Whalers on the Moon — Avatar: The Way of Water
The first Avatar film did just about everything right. Director James Cameron built an entire world of dazzling visuals (most of which still hold up), realizing the full potential of 3D as a viable format all the way back in 2009. It felt larger than life, and not just because the imaginative Na’vi people were more than twice the height of their human counterparts. The environments, creature designs, and overall mythos were all simply extraordinary.
However, despite all the great things about the movie, including the fact that it was for a time the highest-grossing film in history (giving Cameron the top two spots alongside Titanic until The Force Awakens overtook them both), there were some glaring issues, particularly in the forms of the story and characters. The feast for the eyes and sheer wonder of Pandora were more than enough for most viewers to get past them, myself included, but it cannot be denied that most of the characters — including the leads — were completely one-dimensional (which in the three-dimensional space made this flaw even more conspicuous), with paper-thin motivations. Only Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri got any significant development. Further, the plot, padded to over two and a half hours for no reason, was highly derivative of other works. Trey Parker and Matt Stone did an entire episode of South Park mocking the tired story beats in “Dances With Smurfs,” and it’s not hard to see how one could draw such a conclusion, as the film constantly beat the audience over the head with colonization tropes. Throw in some FernGully for some absolutely superfluous entry-level ecological moralizing, and what was once considered a crowning achievement of cinema quickly became a polarizing subject of parody.
All the while, however, Cameron has been committed to the product, promising four sequels to create a full-fledged saga on this alien moon inhabited by blue jungle cat-people. He’s kept us waiting for 13 years, but the first of those four follow-ups, The Way of Water, is finally out. The far from timely arrival instantly begs three important questions as this next epic chapter heavily campaigns for both box office (it’s rumored that the film will have to gross over half a billion to turn a profit) and prestige (the first installment won several technical Oscars and was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture).
Those questions are: 1) Does the film live up to the visual standards set by the original? 2) Has Cameron corrected the narrative mistakes of the previous entry? 3) Was it worth waiting so long, knowing the plans for the franchise? Let’s answer them in turn.
On the first point, absolutely. This film is just as stunning as before, if not more so. Set more than a decade after the last entry, both Neytiri and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) feel like completely lived-in characters, and their designs have been upgraded to make them appear even more lifelike. The film is still intended to be seen in 3D (I went for IMAX as well), but even on a smaller medium I feel like I could reach out and touch them, interact with them, and that is no small accomplishment. The same holds true for their four children, Neteyem (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, more on her in a few moments). These are not just generic faces placed on lanky frames with strategically-placed beads to cover up female nipples. They’re fully-formed, expressive characters, able to convey complex emotions through their actions, words, and facial expressions. Whatever resonance we’re supposed to get from them, it comes from these actors’ abilities to perform for the motion-capture, the quality of which has been improved significantly.
The creativity and magic extends to a much wider scope of Pandora as a world. The Sully family is forced to relocate away from their forest home early in the film, traveling to an ocean-based civilization hundreds of miles away, surrounded by coral reef. This is the home of the Metkayina people, who possess a more aquatic appearance, with eyes that look more like fish (compared to the Omaticaya’s more feline-based features), even more slender frames, arms that have evolved fin-like musculature, and flatter tails that they can use as rudders when they swim underwater, using enhanced lung capacity to hold their breath for long periods of time. These new designs, chiefly seen on their leader Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), and their daughter Reya (Bailey Bass, the name being a pure coincidence I’m sure) are both practical and intriguing, particularly when tribal tattoos that echo Pacific Islander culture are included. In dedication to a sense of reality, nearly all the actors had to learn free diving techniques so that they could perform in the water, with the mo-cap suits on. Given the time they spend submerged, this clan even has their own form of sign language, created specifically for the movie by deaf actor CJ Jones, which can be used with one another as well as with the larger, more intelligent sea creatures. The amount of detail here is staggering.
And then there are the new fauna, particularly the whale-like tulkun, who serve as spiritual companions to the Metkayina, and who bond with them on their annual migrations. Once again the scale is ramped up to the nth degree, as these brilliant beasts can dwarf the Na’vi yet still feel like gentle pets and intimate friends. It makes you wonder just how big Pandora is, as a few shots from space show it as fairly tiny compared to its orbital planet, which looks like a blue Jupiter, yet it contains enough ocean space for the tulkun and Na’vi to coexist relative to Earth whales and humans.
There are only two aspects where the visuals don’t entirely work, and even then, they’re minor. The first is in the design of our antagonists (I’ll get to them in more detail shortly), who are built like avatars of the forest Na’vi, but maintain an odd sheen of fakeness, as if they were intentionally not rendered as fully as the others as a means of differentiating them in the action scenes. Even those who have decorative military tattoos feel like a cosmetic affectation that some animator thought might look cool as opposed to anything meaningful. The other is that throughout the film, Cameron orchestrates his shots to have different frame rates that change on a dime. For the most part this enhances the immersive nature of the experience, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get dizzy a couple of times. It’s only for a few seconds, but it is surprising and a bit worrisome for viewers with motion sickness issues.
On to the second question, which addresses Cameron as a storyteller. As I said, no matter how gorgeous the first film was, it was undeniably brought down a few pegs in the long run because of the subpar characterization and plot, to the point that for many, the original Avatar had lost a good deal of its cultural significance and became inessential due to these flaws.
So did Cameron learn anything in over a decade? Reader, he did not. If anything, he doubled down on these shortcomings, almost as if hoping to wear down our resistance by bombarding us with even more ripoffs coupled with obvious and heavy-handed messaging. There are some good elements in this chapter, but so many more that just leave you shaking your head.
First off, there’s the story structure. The film begins with Jake narrating a quick recap of the first movie for all of us who didn’t feel like shelling out more money to watch it again during its re-release last month and who don’t have 3D home theatre systems to regularly watch it in our living rooms. After that, we get a completely rushed bridge story about Jake and Neytiri starting their family, including Kiri as an adoptive daughter, because she was birthed from the dead avatar of Sigourney Weaver’s previous character, Dr. Grace Augustine. Yeah, a living Na’vi was somehow conceived, carried, and born from an artificial — yet still very dead — body, and the movie just completely glosses right the fuck over it. There is literally one half-assed scene midway through where Kiri tries to learn about her origin that gets abruptly cut off with no answers, presumably to leave this as a story arc for a future sequel.
That is just bad writing. This is a main character — arguably the coolest in the entire picture — and her introduction is a dangling plot thread for another movie entirely? Fail! It’s really upsetting, because Kiri is freaking awesome in just about every other respect. She has a connection to the plants and animals far beyond anyone else, and believes she has a spiritual bond with the Great Mother Eywa (there’s an absolutely spellbinding scene where she guides the movements of a school of glowing fish as if she’s conducting and orchestra). She’s funny, smart, adventurous, and pragmatic. She’s by far the most complete and fleshed out character in the film, yet almost all of that greatness is undone by the fact that the script brings her into the story through some mysterious bullshit that it refuses to pay off.
Beyond Kiri, most of the other characters feel just as one-note as before, with the only significant addition being that Jake tries to run his family like a military unit, which honestly just serves to make him come off like a dick when it’s dramatically necessary or convenient to the plot to ignore what his kids are saying. Still, that doesn’t stop him from crowing about family more than your average Fast and Furious dumpster fire. This is the larger problem with skipping over a period of several years through narration. Jake tells us why we should give a damn about his kids in the span of five minutes, rather than showing us their personalities so that we can form a connection with them and have a vested interest in their journeys and fates. Given what the actual story ends up being, this is a complete misfire, as I guarantee you that spending time getting to know these new characters in lieu of the actual plot would have been infinitely more intriguing.
The only exception to this tossed-off treatment is Spider (Jack Champion), a human left on Pandora as a baby (because babies can’t be put into stasis, apparently), and raised by both the remaining scientists and Jake’s family. He’s essentially the Mowgli of the group, living a near-feral life in the jungle with his Na’vi brethren and enjoying their culture while sticking out as a sore thumb with his matted hair and oxygen mask. Still, his rapport with the other Sully children, especially Kiri, is endearing, and he serves as one of the only examples of evolving the main story, as he bridges the gap between human and Na’vi without having to change his appearance to interact with either side.
And then we get to our villains, who are… the same ones as before. Yeah, after killing the bulk of the Marine force that wanted to rape Pandora for the still ludicrously-named “Unobtanium,” years later the “Sky People” return, under the command of General Ardmore (Edie Falco), to begin the process of colonizing this world as a new home for humanity, as Earth is so polluted that life there is no longer sustainable. Joined in — and eventually usurping — her mission is Colonel Miles Quaritch, killed by Neytiri at the end of the last film but resurrected as a “Recombinant” Na’vi avatar, and played once again by Stephen Lang with all the subtlety of a piranha feeding frenzy. He has an entire squad of soldiers who magically uploaded their memories and consciousness onto a computer drive that was then implanted into new avatars so that he can be the main baddie for the entire fucking series. And of course, regardless of what his real assignment is, he’s got a completely single-minded focus of getting revenge on Sully and Neytiri. Oh, and Spider’s his son, because of course he fucking is.
Despite the groan-inducing nature of Quaritch’s return, there was still some potential for growth here. As an avatar, he now has a Na’vi body, and in his Ahab-esque quest to track Sully, he has to learn some of the ways of the Na’vi, including how to bond with animals and fly on them. This should have resulted in some internal conflict for the character, just as it did for Jake in the first film, because the whole bonding process was depicted then and now as a means to develop empathy for this incredible world. But not for Quaritch and his jarheads, apparently. They can tame dragons yet they still only care about killing and vengeance. Consider this a missed opportunity that I’m sure Cameron will botch in the next three movies as well.
The secondary antagonist is the Pandoran equivalent of a whaler in the form of Mick Scorseby (Brendan Cowell). He owns and operates a massive private hunting vessel, which he uses to poach the tulkun. In a jaw-droppingly obvious analog to ambergris, he literally extracts a tube full of brain enzymes from those he kills to sell for more than four times the value of Unobtanium, then disposes of the massive carcass at the bottom of the ocean. He’s reluctantly accompanied by marine biologist Ian Garvin (Jemaine Clement, wavering between his New Zealand accent and an affected American one), who tolerates the brutality for the sake of his research.
So this movie isn’t just Dances with Wolves meets FernGully. It’s also Pocahontas, Moby-Dick, The Jungle Book, Waterworld, and Free Willy! And just to make sure no copycat stone is left unturned, in the climactic battles, James Cameron rips off himself by adding elements of Titanic and Aliens into the mix, just to make sure you’re 100% certain that he’s aware of what he’s doing. It almost feels like a troll move.
It’s mindboggling, really. The man has had over a decade to refine his story and scripting skills, to make up for the one massive fault in the previous film, one he KNOWS people are going to be looking for, and what does he do? He does a scene where Sully’s son (who has four fingers like Jake as opposed to the normal three for native Na’vi) uses his extra digit to flip off the screen and the audience while throwing even more grade school-level tantrums about environmentalism and genocide that offer no moral beyond “Humans BAD!”
Further, if you thought the last film was too long at two hours, 45 minutes, once again Cameron thumbs his nose at efficiency by padding this one out to three hours, 15 minutes. You know you’re doing something wrong when a packed theatre of enthusiastic viewers can’t sit through the entire movie without a bathroom break (especially after the AMC I went to front-loaded over 30 minutes of trailers and Nicole Kidman nonsense before it even started). It was especially difficult in this case, as all the flowing water for the majority of the film couldn’t have helped the collective bladders of more than half the audience. I myself held out for two hours (and I’ve timed AMC’s crap out to be able to pee during the Kidman bullshit, so I got one in right before the film truly began) before I had to give in and miss two minutes. Either learn how to condense a story — especially when you don’t have enough plot to justify the lengthy runtime — or put in a damn intermission!
This leads us into the third, and most important question, was it worth the wait? Your mileage will vary, but for me, I lean towards no. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a wondrous, arresting movie that ups the visual ante on everything Cameron did the last time out, and that accounts for the vast majority of the final grade (though I’m sure Cameron and his supporters will interpret anything below an A+++++++++ as pure hate). But where he trips up, it’s even worse than before. On balance, this leaves the film — within its self-contained world — as a fairly basic sequel.
It’s good, very good in fact, but when you flat out advertise this as a quote, “once in a generation cinematic event,” you have to live up to your own billing, and this product just doesn’t do that (and even then it’s a bad slogan considering the next film is slated for 2024 and has already completed 95% of principal photography). It’s beautiful on so many levels and extremely entertaining in parts, but aside from the advancements in digital filmmaking, there is nothing about this movie that couldn’t have been put out within a few years of the original. Had this come out in 2012 instead of 2022, my reaction would be pretty much the same. It’s a worthy sequel, but the story and characters are still lacking, though I’m largely able to set it aside in favor of the spectacle. Nothing has fundamentally changed or improved, so why did we have to wait so long? I really enjoyed this movie, but there is nowhere near 13 years’ worth of progress and evolution to justify the gap.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you willing to pay the upcharge for the largest format possible? What movies do you think Cameron will crib from for the next sequel? Let me know!