It’s been 13 years since the original Avatar hit theaters in December 2009, made a zillion dollars, and was nominated for a couple of awards. It was two years before this site existed, four years before I signed up for our first streaming service, 4½ years before I bought my first smartphone, and seven months before I joined Twitter. My son was in middle school. Barack Obama had been President for less than a year. Breaking Bad was two seasons in and a handful of AMC viewers thought it was keen.
It’s in those primitive times that James Cameron unleashed Avatar‘s technological might. I saw it twice in theaters, both times in 3-D. The first time, I was enthralled and perhaps a little giddy. The second time, I nodded off during one of the space-pterodactyl taming sequences. Over a decade in the making, the first sequel Avatar: The Way of Water vows that any theater-goer who pays extra to see it in a deluxe format cannot possibly sleep through a single second of it unless the speakers give them a concussion.
On a technical level, Way of Water is an impeccable visual masterpiece in IMAX 3-D, even if you settle for seeing it “merely” in IMAX 3-D as I did, as opposed to the even more upscale screens showing it in IMAX 3-D and with a fancy High Frame Rate upgrade. I’ve yet to see anything in HFR apart from a few annoying YouTube ads I didn’t finish watching. Part of me wonders if the film loses some hypnotic power in 2-D, and whether that explains why some critics were harsher than others. For my format choice the alien ocean scenery was beautiful, the details on the various organisms and humanoids were fascinating to scrutinize whenever they slowed down long enough for me to focus my eyes through the second pair of glasses, and the machinery of course met the director’s standards — and then some — set by all his past military-SF milieus.
Spending hundreds of millions on pretty coolness wasn’t necessarily the primary objective here, though. Cameron, one of the most celebrated action-blockbuster filmmakers of all time, is also one of the world’s staunchest and probably richest environmentalists. The Avatar series represents a merger of his deepest passions for an extremely shrewd proposition: if we as citizens of Earth refuse to care about nature as much as he does, then he and his artistic legions will keep making nature look awesomer and awesomer until sooner or later they create an environment we do care about. What if land, sea, and air animals teamed up against the baddies? What if even the aquatic life without arms, legs, or teeth could do untold damage? What if whales were even scarier when you made them angry?
Without computer facelifts, our real world already looks magnificent up close, especially through the lenses of the makers of the BBC’s Planet Earth and other celebrated nature observations captured with the tech, the patience, and the good fortune to find all those perfect moments. Such filmmakers excel at giving Mother Nature’s greatest hits a wizardly Glamour Shots treatment. And yet it’s not enough to get us to send money to the World Wildlife Federation or Ranger Rick magazine or whatever. Thus Cameron created Pandora as a Mary Sue of Earth itself, a hyperreal elaboration on life as we know it — everything shines, bioluminescence is everywhere, and all organisms are interconnected. On Pandora, if you mess with one aspect of nature, you mess with all of nature, and you’ll ooh and ahh in wonder as its enforcers wreak vengeance upon your face. Who’d want to be cruel to a world where beauty and teamwork are equally inherent in the ecosphere?
Way of Water of course answers that question by copying off the first film’s quiz paper. Earth’s corporate-run military forces remain eager for new resources to exploit and to enrich their coffers. Once again they believe their treasure map leads to Pandora despite the curb-stomping they took last time. Like any recurring villain who never learns and never goes away — like, say, the Decepticons or the forces of Cobra Commander — they think the solution is to do all the same things over again but, like, more hardcore. If Our Heroes last time included a few humans jacked into Na’vi bodies, then why not steal that gimmick? So now a bunch of the baddies are likewise jacked into their own Na’vi bods, several feet taller and all blued up. They’re like angry gamers who paid extra for new skins with power boosts. Sometimes a little DLC is all you need. Sometimes the real problem is your weaksauce skills that no amount of micropayments can shore up.
That’s definitely not the issue with their leader, a familiar leer slapped on a new mug. Despite dying at the end of the first one, Stephen Lang returns as Quaritch, the meanest Marine ever to terrorize a Cameron film set. Though it wasn’t set up in the first film and gets hardly any exposition here, at some point Earth scientists replicated the exact same process they used to resurrect Emperor Palpatine for The Rise of Skywalker: a backup copy of his consciousness is downloaded into a new body. Big bad blue Quaritch is quite the terror, well aware he isn’t the original Quaritch yet relishing how he’s inherited all that toxic machismo, grinning spite, and callous disregard for everyone in his line of fire.
It’s still Quaritch’s job to help Evil Corporate Scientists get rich, but he also has a vendetta to pursue against Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, the formerly human compatriot who betrayed him, switched sides and led the Na’vi against him and his minions, who were totally humiliated in their rout. Naturally Sully’s gotta pay.
Whither Jake Sully, then? We learn many years passed for him as well as for us. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) got married and now have four kids. Two of them are interchangeable teen brothers played by Jamie Flatters (The School of Good and Evil) and Britain Dalton (Amazon Prime’s Goliath); the youngest is a girl named Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, who’s costarred in two different sitcoms in the years since principal photography on this film), who never once gets anybody angry enough to growl, “Fool of a Tuk!” Their third child is a very special adoptee — Kiri, the surprise daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Na’vi body from the first film, which went defunct when her human self died onscreen. To an extent her existence can be hand-waved away as “Eywa works in mysterious ways”, but it’s implied that some secret details have been withheld for now. Weaver plays every eye-rolling teen ever embarrassed by uncool main-character parents, but the sheer joy she exudes from exploring such a completely different role is among the film’s most infectious bits.
So Jake and his brood are the stars of their own little family drama. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of world-building that surrounds them, things get creaky when it’s time to put them through actual story paces. Their idyllic life amongst Pandora’s forest tribe is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Quaritch’s forces. They fight and fight and fight, but Jake decides there can only be one solution: they all need to go run away and hide. He regrets the pain and suffering that Quaritch’s grudge has inflicted upon them, misinterprets that as being his “fault”, packs up the family and moves in with another tribe so they can be endangered instead.
Way of Water‘s first half thus becomes the most expensive witness-protection-program drama in film history as Our Heroes barely go undercover. They don’t change names or appearances or stay out of sight: they simply go move in with Pandora’s ocean tribe, the Metkayina (who had a tiny part late in the first film), and assume Quaritch will never, ever find them. Sure, he’ll just get frustrated, quit searching, go plunder some other planet and leave them alone. Jake is an idiot, but his idiot plan lets us meet the power couple who head the Metkayina, played by Academy Award Winner Kate Winslet (who’s left Titanic long behind) and Cliff Curtis (Sunshine, Doctor Sleep, Live Free or Die Hard, countless other things I’ve seen). As Ronal and Tonowari, they’re not quite front and center, but they help Cameron defy the dogged Star Trek theory that assumes every alien civilization has exactly one (1) skin color and body mold. Their greenish hues, particular fashions, and super-swimmer physical advantages go a long way toward breaking up Na’vi body monotony…though that’s eventually in service of stock parts as the Host Family Who Become Furious When Their Guests Bring Destruction to Their Home.
Eventually Cameron and his co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who did fine work with the Planet of the Apes trilogy but were also partly to blame for Jurassic World and the live-action Mulan) realize we can’t spend three hours on Witness in Space, and decide it’s time to steer this cruise in another direction. Once we move beyond Cameron working through his real-life parenting hang-ups, that’s when we get to the film’s true core: killing whalers! Among the Metkayina’s special undersea friends are space whales, possessed of very special space blubber with magical properties prized by Quaritch’s wealthy overlords. (Remember when Pandora’s prized MacGuffin was unobtainium? No one cares anymore. Anti-gravity super-metal is so five minutes ago.) Quaritch’s hit squad joins forces with a well-funded team of evil human space whalers whose goals can enable his own, which gives Cameron the excuse he needs to exact cinematic revenge on Every Whaler Ever in a series of set pieces that relish dispatching said whalers in all manner of explosions and executions to the fullest extent that a PG-13 rating will allow. (One particular casualty will leave you either scornfully laughing or haunted for days.)
That nonstop action blockbuster finale proves Cameron still has the old sensibilities, the reflexes, the showmanship, and the master architect’s eye and ear for constructing the perfect thrill ride. Granted, a lot of it recycles used parts from all his other films. Most egregiously, we once again watch characters scrambling to escape a massive, slowly sinking watercraft tilting frighteningly in the wrong direction. But leave it to the environmentalist to put recycling to maximum use. In IMAX 3-D that last hour flies by as everyone and everything is catapulted headlong from one skirmish to the next, the survivors keep tripping over new obstacles, all those space whalers get blown up real good, Quaritch gets tons of action screen-time, Weaver finds ways to contribute to the battle without reprising Ellen Ripley in any way whatsoever, the parents’ ostensible sacrifices to save the kids eventually inspire the kids to step up and use their own talents and connections to return the favor, and the emotional beats can hit you up for a few earned tears. Also, there’s the part where Cameron answers the unasked question, “What if Free Willy kicked major ass?”
As long as you go with the flow and let The Way of Water carry you away in its current, it’s an exciting trip to a big screen outside your home. But once the water stops holding you down and flows underground, the questions and distractions build up like so much flotsam and jetsam. You notice its patchwork resemblance to a lot of other familiar stories. You suspect Cameron could’ve replaced Worthington with Mark Wahlberg and no one would’ve noticed. You get especially aggravated with one character that maybe doesn’t deserve to be labeled a “Cousin Oliver” but their questionable choices keep piling up, make things much harder on Our Heroes, and defy rational untangling without any through-line better than “it’s complicated”.
Thirteen years is a long time to spend building a single roller coaster. It’s a seriously fast coaster with death-defying hills, razor-sharp turns, dazzling sights to whiz right by, and really comfy seats that hold you fast to the rails. But it’s just a coaster, and not one that’ll convince you to linger or spend a bunch at the nature-souvenir shop at the end.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other returning players from the first one include Joel David Moore as scientist/sidekick Norm Spellman, Dileep Rao as the resident lab chief, CCH Pounder as Neytiri’s mom, Matt Gerald (Daredevil) as Quaritch’s lead henchman, and Giovanni Ribisi for one scene as the soulless tech-bro overseer who isn’t invited back to the fray.
New villains include The Sopranos‘ Edie Falco as Quaritch’s new military boss and Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows, Legion, Men in Black 3, etc., etc.) as a scientist who aids and abets the whalers.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Avatar: The Way of Water end credits, but music fans are treated to two new songs: The Weeknd’s For Your Oscar Consideration tune “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me Strength)”, and one I prefer called “The Songcord”, sung by Zoe Saldana entirely in Na’vi. Though the film only lets Neytiri toggle between the equally thin dual roles of Concerned Wife-Mom and Wrathful Warrior Woman, this song is among her best moments, even though most viewers will have bailed out before it plays.