As longtime readers of this column might’ve guessed, I’m a longtime fan of innovative sci-fi/action director James Cameron’s work. “The Terminator,” “ALIENS,” “The Abyss,”. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and “Titanic” are all favorites of mine. Of the James Cameron canon, I’d say that 2009’s “Avatar,” Cameron’s groundbreaking study in CGI and motion capture, is probably my least-favorite of his films.
Yes, “Avatar” is an amazingly immersive experience–with visuals that border on the sublime (the bioluminescent forest sequence is utterly intoxicating). This dazzling imagery is further buoyed by some fine actors, and a memorable James Horner score. However, the story of “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” in space; the age-old tale of the heroic ‘white savior’ who goes native and defends his newfound tribe against his own marauding, exploitive countrymen. While far from being a bad movie in any sense, “Avatar” is not exactly a great movie, either (its $2.9 billion in worldwide box office notwithstanding).
After my comedy-of-errors attempt to see “Avatar: The Way of Water” at my local IMAX theater last December, I finally broke down and bought a digital copy of the movie from YouTube last week, for the price of one IMAX seat (to watch whenever I want—unlike a one-time movie ticket). My wife and I then streamed the movie, in a darkened room, through our HD digital projector onto our 7 ft/2 meter collapsible screen. We also had our Bose sound system charged, as well. Short of a theatrical release, it was more than adequate presentation-wise, even for a high-end movie such as this one.
In some ways, I’m actually grateful for that malfunctioning IMAX projection system back in December; I don’t know if my poor old bladder could’ve tolerated the movie’s three hour and 12-minute running time without a few breaks now and then…
Picking up where the last movie left off, the movie begins with a ton of exposition given by former Marine-gone-native Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who has since discarded his paralyzed human body and is living on the alien world of Pandora—an almost-paradisal moon orbiting a gas giant in a neighboring star system.
Jake and his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are the rulers of the forest-dwelling Omaticaya clan of the Na’vi. The Sullys also have several children; oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), rebellious younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and adopted teenaged daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a human-Na’vi hybrid who possesses the downloaded memories of her ‘mother,’ the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver’s character from the first film). Hybrid Kiri can also breathe in multiple atmospheres, and shares a deep, communal connection to Pandora itself.
Note: The opening/closing narration is just naked (and clumsy) exposition. In the first movie, we see the still-human Jake making recorded logs on his progress with the Na’vi villagers. Now, Jake just narrates to, er, Eywa, I guess…? Speaking of voice-acting, Sigourney Weaver does a nice job sounding like a real teenager (either entirely by her own talent or with some digital tweaking) .
The Sullys have also adopted a human baby left behind by the evacuating humans of the first film—that baby is now a teenaged boy named “Spider” (Jack Champion). Since the atmosphere of Pandora is almost-instantly lethal to humans, Spider has to wear a breathing mask at all times (something relatable after the COVID pandemic).
Having driven out the colonizing humans at the conclusion of the last movie, the Sullys are finally enjoying life raising their kids and overseeing their tribe (as Mel Brooks would say, “It’s good to be king”). Their status quo is disrupted one night when they see an invading fleet of spaceships full of ‘sky people’ (humans) descending to Pandora on an all-new mission— hostile takeover. No longer content with simply mining ‘unobtanium’ (which is never mentioned in this movie), the new commander, General Ardmore (Edie Falco) states something we already knew; Earth is dying, and Pandora is going to be humanity’s new home—natives be damned.
After a year spent razing a beautiful stretch of beautiful forest and erecting a concrete city, these new humans have, in effect, “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Gen. Ardmore has a new second-in-command; the returning big-bad character of Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who, like Dr. Augustine, now finds himself reincarnated into a Na’vi-human hybrid host body, thanks to a handy backup copy of his mind that he digitized at some point before he ‘died’ in the last movie. Convenient…
Note: The avatar program is, conceivably, humanity’s key to immortality, as evidenced by the returning Col. Quaritch and Grace Augustine. Which makes a later goal of the humans in this film all the more nonsensical…
The pissed-off colonel (who only has that one emotion, it seems) is also on a Moby Dick-like quest to get revenge on the former Marine corporal who betrayed and ultimately killed him; Jake Sully, current head of the Omaticayans. To that end, Quaritch is sparing no expense (in manpower or equipment) for his personal vendetta—which apparently raises no flags about cost overruns to his superiors. Quaritch also learns that the lone teenage human boy spotted in the Sully’s home village is his own left-behind son, Miles (whom we never knew of in the first movie, of course).
Note: The character of Spider (aka Miles) feels like a contrivance to give the movie a Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader angle. While Luke’s presence in his father’s life ultimately brings Vader back from the dark side of the Force, Spider and his father Quaritch depart more or less as when we first met them—with no real growth at all.
Because all of that is not enough bad human behavior for one movie, the returning humans have also set up whaling expeditions, since it’s learned that the brains of Pandoran whales (tulkun) have a unique chemical in them that stops human aging.
Note: How anyone figured out the link between Pandoran whale brain chemistry and human aging in only one year is beyond me. There’s also the nagging fact that human technology (in this movie’s universe) has already achieved immortality with the avatar program. Dying humans should (conceivably) be able to clone a new human body for themselves when the grim reaper comes a knockin’. Avatars—as evidenced by the reborn Col. Quartich—achieve demonstrable immortality, minus the cruelty, expense, waste, and ecological ruin of hyper-expensive extraterrestrial whaling expeditions. It should also be much easier to download memories directly into a new human brain than a cloned human-Na’vi hybrid, I would think. The tulkun whaling expeditions feel like nothing more than exercises in wanton cruelty for its own sake–and the movie’s.
As Col. Ahab—er, Quaritch goes hunting the forest for Jake with a squad of his Na’vi avatar-converted Marines, he comes across the remains of his old self within a demolished combat exo-suit. Leaving no cliché unturned, Quaritch takes the skull of his long-dead human self and crushes it (I half-expected him to say “Alas, poor me… I knew myself well”).
The Sully kids, along with their human friend Spider, spy on Quaritch and his avatar jarheads as they ravage an old compound looking for signs of Jake. It ends with Quaritch and company finding and holding the Sully kids hostage. The Sully kids are eventually freed by the skin of their felinoid fangs by their parents, while Spider is taken prisoner by big-daddy Quaritch, tortured, and (worst of all) forced to have a heart-to-heartless talk with his old man, who wants to use his gone-native son to find his quarry.
Jake realizes that his family will never be safe now that avatar-Quaritch is looking for him. His solution—over Neytiri’s objection—is to pack up the family, turn leadership of the Omaticaya over to his lieutenant, and move far away to the balmy islands of Pandora, which are dominated by the Metkayina clan. These islander cousins of the forest-dwelling Na’vi are somewhat different in appearance, with green skin, large fin-like forearms, and a prolonged capacity for holding their breath underwater. The Metkayina clan welcome the regal refugees from the forest, while the Sully kids struggle to fit in. The Metkayina are led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant wife Ronal (an utterly wasted Kate Winslet). They also have a teenaged daughter named Tsireya (Bailey Bass), who seems smitten with the Sully’s younger, bad-boy son Lo’ak.
After some initial teasing/bullying (particularly of the human-hybrid Na’vi kids) the Metkayina and Omaticaya kids learn to play nice together; a bit too much so, in fact, as they dare each other to go sailing beyond the great reefs, where fear of a legendary hammerheaded whale scares the kids into abandoning the brave but impulsive Lo’ak. Left on his own, Lo’ak befriends the allegedly dangerous whale, who is named Picador, and who somehow understands Na’vi hand sign language. Picador has been wounded by human hunters, and Lo’ak gains the animal’s trust when he removes a large harpoon hook from his mutilated dorsal fin…
Note: I realize the movie has established these hammerhead tulkun whales as having a superior intellect to humans or Na’vi, but where exactly did the ‘outcast’ Picador learn to grasp gestural sign language, especially since the Metkayina have fearfully avoided this particular tulkun for much of its life? Where did it acquire its linguistic abilities? This is never answered, along with many other questions…
After awhile, those reckless kids playing around with the local marine life catches the attention of a commercial whaling ship, the Sea Dragon, which puts them onto the radar of of Quaritch, whose son Spider, is now pressed into service as the Marine expedition’s ‘native guide’ when they commandeer the Sea Dragon and its resources to search for the Sully family…
It’s also revealed that the Sully family’s hybrid-human daughter Kiri has an ability to commune directly with the planetary consciousness of Eywa. This ability also results in dangerous epileptic seizures, which could even kill her if she attempts to link directly into Eywa again. Eywa is, of course, the biological consciousness of Pandora itself, which stores memories of those who’ve died and are returned to Eywa, as well as memories from its own long history. Each area of Pandora seems to have its own access point to Eywa, which is a combination of deity and spiritual wi-fi.
Note: Yet we see that Kiri once again taps into Eywa to mobilize the marine life against the invading humans during the action climax of the film, without any new seizures. Seems like her epilepsy diagnosis was created to give a false sense of jeopardy to an already overloaded climax.
What follows next is more or less a repeat of the climax of the first “Avatar” movie—almost beat-for-beat in places. The leaders of the Omaticaya and Metkayina clans are forced to unite and confront the human menace as a unified front—along with the local marine life, which (with Kiri’s help) rally to Navi’s cause, as part of Eywa’s will. There is a cost in blood (as we saw in the first movie, with Neytiri’s parents), and the final acts see both the Col. Quaritch and Neytiri Sully forced to use each others’ kids as human shields.
With the human marauders once again all but destroyed, the ending of this remake/sequel of a movie is almost the exact same ending we saw in 2009—right down to the giant closeup on Jake’s narrating face, as he comes to the same conclusion he came to in the first movie; they can’t run from the humans forever—they must stay and fight. Tell us something we didn’t know, Jake…
Note: The final act of this movie is almost beat-for-beat with the previous movie, as the united Na’vi clans mobilize the planet’s creatures to aid them in their war against the marauding humans. We also have a too-long sequence aboard the sinking Sea Dragon (shades of Cameron’s own “Titanic” and “The Abyss”). The action sequences in the final act, while beautifully realized with grandiose computer-generated imagery, go on far too long. In fact, I found myself zoning out a few times, as I got lost in waves of pretty pixels that were ultimately just so much frosting, smothering precious few crumbs of storytelling cake.
Summing It Up
There are some stunning images and the water sequences are truly cutting-edge, but it’s all so terribly predictable. I found myself literally mouthing dialogue just before it was spoken, and predicting story beats as right before they occurred. There are exactly zero point zero surprises in this entire movie. It’s as predictable as can be.
The occasional tin-eared dialogue and clunky storytelling are very simplistic. The characters are all archetypes (noble warriors, fierce mothers, rebel teens, cute kids, evil humans, et al), with little-to-no nuances. It’s made worse that these characters follow the same general story as the first “Avatar” movie. “The Way of Water” is more a remake of the first film than a continuation. Instead of Jake and Neytiri fighting alongside her parents, we now see them fighting for their children. Same story, next generation—and a lot more wet.
This is certainly not a bad movie in a production values-sense; but those incredible visuals are severely hampered by a rote story that could’ve easily run an hour shorter—which might’ve given the overstuffed action sequences some much-needed focus. The late James Horner’s music is sorely missed, too. The new score, by Simon Franglen is serviceable enough, but not terribly memorable.
Note: The late James Horner (1953-2015) died in a plane crash nearly eight years ago. He’d cut his teeth composing music for Roger Corman’s Star Wars-knockoff “Battle Beyond The Stars”, later to become famous with his musical scores for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Cocoon,” “ALIENS” and “Titanic” (for which he took home two Oscars, for Best Score and Best Original Song, “My Heart Will Go On”).
Despite comfy home chairs, snacks, and restroom breaks whenever needed, the movie was a very long three hours and 12 minutes. As much as I enjoyed the first movie (more as a visual/aural experience than a story)the sequel is similarly beautiful, but also exhausting. Unless you desire only the empty calories of cutting edge computer-generated/motion-capture visuals, there’s little going on here that you haven’t already seen in the first film. Once again, we learn that humans are bad and Na’vi are good—not exactly breaking news to anyone who’s sat through the first film.
James Cameron’s fixation on this movie’s universe remains a mystery to me, as he’s capable of much meatier material. I understand Cameron has plans for an even longer director’s cut of the film, as well as a new streaming series (!). As a story, I honesty can’t recommend “Avatar: The Way of Water,” though perhaps it’s best viewed (and possibly enjoyed) as a bleeding-edge FX demo reel.