The Spool / Movies
Avatar: The Way of Water soaks in atmosphere but drowns in its story
James Cameron finally gives us the sequel we've been expecting -- a lush, pulpy technical marvel both buoyed and sunk by its technological advances.
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James Cameron finally gives us the sequel we’ve been expecting — a lush, pulpy technical marvel both buoyed and sunk by its technological advances.

Avatar has no cultural relevance.” “It’s just Dances With Wolves with blue cat people.” We’ve all heard the digs ever since James Cameron’s 2009 opus hit theaters more than a dozen years ago, made all the money, and gobsmacked the Academy into giving it a Best Picture nomination. But even though it didn’t immediately launch a franchise and give people (apart from a select few who took Pandora way too seriously) Avatar Fever, its impact was more subtle and quiet. Sure, it launched a mini-3D boom that leaked out into the early 2010s, but its most noticeable ripples came in its normalizing of a new suite of CG technology, radical motion capture and worldbuilding, and fully-formed digital environments that could genuinely transport viewers to another place.

It’s the way of Cameron, especially lately; much like his contemporary Robert Zemeckis, each of his films of late feel fueled less by the story he wants to tell and more the technology he wants to advance. In this respect, the long-delayed Avatar: The Way of Water fits the brief, making noted tweaks and improvements to the tech he innovated with the first. In this respect, it’s a technological marvel, clearly the kind of experience meant to be soaked in on the largest screen possible. Shame, then, that the same attention seemingly wasn’t paid to the tale Cameron is spinning.

Set decades after the first film, The Way of Water shows us Earth Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) living his life as a Na’Vi full time: He’s even built a family of five(!) kids with native Na’Vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), turning his solo journey from the first into a kind of Swiss Family Robinson in space. (No, not that kind.) Some are biological kids, like twin brothers Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and youngest girl Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), half-breeds of Na’Vi and Avatar DNA. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a child (sort of) of the Avatar of Weaver’s dead character from the first film; Weaver plays the teenage Na’Vi herself, creating a kind of doubly-uncanny character who seems like the seventy-something actor, and yet decidedly not. Then there’s Spider (Jack Champion), a Mowgli-esque human boy left behind after the first human exodus, taken in by the Sullys and taught their ways.

Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century Studios)
Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century Studios)

But while the opening scenes ease us back into the lush forests and floating island of Pandora, it’s not long before the “Sky People” (humans from Earth) return with a vengeance. Not only do they have more tools to conquer Pandora, but a familiar face also leads them: Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), resurrected as a Na’Vi Avatar with little beyond an uploaded copy of the human Quaritch’s memories from right before the first film’s climax, and a bone-deep desire to hunt down and kill Jake Sully.

This new threat forces the Sullys into exile, moving in with a far-off tribe of Na’Vi who’ve adapted to live and move in water. It’s here where Cameron clearly moves into his comfort zone, and The Way of Water picks up considerably, as we (along with the Sullys) gaze in wonder at the alien marine life and the mysteries of Pandora’s oceans. It’s this second hour that probably offers the most bang for your buck, the lion’s share of tech advancements Cameron spearheaded showcasing crystal-clear water, photorealistic creatures, and staggering aquatic architecture. Avatar works best when bathing us in its worldbuilding, which doubles nicely when focusing on its central family and their almost literal fish-out-of-water status in this new environment.

But try as he might to give us new things we haven’t seen before, so much of Way of Water‘s story feels like a vague rehash of the plot beats of the first. Sure, there are some novel twists: Jake’s adjustment to his Avatar body is given a dark reflection in Quaritch’s existential musings on his new Na’Vi body (right down to a cheeky “Alas, poor Yorick” moment as Blue Quaritch contemplates his old skull), and what it means for his own personhood.

Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century Studios)
Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century Studios)

The Sullys’ struggles to fit in with their aquatic hosts spread the basic notes of Jake’s initiation into the Na’Vi in the first amongst the family: Jake learns to ride new beasts, one son communes with mystical creatures and falls in love with the chief’s daughter, Kiri explores a curious relationship with Eywa, the soul of Pandora. At first, it feels somewhat novel, until the film ends and you realize they haven’t done anything truly new with these characters, and in fact the sheer size of the main cast leaves a lot of characters in the narrative dust.

Even the first film’s environmentalist messaging is reoriented slightly to private-sector whalers seeking out a new resource out in Pandora’s waters, whose harvesting is startling to witness (an extended sequence with harpoon boats and a post-death extraction is viscerally gruesome) but raises plot points that they summarily drop minutes later.

Apart from the script, the Achilles heel Way of Water suffers from most is its sorta-high-frame-rate presentation, which pairs the 3D the first film innovated with a distracting smoothness as characters move from shot to shot in a confusing mix of 48, 30, and 24 frames per second. It’s meant to be immersive, of course, in the same way that your dad’s motion-smoothing ostensibly makes the Big Game come alive. But it also has the effect of rendering the already-fantastical CG creations weightless, made even more jarring by the disorienting choice to flit between framerates from shot to shot.

Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century Studios)
Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century Studios)

By the time your eyes are used to the Na’Vi flitting across the screen with an unreal lightness, Cameron slams the brakes back to 24fps and it feels like a PS5 game is having trouble rendering a cutscene. It doesn’t just make the film look curiously ugly at times; it messes with the pacing of its awe-striking tours of Pandora’s many vistas, not to mention the tempo of its bigger-than-life action scenes (which, naturally, evoke both Aliens and Titanic, especially in a late-film sequence aboard a sinking ship).

But ultimately, what sinks The Way of Water isn’t the dazzling filmmaking craft on display, clearly a giddy demonstration of the new tricks Cameron and co. have perfected in bringing new corners of their blue fantasy world to life. It’s the story they choose to tell with it, a formulaic tale of family bonds and hokey environmentalism that’s not quite silly enough to work. There’s a kind of gee-whiz old-fashioned nature to the storytelling here that’s novel in this age of more focus-grouped, impersonal blockbusters, to be sure. As another James Cameron tale of family units holding together against unspeakable sci-fi evil, though, he tends to play the hits.

Cameron throws a lot at you over the three-plus hours you spend with him in his bespoke alien planet: Sentient whales who speak with papyrus subtitles, Kate Winslet as a pregnant, Māori-coded Na’Vi, a grown white man with dreads hissing like a cat through a gas mask. General Edie Falco. Throwing up to $400 million and the finest technology cinema has to offer at this story doesn’t feel worth it, especially since it ends on a reminder that there are at least three more of these films coming. That is, if Cameron can keep himself alive another 15 years.

Avatar: The Way of Water makes a splash in theaters December 16th.

Avatar 2: The Way of Water Trailer: