REVIEW: Avatar: The Way of Water

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Saturday, December 31, 2022

Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron (screenplay and story by), Rick Jaffa (screenplay and story by), Amanda Silver (screenplay and story by), Josh Friedman (story by), Shane Salerno (story by)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Runtime: 192 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      After submerging into an extended filmmaking hiatus which involved a manned submarine voyage to the deepest recess of the Mariana Trench, James Cameron finally surfaced to create the long promised sequel to the beloved (?) Avatar (2009). Just as Disneynature released Oceans after Earth, Avatar: The Way of Water shifts the forested land environment of the first Avatar to the equally colorful and vivacious waters of Pandora. And much like the Circle of Life, this film is never-ending, tiring, and repetitive.

      The simplified plot is as follows: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a big blue Na’vi chieftain now and has a bunch of kids with his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Evil humans still want to colonize the planet and kill Jake. One of Jake’s kids gets into danger or taken hostage. Crazy action sequence occurs. 30 minutes of movie transpire. One of Jake’s kids gets into danger or taken hostage. Crazy action sequence occurs. Repeat until big fiery climax occurs and 3.5 hours have elapsed.

      This movie’s heft is largely a consequence of staggeringly lazy writing. The first 30-45 minutes of this movie is so boring and unnecessary functioning as an awkward transitory and expository episode. If you are a Star Wars fan, imagine if the The Empire Strikes Back picked up right after “A New Hope* ended and had an additional 45 minutes of pointless exposition to move the Rebels from Yavin IV to Hoth rather than a time lapse and brief title crawl to fill in the gap. The three-act “water movie” does not even really start until after this first stage of the movie and problems still abound. Whether it be an obvious set up for a deus ex machina, simplistic throwaway conflicts, repetitive situations as alluded to by my barely hyperbolic plot outline above, lazy writing plagues the storytelling at every turn and precludes any sort of deep engagement.

      Jake is a boring and stupid protagonist who cowardly runs away from his problems caused by betraying his own kind and now commits acts of terrorism and repeatedly endangers his new family and other innocent Na’vi. Sam Worthington’s voice acting feels about as apathetic as the amount of effort put into his character’s development. The laziness of the writers is again on full display as they resurrect the tough-as-nails Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as an avatar willing to go scorched-earth in order to bring Jake to justice. Yet again, this caricature of a soldier lacks any nuance and is a silly villain especially when they try to humanize him by connecting him to a son character. The “mechanized human inhabitants as environmental disturbers and imperial colonizers” messaging is even more one-dimensional and tired than the original. The ostensible protagonists, the Na’vi, are almost as one-dimensional in their Gaia-worship though obligatory family dynamics are in play as a result of the numerous cast additions, each of whom is little more than a few identifiable traits on top of a character trope. Regarding the content of both factions’ belief systems, both are equally materialistic and empty, but one side is given a brightly colored illusion of a soul. Consequently, I found myself watching a movie where I disliked every character and cringed at every moment of seeming triumph. The film’s flippant anti-human messaging is outright annoying and off-putting.

      “But at the very least the film will look AMAZING!” is the line people reflexively quoted back at me when I did not share their enthusiasm for this ubiquitously advertised Christmas blockbuster. While the film certainly is pushing technical boundaries in many aspects such as native 3D shooting, HFR, and human-CG interaction, these extended boundaries have brought a host of enemies within the gates of the visual presentation. The 48 FPS framerate captures hyper-realistic movements which fundamentally clashes with the unrealistic CG creatures and world. Despite the extraordinary detail and number of GPUs probably set ablaze rendering the animated models, the presentation is unable to escape the uncanny valley, though The Way of Water certainly makes it further than Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy did. The action is too smooth and precise accentuating the artifice of nearly every visual element while constantly reminding me of modern first-person shooter gameplay on “ultra” graphics settings. To make things much worse, Cameron decides to “switch” between frame rates in less kinetic moments that warrant a more traditional cinematic feel by simply repeating every frame twice; this change sometimes occurs within a single scene and looks like a video game dropping frames. Furthermore, focusing on the interfaces between the human and CG character interactions reveals more jarring imperfections as I believe a lot of human actions have to be reanimated and motion blurred artificially to match the higher frame rate (someone correct me if I’m wrong). Despite the amount of money and precision at work, even a cutting-edge spectacle must be practically critiqued in terms of how pleasant the viewing experience is to the ordinary moviegoer. While actor-CG creature relations have come a long way since, for example, the original Pete’s Dragon (1977), I greatly prefer the quaintness of that film’s visual presentation.

      As articulated, I am passionately at odds with this film’s head, heart, and physical appearance and, thus, there will be no second date. Despite the technological marvels employed, the second Avatar is surprisingly creatively inert. I am going to attempt to save everyone some hours of their lives this holiday season and not recommend The Way of Water to anyone. If you want to watch a better three-plus-hour movie with the same message, check out Dances with Wolves…you might have heard of it.


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