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Avatar: The Way of Water

A meandering, nonsensical, nearly non-existent plot makes this 3-hour sequel clunkier than its predecessor.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This article predates the Odd Trilogies website.
It was originally published on Film Yap.

For all of the visual splendor and groundbreaking technology that 2009’s Avatar is remembered for, there was a much more mundane element at that film’s core that made it all work: the plot.

Yes, that hackneyed, lazy Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves number, featuring characters and clichés so broad and unoriginal that, despite not being particularly memorable, make the entire thing so breezy. When it’s done, you’re just left thinking about its gorgeous world and weighty action.

To this day, despite its age and length, Avatar is insanely watchable. Great? Maybe not, but watchable. For its length and scope, that’s an impressive feat in itself, and it has a lot to do with the film’s lean and straightforward approach to story.

I’m not sure how much of Avatar: The Way of Water is a response, on director James Cameron’s part, to the widespread complaints about the first film’s plot. But it’s interesting that Cameron follows up his rote, familiar first entry with a sequel that avoids being so… by having almost no plot at all.

At over three hours, one would be forgiven for thinking The Way of Water would be a case of cramming too much story into one movie. But that is not so. Rather, Cameron and his writing team seem to struggle to find a coherent narrative to thread through the whole thing, meandering through new corners of Pandora at a glacial pace, meanwhile piecemealing out meager bits of character development for new and familiar characters alike.

We start with what seems like a sensible enough premise. More than a decade after the events of the first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has taken up a leadership role amongst the Na’vi after his heroic acts to help them in the first film. He guides and protects his children with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Generally, all is well, at least until the “Skypeople” (humans from Earth) return. This time, they don’t plan to set up a mere mining operation. Instead, their goal is terraformation—to make Pandora into a habitable environment for humans, replacing an apparently dying Earth.

This makes sense. It feels like a natural jumping-off point for a sequel. The bad guys are back, and this time, they’re worse than before! Perfect.

Cameron abandons that plot within forty-five minutes.

Instead, what we get is almost two hours of Jake and his family learning about a new, aquatic Na’vi subculture and a hyper-intelligent whale population, capped off by an underdeveloped personal revenge conflict that is entirely disconnected from the opening premise.

Granted, the climactic battle that serves said revenge conflict is pretty badass—genuinely, it’s one of the best CGI-laden action setpieces in recent memory. But it’s not quite enough to make up for the prior aimlessness, and it’s built on flimsy narrative tension.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but this movie makes it hard. Most of the story’s focus is on Jake’s children. I couldn’t remember their names, without some review research in-post. I’ll be impressed if you do. Jake’s youngest son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and an adopted daughter, Kiri, take center stage. Kiri’s origins are a bit of a mystery, but she’s played by Sigourney Weaver, if that tells you anything. Yes, it’s weird.

We also meet Spider (Jack Champion), a human child who was adopted and raised by the Na’vi. He hangs out with Jake’s family a lot, says a lot of annoying things, and frequently becomes a liability.

Lo’ak and Kiri learn vague lessons about how to become part of a new culture, how to embrace who you are, and that animal violence is bad. The other children are mostly-overlooked devices for dramatic conflict.

Jake is a more thoroughly-developed character this time around, thankfully, but it comes at the cost of Neytiri, who is confusingly relegated to the role of “tearful, concerned wife,” which feels pretty strange considering Cameron’s prior record with badass women.

Where story, pace, and characters fall short, the film’s visuals impress — at least, when you can ignore Cameron’s erratic alternating between the standard 24 frames per second and the eerily smooth 48. The aquatic biome is stunning, filled with colorful creatures and environments for the characters to play around in. Likewise, the action-heavy finale is a pulse-pounding blast of kinetic violence and surprising levity, at least for awhile.

Still, I’d recommend avoiding 3D on this, despite Cameron’s insistence that as many screenings as possible around the world embrace the format. It doesn’t really help anything, and I think it only serves to exacerbate the framerate issues and prevent one’s ability to absorb the whole image.

I will say, as a three-hour screensaver, you could do far worse. When characters are quiet, simply moving through the environments, it’s fun to take in. And similarly to its predecessor, it just knows how to hit certain beats just right. There is still an air of that “Cameron breeze” in its best scenes. In fleeting moments, Cameron shows he’s still got it. Some of it, anyway.

But it’s hard to watch this and feel like all the time, money, and technology Cameron has poured into this and its future sequels were justified. I genuinely don’t know what the point of this second chapter was, other than to affirm that, yes, this is a series now; it’s happening. There’s not a lot to compel further chapters with these characters.

It’s a fun enough time, though it would be easier to casually recommend if it was an hour shorter. But it just feels so odd for Cameron to put all his chips on this—to insist upon it—and yet, 13 years later… it’s just kinda more of the same, with less plot? More Pandora, more blue people, more environments and wildlife; in service of what?

I’m not sure, but I know that now that it’s finally here, after all the waiting and wondering, I’m less curious about the next one.

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Wishes he could forego sleep to watch more movies. Besides co-hosting Odd Trilogies and writing reviews, Andy builds Gundam models, loves on his three cats, and spends way too much time managing his Plex server. You can follow his movie-watching habits on Letterboxd.

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