TPToA Review – Avatar: The Way of Water

A little something that must be said before we begin… This review is not intended as a slight against Jim Cameron.

Cameron makes tight, technically incredible, movies that are superbly structured and have very little wasted time or energy: if it’s on screen, it’s deliberate.

His creative achievements are undeniable. From Terminator and Terminator 2, to The Abyss, Aliens, Titanic and, of course, the original Avatar; he has continually raised the bar when it comes to technological advances in filmmaking.

From his beginnings pushing the boundaries of physical practical effects, he moved to embracing CGI. When that became de rigueur, he explored bringing 3D back to the mainstream movie-going audience; and in doing so changed the landscape for years. And now he’s now making enormous, lived-in, virtual sets, populated with real-time rendered virtual characters and exploring them with virtual cameras, UNDERWATER…

Make no mistake, he is a visionary creator who is always trying to push the boundaries of what can currently be done in film.

Unfortunately, he’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer when it comes to using metaphor or analogy, and he’s really hung up on these giant blue cat people.

Avatar: The Way of Water comes 13 years after its mind-bogglingly successful predecessor, but seemingly also comes half a lifetime too late for any kind of cultural relevance – either to fans of the original film or (if the box office is to be believed) anyone, really.

Avatar (2009) was a game changer film. It brought 3D into cinemas again, and in doing so reinvigorated an entire industry. Audiences were willing to forgive a fairly pedestrian story for the sake of incredible visuals, photorealistic CGI characters, and exciting action scenes in incredible, colour-accurate 3D. As such, it overtook Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, to become (probably) the highest grossing movie ever… or for many years thereafter, at the very least.

Will audiences in 2022 forgive an even more pedestrian script with even fewer new ideas and more repetition of obvious plot points… plus some extra rehashing of characters, motivations, and settings… for the sake of 3D glasses and photorealistic majesty? Will we, fuck.

Viewers have all but given up on 3D as a technology, and as there have been no breakthroughs in making it more vibrant, less headache-inducing, or less offensively price-gouged; 3D no longer engenders that special kind of magical glamour required to make Avatar 2 feel like it’s not just “same shit, different day”.

Yes, this sounds harsh. And it may feel unnecessarily scathing, but when you’ve had 13 years to write the best script possible and you just repeat scenes from the first film, it feels like some criticism is fair fucking play.

Na'Vi version of jake Sully sitting in the moonlight looking sad, heavily scarred from battle. With another blurred na'Vi in the background
Jake Sully, in a rare introspective moment, contemplating if he’s said that line before or not.

The Way of Water reunites us with Jake Sully; now a full-time husband, loving dad to four kids, respected warrior, beloved leader, and extreme dreadlock enthusiast. His idyllic world is shattered when the “Sky-People-of-late-stage-Capitalism” return to Pandora with an even more urgent mission – not to mine Unobtanium (because on reflection that was a silly name and people made many jokes about it), but to escape a dying planet Earth.

Now you may think there could be an interesting, multi-faceted moral quandary to be explored here, but hoo boy would you be wrong!

Apparently the mutual survival needs of two competing species is an idea that is too complex to explore in three hours, so instead we stick with themes like “mummies and daddies love their kids”, “being an outsider is hard”, and even the classic “whaling is bad”.

And to really bring home these complicated and multi-layered themes… why not take the bold narrative step of moving from a rainforest/jungle biome, to an oceanic one. Why? Because Jim loves fish, OK?

Jake SUlly as a anvi riding a giant flying fish monster. he is holding a pulse rifle.
He REALLY likes fish.

Spoilers ahead: The following sections contain mild spoilers, so if you wish to remain unsullied (pun intended) skip forward to the last paragraph.

The repetition of ideas is the real deal breaker here, and it is also the biggest shock.

Cameron is an imaginative storyteller and an intensely creative mind, but it feels like he’s either copy/pasting the first Avatar film (including the characters and actors) or going back and rehashing his own cinematic greatest hits of the ’80s, ‘90s, and today.

Steven Lang is back playing THE EXACT SAME GUY! This time, however, he’s a cloned Avatar/Na’vi version of Colonel Quaritch, with downloaded memories from his incomplete save file.

Sigourney Weaver is also resurrected, via the magic of CTRL+C and CTRL+V, and now playing… (bear with me, this is complicated) the half-breed Na’vi daughter of her original character’s comatose Avatar, whose mysterious conception feels only seconds away from being blamed on midichlorians. She fulfils the exact same narrative purpose however – of pointing at the planet of Pandora and occasionally whispering “it’s alive” – only this time she does it without the smoking, humour, or sass.

The military industrial complex is now bereft of Giovanni Ribissi, but staffed by cookie cutter villains and simplistic cultural stereotypes, while the “noble savages” of the water tribes feel utterly interchangeable and samey (not to mention weirdly culturally appropriative).

Two water tribe Na'vi going in to battle, both feature facial tattoos very reminiscent of maori traditional markings.
Not 100% sure if Cultural Appropriation or respectful nod.

Some action scenes feel like a bit of Aliens, mixed with a bit of The Abyss, slapped with some blue paint, and dumped on a flying fish or two. Sections of the film look like they have been lifted straight out of Titanic and crossed with the Poseidon Adventure, while others end up feeling like bits from the cutting room floor of Terminator 2.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they go hard and are pretty cool; but, then again, they did that in their original films too. The biggest crime, however, is in the almost complete lack of real peril throughout the film. Aside from one sequence with a “shark”, there’s no sense of urgency or danger.

Maybe that comes from the languid run-time or the beautiful, yet self-indulgent, underwater montages… Or maybe it comes from being so blasé about photo-real CGI that we can’t muster the energy to get overly invested in any threats facing nine foot tall Smurfs riding dolphins.

The emotional hooks just aren’t there.

End of Spoilers

Avatar: The Way of Water is a beautiful looking film with some cool stuff in it, but it is also overly long and tediously preachy. The message of environmental majesty being rightfully protected at all costs is a worthy one, but when it feels this unsubtle and didactic, it it’s a bit like being lectured to at a pool party.

It’s a technical wonder, yes. But then again, so was every Marvel and Star Wars film released in the last five years.

It’s not the hot new thing that’s here to save cinema or become the cultural touchstone of a generation… It’s a film with its flaws laid bare, and an audience who are willing to say loudly that the emperor not only has no clothes, but he’s starting to smell a bit ripe too.

The Way of Water is how long it takes you to need to pee in this over-long film.
It's beautiful and technically amazing, sure... But it's WAY too long. It's completely self involved and incredibly repetitive. The new characters and settings do little to make it feel like anything other than a slightly faded copy of its predecessor.
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