Much like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water will be the subject of long-running debate and criticism. Some will see it as a true-to-form cinematic marvel in a time when original stories in Hollywood seem far-fetched; others will look past the stunning and lifelike imagery to bring down the movie’s characters and story For all its faults, the original Avatar was a technical masterpiece brought down by an uninteresting and standard story. This is thanks to James Cameron, one of film’s remaining true visionaries and risk-takers; his all-or-nothing attitude is one to behold, putting his remaining stock and possible final years of his life on a universe he seems genuinely passionate about. 2009’s Avatar was dogged on for years, but that didn’t stop the man from pursuing his passion. Plus, in the age of the capitalist empire Disney buying Fox, they put way too much stake in Avatar and the Pandora attraction to let it fail now.
James Cameron should at least get commended for sticking to his beliefs and getting this out 13 years after the first movie. He’s his own artist, after all, and he stuck to it and created a project that he seems genuinely passionate about; you rarely see that amount of passion and commitment in art nowadays. Plus, if anything is obvious with the likes of Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Piranha 2, James Cameron has a natural effortless knack for expanding universes through sequels. Just wanted to reiterate that I respect the man and his drive before I criticize this work.
Visually it looks incredible; some of the best CGI since maybe… ever? Amazing what CG artists can do when you allow them to take their time and hone their craft without making them crunch. The movie is shot beautifully, with gorgeous and captivating landscapes and the underwater sequences are truly breathtaking. The water effects are one-of-a-kind. But while this didn’t affect my thoughts on the film directly, the 3D screening at AMC Theaters was agonizingly bad. The glasses resulted in the movie looking dimly lit with blurry images and distracting double-vision. Eventually I got used to it and was able to take the movie for how pretty it is behind the shades, but I really regret seeing it in 3D just for the “IMAX experience”. 3D is the same dumb exploitative marketing gimmick it’s always been.
I’m not one to criticize the lack of a story in a movie, as long as there are strong visual components that make up for it. In the first Avatar, the balance of being a master class in visual effects and telling a story was a clear struggle. Now that we have Way of Water, the visual effects are used as a playground for cool stuff James Cameron puts in. This time, it’s thanks to the awe-inspiring visuals that the story can be told the way it is. The Metkayina land and the water that homes it are expertly woven into the story. The waves and sealife of Metkayina is a thing to behold; Pandora has never looked quite beautiful.
Jake Sully has a more compelling arc now that he’s a dad and leader. Neytiri, unfortunately, doesn’t have much of a story presence, which is a shame since Zoe Saldana was the most interesting character in the first movie. She’s still pretty front-and-center, but is given way less to do in comparison to Jake and their kids. Speaking of, the most interesting component of the film was Jake and Neytiri’s children. It’s through their journeys that allow the visual storytelling to unfold and what leads to the most dazzling and breathtaking scenes Way of Water has to offer. That said, I can’t say the characters are much better than they were in the original, as they all have pretty cookie-cutter and uninteresting arcs. Jake’s adopted son and series antagonist Colonel Miles Quaritch’s biological son, Spider, goes through such a highly predictable character arc it’s comedic.
The greatest godsend of the cast is Stephen Lang, returning as Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch was a decently cool but unoriginal antagonist from the first movie, his motivations as shallow and obvious as a traditional bad guy could be. Despite dying in the first film, Miles is resurrected as an Avatar so he can lead a squad (also Avatars) against Jake Sully and his family for betraying his race for the Na’vi. It’s such a fun and campy concept that works on so many levels, being able to equal Jake and his forces with the same tactical advantages. Really fun stuff.
Much of the discussion leading up to the film’s release was the discourse about the length. You’d think that would give them a ton of ground to cover given the new setting and characters and all, but the story is just as basic as the original. I hesitate to say it’s “more of the same”, but this film also has a familiar story of an outcast needing to learn the way of life and adapt to their environment in order to gain one’s trust. There’s some world-building, but a lot of it feels like it’s just an introduction to set up future sequels. Your excitement for future sequels will be heavily dependent on whether you find the story and characters interesting enough to watch. In future sequels, I hope Pandora and its residents become much more of a character that stands loud and proud, just for an excuse for Jake and his family to be minor characters marching through a captivating and ethereal cinematic world, ala Mad Max. For now, Jake and the rest just aren’t interesting enough to carry these movies themselves.
Thirteen years was a long wait, and your feelings about this film may be reliant on how you feel about the first. Avatar lovers will continue loving this one, haters will continue hating this one. This movie will be the subject of discourse for a long time. Unfortunately, I think this movie will not be as remembered as fondly as the first, and certainly won’t be as memorable. But it feels nice to get the rare blockbuster that genuinely feels like there’s passion involved. There’s much talk of how little cultural impact the first film made despite being the highest-grossing movie of all time. But a movie’s worth and impact shouldn’t be measured in dollars or merchandise sales, but how long-lasting discussions of it have been. People continue to talk about Avatar because it really is that influential and note-worthy of discussion. Will Way of Water stand on a similar pedestal? I guess we’ll have to see. Predict that neither this nor the first movie will impact art or culture for years to come and you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that.