG spectacles now than ever, Avatar: The Way of Water’s visual effects still manage to stand out. The world of Pandora is an eye-popping one, to be sure. And that world is the real star of the movie. I reiterate that I wouldn’t mind seeing a plotless Avatar movie that just allows the audience to savor its environment and creatures. After all, it does seem a little counterproductive that in a movie this environmentally conscious, it ends with an explosion and gunfire-fueled finale to send the audience home happy. To say nothing of the irony of a movie about conservation being so gluttonously excessive (along with the lengthy runtime, we still have three more Avatar movies if all goes to plan).
I will emphasize again that, after viewing the first Avatar again during its most recent re-release, I do think that The Way of Water is something of an improvement. I think the environments and creatures are more captivating, and the aforementioned explosive finale is more fun. But your overall opinion of The Way of Water may depend on how you view it. As a visual spectacle, it’s a real delight. As a movie, it’s okay.