‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is jaw-dropping and goofy at the same time
“The path of water has no beginning,” explains a doe-eyed blue alien, “and no end.”
Since the Avatar franchise started 13 years ago and has three more sequels in the works, that’s the plain truth. Not to mention that the new movie Avatar: The Way of the Water is almost 3 hours and 12 minutes long, which is certainly long for wearing 3D glasses.
But by director James Cameron The epic sequel has a lot going for it: it’s a decent sci-fi blockbuster, a visual effects masterclass, and the best nature documentary you’ll ever see.
Avatar 2 will be released Friday, December 16. In the meantime, you can refresh your memory of the original 2009 avatar at Disney+ (or just catch up with our practical guide). The first film showed former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arriving on the lush green planet of Pandora to be plugged into a giant blue alien body (or avatar) that could walk among the giant blue aliens living there.
Instead of helping his fellow humans clear Pandora, he falls in love with the Na’vi and their unity with the planet’s beautiful (but biting) plants and animals. Specifically, he falls in love with the tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Fast forward to the sequel, and the now-married couple wage guerrilla raids against greedy human capitalists, while raising their family of young Na’vi children and teenagers.
The new film is set from the perspective of these children, each of whom struggles with their half-human/half-Na’vi past. When the troubled teenagers encounter distinctly hostile new avatars, the Sully family jump on their flying lizards and fight their way across the sea to seek refuge with a new tribe of Na’vi who live in harmony with the ocean.
It is on new shores that Avatar flies away. Some early scenes of aliens in combat gear exploring the environment look exactly like something out of a video game, but that feeling disappears as we spend time with Na’vi families in and around the ocean. These sea scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. In images that would David Attenborough proud (if you sent it into space), the nimble Na’vi dive into crystal clear water and frolic with coruscating sea creatures, dappled with sunbeams.
Even a moment as simple as a character dangling their feet in water is full of layers of bioluminescent motion. In probably the most delightful use of 3D I can remember, fish and Na’vi shoot off the screen towards you before dancing through the depths. You can almost reach out and splash your hand in the sparkling water. It’s completely hypnotic.
As you explore this alluring undersea realm alongside the Na’vi, these CG characters become completely real and far more fleshed out than the real actors on the human side of things. Like the first movie, there’s a divide between the human actors in real-life settings and the computer-generated aliens in impossible imaginary environments, though it’s a lot of fun when they meet in battle and the size difference means an arrow in the hand of a Na’vi becomes a giant spear impaling a puny human.
Humans fall from exploding vehicles like action figures strewn across a sandbox, but the battles are more than an empty show because you identify so much with the Na’vi’s harmonious existence with the ecosystem of the planet as they stand against human brutality, greedy and needless exploitation.
The greatest interaction between these two worlds is the growing relationship between a grizzled combat vet in a large blue avatar body and a human child raised on Pandora. They are stubborn enemies and yet they have something in common, as they are each torn between the human and Na’vi worlds. The combat vet is played by Stephane Lang (the brutal soldier from the first film) returns in blue CG form, and his villain character has a far more interesting backstory than Jake and Neytiri.
The focus on children means the adult characters are underdeveloped. For Jake and Neytiri to be guerrilla warriors and parents should be a deeply intriguing internal conflict. What if fighting for your children’s future meant you couldn’t see that future – or worse, what if fighting for other people’s children cost you your own children?
You might end up pondering these questions, but there’s hardly any suggestion that Jake or Neytiri wrestle with such considerations. They seem to be constantly arguing, but not really about anything. The strain their crusade puts on their marriage and love is at least as interesting as all the teenage hormones going around. But I couldn’t tell you if they have opposing views on any of the big issues you would think they would grapple with.
Neytiri is particularly injured. She’s a “strong female character” in that she can shoot a bow and arrow while somersaulting through an explosion, which is cool. But what she thinks of anything isn’t particularly clear. It’s shocking that Jake, the newcomer to Na’vi society, not only becomes the leader of the tribe, but – even while on the run – continues to speak for it. The first film was heavily criticized for its “white savior” tropes. And while Way of Water’s heart seems to be in the right place, Jake is still the one to continually tell the Na’vi how things are going.
The abundance of creativity in so many areas makes it especially disappointing when the plot insists on pulling out an assortment of old cliches. Teenage bullies taunt a troubled newcomer. A hostage-taking with a knife in the throat. These are such resounding clichés that their inclusion must surely be deliberate, like a nod to the public to reassure us so that we accept the craziest stuff (subtitled whale song, anyone?). Yes, scenes like this have a certain universal clarity, and young viewers can see them at the same time. But it seems baffling that such an imaginative film would recycle such worn-out tropes.
The first movie was basically dance with wolves crossed with Cameron aliens. This time the director adds more elements from his movies the abyss, Terminator 2 and Titanic. There’s even a moment involving a fish and a bigger fish that kinda cringed when George Lucas did it in The Phantom Menace 23 years ago.
Yet the parental angst and engaging journeys of the young characters lend The Way of Water emotional weight. The sci-fi action is cathartic and exciting, the environmental message is irresistible, and the visuals are simply amazing.
Even at over three hours – and again, those 3D glasses can get uncomfortable – it’s hard to think of anything that could be cut. The section that wanders underwater could probably do with a severe crunch, except it’s probably the best part of the whole movie.
3D glasses aside – once it starts, you might not want this movie to end.