“I can’t believe I’m tied up again!”
Avatar: The Way of Water is a 2022 20th Century Studios production written and directed by James Cameron off of a screenplay he wrote with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. It is a direct sequel to 2009’s Avatar with Cameron using the intervening years to develop better motion capture rigs and software. The picture is shot at 48 frames per second using a technique called “True-Cut” motion technology which slows down the image to 24 frames for dialogue sequences and non-action close-ups. Avatar: The Way of Water has an enormous cast. Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington, CCH Pounder, Joel David Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Matt Gerald, Dileep Rao, and Stephen Lang return from the first film. They are joined by Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Britain Dalton, Jack Champion, Jaime Flatters, Bailey Bass, Duane Evans Jr., Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Filip Geljo, and Jemaine Clement.
After the events of the first film, Jake Sully’s (Worthington) consciousness has been permanently fused with his Na’vi avatar. Over a decade passes on Pandora, a decade of peace for Sully who tries to shed the ways of the warrior and walk a new path by creating a family with the fierce Na’vi fighter, Neytiri (Saldaña). They are raising their two sons Neteyam and Lo’ak (Flatters and Dalton) as well as their youngest, their daughter Tuktirey (Bliss), to the best of their abilities. They are also taking care of a young man named Spider (Champion) who was left behind when Hell’s Gate base fell to the Na’vi and a mysterious Na’vi teenager, Kiri (Weaver), who has an enigmatic, eldritch connection with Eywa, the spirit-force of nature revered by the Na’vi.
One evening, Neytiri and Sully see strange new lights in the night sky. The Sky-People have returned in force, driven by their insatiable greed and Earth’s further environmental degradation. Scores of ships have come, blotting out the stars. They are led by Quaritch (Lang) who came up quite short in his last encounter with the pair but has found a way to even the playing field. The humans aren’t just there to extract resources, they’re there to colonize. An incensed Neytiri urges Jake to fight and at first, he relishes his return to battle, but soon realizes that things are different: They have a responsibility to their children.
The commanding officer of the Main Operating Base, General Ardmore (Falco), tasks Quaritch to end native resistance and suppress the guerilla operations led by Sully against the Resource Development Administration colonial facilities on Pandora. When Sully and Neytiri discover this, they realize that Quaritch is going to prosecute his orders by making them personal. He will never stop hunting them and their family. Quaritch’s vicious and bloody vendetta against them is going to get everyone they know killed.
Neytiri wants to go on the hunt, kill Quaritch and end his threat but Jake demurs. They’ve already killed Quaritch once, and it didn’t seem to take. He decides to gather up the family and go on the run. They mount their Ikrans (but not Sully’s Toruk) and fly far from the forested realms of the Omaticaya. They travel to the east until they reach the coast, and there they find the green-skinned Metkayina reef clan. The Metkayina are Na’vi who have adapted to life on and under the sea. Sully’s reputation precedes him, and the family is taken in by Tonowari (Curtis) and Ronal (Winslet), the leaders of the Metkayina, who offer them shelter.
Can Sully and Neytiri stay hidden from Quaritch down by the shore? Can their children assimilate into the strange and new sea-faring culture of the Metkayina? Can Jake prevent his kids from doing something stupid and getting the entire family cast out? Can they all learn to value the way of water? Can Eywa even hear them all the way out by the ocean, and what IS the deal with Kiri? All of those questions and more will be answered if you are prepared to spend three hours and ten minutes getting those answers.
*** Minor Spoilers to follow
Sam Worthington delivers a strangely languorous and laconic performance for most of the picture, his Jake Sully only seeming to come alive during the action beats. It’s almost as if he only feels confident in combat and wrestles with his shortcomings as a parent, unable to get through to Lo’ak and unable to understand Kiri. There are many moments where he seems to decide to say nothing at all rather than say something and have it be the wrong thing. It’s a sign of a character struggling to be a good parent or an actor struggling with limited range.
Sigourney Weaver hits the ball out of the park. Her Kiri is an uncanny mixture of a shy introverted teen and a blue-skinned space-Jesus girl. When she is feeling out her connection to Eywa, she glows with the delight of discovery and yet her face crumples through the depths of despair when she is mocked as a deviant. De-aging software is used to make her a kid again, but it’s imperceptible as an active technique beneath the motion-capture performance. You would never guess she was a woman in her seventies from her performance or how it is portrayed through the filters of computer graphic motion capture.
Zoe Saldaña screams SO much and has SO little to do in this movie. She plays second fiddle to Jake, providing combat close-in air support as needed and hugs for her children as required but is largely relegated to the shadows. She is displaced. Her earlier role as savvy forest mentor is gone and she can’t teach anyone anything because she knows nothing of the ocean, the Metkayina or their ways. Jake gets all of her best lines when there are dialogue or monologue callbacks to the first film. Worse, she is ignored. When they realize Quaritch has returned, she wants to fight. “This is our home,” she insists, but he is unmoved and they bail. Sure, it’s a stupid plan, but still. Later, his new comrade in arms, Tonowari says the same thing. Sully thinks it’s a grand idea and is all for bringing the fight to the RDA. It’s still a stupid plan, but ok, now they’re being stupid and sexist.
Stephen Lang is in a strange place as Quaritch. The charming façade that concealed his chilling killer’s heart has crumbled due to his untimely death, but Cameron has built his character back up in an unexpected direction. There is an attempt to humanize Quaritch, which is ironic considering the circumstances. He never seems to develop any of the issues one would think would come built-in due to the means with which he returns. There is a poignant moment of Shakespearean existentialism that he ponders before brushing off his internal turmoil and getting back to his business at hand. While his character bristled with contempt for the Na’vi in the first film, Lang has imbued Quaritch with a grudging respect for his foe nevertheless, a respect hard-earned. He still has his distinctive “villain” gun from the first film, but it’s been scaled up to the point of silliness.
Kate Winslet said she had traumatic experiences during her tortuous Titanic shoot, claiming James Cameron would harangue and berate her before the crew and branded her, “Kate Weighs- a-lot”. She swore she would never work with the director again unless she was offered a veritable mountain of money. She must have been offered that mountain, which would explain Winslet returning to work with Cameron and portraying the role of Ronal.
Jack Champion’s Spider has the role of Jake’s adopted human child as well as the role of expositor. Spider spends a good chunk of the story explaining things to the audience along with the characters he finds himself with. When his situation changes, he doesn’t miss a beat, continuing to dish out information like he’s a tour guide. It’s a little annoying, but not nearly annoying as his speech pattern. They could sign him up for the Tracksuit Mafia from the Disney + show, Hawkeye in a second. You will get SO sick of hearing the exclamation, “Bro!” It’s Spider’s favorite word and it swiftly becomes so tedious. The script never explains why he’s called “Spider” and not named after an animal native to Pandora.
Britain Dalton portrays Lo’ak as a misunderstood, angst-filled, younger brother struggling to make his father proud and escape the shadow of his older sibling. He jitters with the awkward energies of adolescence and blushes hard in the face of his crush. Though he’s not as much of a goober as his dad thinks, Dalton’s Lo’ak is still a hot-headed, numbskull teen. When he discovers his true calling, this reviewer (who is also a younger brother) felt good for the kid.
Bailey Bass’ Tsireya is the daughter of Ronal and Tonowari. She occupies a rather thankless role as ocean mentor for the family Sully and has to show Jake and Neytiri’s children the ropes. Her relationship with Lo’ak develops nicely and she’s very cute when she smiles at him. However, she isn’t involved in the combat sequences and has little to do in the film once the third hour starts.
Avatar: The Way of the Water is going to be a polarizing movie. Beyond the content of the film, the experience of viewing the picture is tricky. The “True-Cut” motion technology isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is, and though the 3D looks magnificent, there is an over-saturation, weird brightness, and twitchy hyper-reality to the feature. It looks impossibly real and yet ridiculously artificial at the same time and that’s without getting into the blue space people, the avatar technology, or Mobile Suits.
Once again, Cameron has crafted a vast and impressive biosphere, and his attention to detail would excite Sir David Attenborough to no end. The teeming, alien marine life occupies every niche in the sea and every link in the food chain. Cameron has clearly given a great deal of thought as to how the Metkayina interact and coexist with their environs. The returning human technology has matured slightly and the crab submersibles deployed towards the end of the film are very clever. That being said, James Cameron’s Mobile Suit designs are still terrible.
Though not a single character mentions it until about two-thirds of the way through the feature, there is a new MacGuffin for Avatar: The Way of Water. Gone is the Unobtanium from the first film and in its place is the main component of a geriatric drug that halts human aging. How Earthlings know this component is present is never made clear. After making a grand display of clearing the forests which would allow RDA to continue resource extraction, this is dropped on the fly to pivot to the quest for the new MacGuffin. The scorched earth approach favored by RDA doesn’t allow for the flora and fauna they know about to be studied or cultivated and it’s never made clear to the audience how RDA is aware of this new substance they pivot to. In addition, Quaritch’s return makes it explicit that brain backups are a thing, and the avatar program itself implies an incredible mastery of genetics and cloning, so what do they need a geriatric drug for in the first place?
RDA’s fleet arrives en masse and yet they pull the kung-fu movie trope and only attack one at a time.
James Horner composed the sublime orchestral soundtrack to the first Avatar. However, James Horner died in 2015 in a plane crash. Subsequently, Simon Franglen scored this feature. Unfortunately, he is no James Horner and Horner’s absence is keenly felt.
The use of the bonding technique, Tshaeylu is inconsistent, and several of the animals encountered don’t seem to need it. Without the bond, multiple characters are able to speak whale, which was a little ridiculous.
The nearly bloodless Na’vi-human battles are probably mandated by the PG-13 rating. In this reviewer’s opinion, this sanitized violence diminishes the emotional impact of the film and hampers the narrative, but it is clear that an R rating would hamper the box office prospects. We can see which one Cameron is concerned with. Cameron doesn’t seem to be so constrained when it comes to human-on-animal violence and there is a sequence of just brutal, bloody, whale-torture-porn.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a visually stunning, sprawling mess of a movie where (smart) people do (stupid) things to get the plot to advance. Despite a big chunk of the film taking place above and beneath the sea, much of the action seemed two-dimensional. It has little to none of the emotional resonance of the first movie. Whereas the first film was basically Princess Mononoke meets Mobile Suit Gundam, part two has added Blue Sub #6, Dune, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Jupiter Ascending to the mix. Several characters have very little to do and the film feels like it has three endings. When a feature boasts of a three-hour-plus runtime, that’s not necessarily a good thing. If Avatar II is Water, this reviewer wonders if Avatar III will be Fire and Avatar IV, Air. This reviewer also really wonders what happened to that Toruk. Just a line of dialogue would’ve sufficed. It seemed silly not to mention it.
Avatar: The Way of Water is in theatres now.