If the first Avatar was a pretty remake of Ferngully, its long-gestating sequel is of Free Willy. A gorgeous return to Pandora marred by a lame screenplay, Avatar: The Way of Water nonetheless boasts tremendous action sequences–and way too much time spent swimming with [alien] whales.
James Cameron has also spent way too much time of his life and talent making not one but several sequels to his 2009 box office spectacular–sequels that seemingly few people really asked for. But here we are, and, warts on all, Avatar: The Way of Water is two hours of entertainment and spectacle–that has a runtime over three hours.
To no one’s surprise, The Way of Water looks fantastic, even if the 3D feels less essential than it did 13 years ago and the inconsistent high frame rates deliver some odd choppiness at times. But the visuals are crisp, detailed and largely believable, an incredible display of CGI talent.
Where this new Avatar will prove divisive is people’s tolerances for the story at hand. Despite 13 years passing and an incredible amount of money and time put into the movie, it’s a shame James Cameron couldn’t come up with something… better. This go around, the “Sky People” return after a long absence to further desecrate Pandora, but no longer are they focused on the sacred mineral Unobtanium–they’re after alien whales for reasons I won’t explain here, a change of heart that makes no sense other than that Cameron wanted to move the action to the ocean. The story is full of these “forced decisions”–actions that are Pretty Fucking Stupid (PFS) but that put the chess pieces where Mr. Cameron wants them to be. There is one especially PFS moment at the end designed to set up Avatar 3, slated for 2024, that made me want to throw my headache-inducing 3D glasses at the screen.
The Way of Water is essentially a retread of Avatar, only dumber and 30 minutes longer, but if you enjoyed the original–as I did–you’ll likely find enough to like here. Still, Cameron seems so enamored by his own ideas and his environment-first agenda that he loses sight of the audience at times.
The first hour and a half are solid, with moderately good pacing. Some of it is spent reacclimating to the world of Pandora, but Cameron pretty quickly jumps into the conflict at hand: an avatar clone of the deceased Quaritch (Steven Lang) has returned with the singular mission to track down the insurgent Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully makes an out-of-character decision to flee with his family, including Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four children, including Kiri, who is a teenage version of Sigourney Weaver because Cameron just had to bring Weaver back.
There are some decent action scenes at play here, and as much as some people will roll their eyes at the mundane plot, surface-level characters, and questionable acting (Saldana is noticeably better than everyone else), it’s hard to deny that Cameron is one of the best action directors of all time.
But The Way of Water sags mightily in the middle as Cameron devotes way too much time to playing in the ocean, dealing with unnecessary kid drama and going full nature documentary. What could have been covered in a 10-minute montage turns into an hour-long stretch involving the bonding with alien-whales who can talk in subtitles. Cameron is proud that he can just tell studio execs to “fuck off,” but maybe he should listen to them from time to time.
As frustrating as the middle is, Cameron delivers in a big way with an extensive and highly satisfying action-packed climax. If I were to watch Avatar: The Way of Water again–no sure thing–I’d watch the beginning and then fast-forward to the explosive finale. It’s intense, fun to watch, and full of PG-13 carnage.
I will note that the water Na’vi are oddly useless when battling in the water.
Avatar: The Way of Water looks fantastic. The action is great. That’s enough to make it worth spending your dollars on the big screen–even if the writing is a bit of a dud.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.