Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Return to Pandora.
To cut a long story short, twelve years after the events of Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permanently in his part-Na’vi Avatar body, his Na’vi wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and their passel of kids, both blood and adopted, leave their home Omaticaya clan after the humans return in force, taking up with the semi-amphibious Metkayina Na’vi who live on the reefs of Pandora’s oceans. But the human military follows, and Jake, once again, finds himself fighting his birth people for the freedom of his adopted species — and, like before, fighting the formerly deceased Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose recorded memories have been implanted into an Avatar body.
That, in the shell of a nut, is the plot of Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel to the 2009 record-smasher, Avatar. Not just long-awaited, but long; The Way of Water clocks in 192 minutes, and if you think there’s a lot of story packed into that marathon running time, you’d be mistaken. There’s a lot of time spent just sort of marveling at the incredible alien environments Cameron and his team have cooked up for us and a lot of little details and bits of business that really sing. I admire The Way of Water on a granular level, even if I think at the macro, it doesn’t have much going on.
Narratively, The Way of Water is very much a redo of the first film, with even the same villain making life difficult for the Sully family. The problem with that is, in the context of the larger franchise, by the time the end credits roll, we’re not particularly far from where we started; despite the epic scale of the action, Cameron’s sheer world-building talent, and even a proper tragedy in the mix, it doesn’t feel like much has happened — we haven’t progressed the plot that far, and we haven’t shaken these characters up much, either. In the first film, Jake went from a disabled marine to an alien tribal warrior — that’s quite an arc. Here, he’s wrestling with the duties of fatherhood and balancing them against his mission of resistance, and as a theme, it’s so lightly touched on that it barely deserves the words it took to describe.
Still, while Jake doesn’t have much to do and Neytiri is pushed even further into the background (a waste, really), we do have their kids to keep us entertained. Of the bunch, the two most interesting are adoptees: human foundling Spider (Jack Champion), abandoned when the humans left Pandora the first time, and Kiri, the daughter of the late Dr. Grace Augustine’s Avatar, who is portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, who played Augustine last time. This is a neat bit of casting but, happily, isn’t just a gimmick — Weaver brings an “old soul” quality and a sense of wonder to the spacey Na’vi/human hybrid, who clearly has a powerful and mysterious connection to the Pandoran world-spirit of Eywa.
I have a not-particularly-strongly-held theory that for some people, in combination with some works, the appeal is just getting to hang out in the fictional world at hand. That’s becoming more and more true of Star Wars, I think (except Andor, which rules), and it’s certainly a big part of the appeal of Avatar, to the point where people actually got depressed they couldn’t go live on Pandora.
If you’re of that stripe, there’s a lot to enjoy here, as the Sullys join the Matkayina clan led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis, who I aver is New Zealand’s best actor currently working) and Ronal (Kate Winslet, back with Cameron a quarter-century after 1998’s Titanic), and the entire middle third of the film is them — and by extension us — just sort of hanging out with the reef people, learning their ways, and being dazzled by the glorious tropical alien environment they find themselves in. It is stunning stuff, with Cameron obviously relishing showing us around, and his love of the ocean is palpable.
We get to meet a whole heap of new critters, the most prominent of which are the Tulkun, intelligent space whales that the Na’vi have a kinship with, and the humans, well, hunt (Cameron’s metaphors have never been subtle, but this might mark a new extreme — we even get an Ahab-like whaling captain played by Australian actor Brendan Cowell). To my great surprise, I was underwhelmed by all this and cognizant of the time passing, which may be because I’d just returned from a diving holiday when I saw the film. That’s not a humblebrag, mind you (well, maybe a little), but me taking a best guess at why I was underwhelmed by the film’s world-building showcase — I didn’t feel the pull of the fictional ocean because I’d just spent a couple of weeks in the real-world equivalent. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I often say that sometimes the aesthetic is enough when it comes to beautiful-looking films with story deficiencies, but it wasn’t for me this time around.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a stunning film, though, to the point where it makes one starkly aware of how muddy and ugly, so many expensive blockbusters have been these last several years, with the demands of hitting a predetermined deadline and needing to farm out the effects work to numerous digital workhouses resulting in a generic tone and flavor across the board. I’m talking about Marvel, but not just Marvel, and there are exceptions, but not too many.
The Way of Water absolutely pops off the screen, all lush blues, greens, and yellows, and there wasn’t a moment where I didn’t buy into the “reality” of the movie — my suspension of disbelief in terms of believing, for a few hours, that these characters and creatures were right there on the other side of the screen, was rock solid. The culture of the Metkayina, largely based on the Maori and other Pasifika peoples, is fully realized. Perhaps there’s a conversation about cultural appropriation to be had, but maybe take that up with Cliff Curtis.
It’s in the little details that The Way of Water really comes to glorious life. I love the carved wooden buttstock of Jake’s assault rifle, a blending of human technology and Na’vi culture. The flipside to that is Quaritch and his squad of recombinant soldiers, dead dogfaces resurrected in the bodies of their enemies, which gives us the surreal and slightly obscene sign of a Na’vi in wraparound sunglasses. That’s a great sci-fi idea, and the way this Quaritch is trying to measure himself against and differentiate himself from the dead Colonel of the previous film is smart and resonant. I love that the Tulkun seem to have moko tattoos, or else natural markings that resemble them, and when they “speak,” we get subtitles in papyrus.
But the film, for all its scale and excess, for all its lovingly detailed environments, feels bloated and less than the sum of its parts. You can feel Cameron’s drive to expand the world of Pandora, to open up the iris further, but The Way of Water suffers from that drive, veering off in too many disparate directions. Jake and Neytiri are pushed to the background while we focus on their kids, including hot-headed Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), sensitive Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and youngest Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), along with the aforementioned Kiri and Spider.
The latter is, as you might expect, caught between both worlds, being mistrusted by Neytiri and spending a lot of time in the film captured by Quaritch, and we get some interesting business with this version of Quaritch figuring out how he feels about this kid, the biological son of his mind-donor. But the narrative threads involving Jake and Neytiri’s children by blood are fairly rote coming of age/learning to fit in subplots, which are a) not particularly interesting and b) take up so much screen time that their parents become supporting players for much of their own film. Neytiri, in particular, suffers from a lack of definition and screen time, although when she’s unleashed in the requisite final act action climax, it’s something to behold.
The action is, of course, spectacular. Cameron hasn’t lost a step in that regard, and the finale draws on and recontextualizes various elements from his earlier work — Titanic, The Abyss (1989), and Aliens (1986) all contribute DNA. But The Way of Water isn’t an action movie, really — it’s a sci-fi (even cli-fi) drama with action sequences, and while the action is remarkable, the story is, as the kids say, mid.
The key problem is that this installment, so long in gestation, so hyped, so anticipated, ultimately feels like a placeholder. It’s a reintroduction to Pandora and a recapitulation of the themes and the context of the story being told, but there’s simply not enough story here. The Way of Water is either reminding us of where we are and why we’re here, or else it’s moving its pieces around the board to set up stuff that is another movie or two down the track, with little payoff for the punters who have plunked down their cash for this movie right now. Maybe Kiri (and I love that character and Weaver’s portrayal of her) will get to do amazing things later, but we should surely be getting more in this current flick. Maybe Quaritch’s uneasiness about his new identity will pay dividends in a movie or two, but his arc here feels muted (indeed, so do those of other characters). Maybe, maybe, maybe …
I’m put in mind of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), a film whose primary job was to remind us why we dig Star Wars and prep the field for further adventures across that far, far away Galaxy. The Way of Water is, in that specific regard, less successful (although it’ll probably pay off much better — at the very least, it couldn’t be much worse). If nothing else, 192 minutes shouldn’t leave us so close to where we started. The film broadens Cameron’s lush alien world, but it doesn’t really deepen it, and it doesn’t move us along a great distance. If you’re a Joseph Campbell fan, you might say it’s stuck at the Refusing the Call leg of the Hero’s Journey, which is the boring bit you need to get through before asses really start getting kicked.
Cameron disagrees, of course, and maybe he’d call me a “good little studio executive” for thinking so, but I think it’s a fair criticism. Besides, we get so much fun stuff here: crab robots and alien whales fighting high-tech harpoon ships and Edie Falco in a weird mech suit, and those flying fish seahorse things that the reef people ride into battle (I enjoy trying to describe Pandoran animals more than I do looking up the names). You will find something to enjoy here, in all likelihood, probably many things. But what I really want to find in the next Avatar is a story that actually hits high gear; way too much of this one is spent idling in neutral.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Avatar: The Way of Water is released through 20th Century Fox Australia