I’m going to just cut right to the chase. I think this movie is getting a bad rap by some other movie critics out there. I don’t know if it’s because they want click bait, so they are taking a negative, contrarian take. Maybe it’s because some of them are letting their political beliefs blind them, causing the “I don’t need to see a 3-hour movie telling me how the American government takes over another indigenous group of people’s land AND ruins the environment in the process” – which screams of self-guilt. Or maybe it’s simply because they don’t like James Cameron. Whatever the logic behind some of the negativity I’ve seen, the fact of the matter is it isn’t warranted. Avatar: The Way of Water is visually stunning and is a really good, really fun movie. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies to begin with?
I won’t sit here and lie to you and say The Way of Water doesn’t have its flaws, because it does. I don’t think it was as good as the original. I think Cameron waited way too long (even though some of the extended wait wasn’t by choice) to release this sequel – 13 years after its predecessor. Because of that, I think a lot of people got tired of waiting and jumped off the bandwagon. Like a bulldozer running over the Tree of Life in the middle of Pandora, that long wait absolutely destroyed the momentum the first movie had going. The world is so much different now than it was in 2009. Think about it – the first Avatar was literally an event at the theater because of the depth of its 3D presentation and everything that came with it. Now, it feels like almost every movie is in 3D, so the level of cinema magic wasn’t nearly as high this time around. To be fair, so many films are in 3D now arguably because of Avatar, and James Cameron’s advances in special effects cinematography is a big reason for that. Nonetheless, as brilliant and beautiful as The Way of Water appeared on the big screen, it was sort of expected this time. The second time you do anything is never as good as the first because the magic is gone. Can it still be fun and exciting? Of course. Is it life-changing again? No. I think that’s what has happened here.
The meal ticket for the Avatar franchise is the uncanny special effects weaved throughout the superb cinematography. However, that only can get you so far. You also need a great story. One of the flaws in The Way of Water was its script. I know Cameron and his writing team divided up the work of writing the five sequels because of the amount of time and manpower it will take to write each, but either way, this script was a little weak. It certainly was weak to Cameron’s established standards. Avatar 2 takes the audience back to Pandora over a decade after the events of the first movie took place. We see that Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have been busy, as they now have a four kids of their own, plus Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who was mysteriously born from Dr. Grace, Sigourney Weaver’s character from the first movie, at some point with a Na’vi tribesman.
It’s cold to say this, but the familial element to the movie was one of its downfalls. First off, Jake is one of the least charismatic protagonists that you can find in a movie of this scale. His personality is dry, his humor is minimal at best, and for being a character in the 22nd century, his paternal style is very mid-20th century-ish. It’s obvious James Cameron wrote these characters with influence from his own life as a man who grew up during that 1960s time period. Jake’s character often times felt outdated. As for Neytiri, I was shocked at how minimal an A-list star like Saldana playing a main character was used in the film. Neytiri was sort of just the mother in the background who was vocal when she had to be, but was often overridden by her alpha husband – an idea also outdated.
I also don’t get how their children are “bi-species,” yet at the end of the last film, didn’t Jake transition fully to a Na’vi? And even if that was the case, I really don’t understand how they look fully Na’vi and not like humans at all (other than having five fingers). The cheesiest part of all of it is the fact that somehow the children all talk with urban American slang. Where did they learn that from? Who did they hear talking like that? Their daddy sure as hell didn’t talk like that. I felt that was very strange and forced as an attempt to appeal to a young and “hip” teen audience.
I loved seeing Edie Falco appear as General Ardmore, a tough, ruthless “America First” leader leading the human mission to take over and inhabit Pandora, who I think was intended to be an antagonist, but wasn’t sure because the script weaved her in and out at miscellaneous times. Same with Kate Winslet, who played Ronal, the mother of the family who takes in Jake’s family from the Metkayina clan. She was sparingly on screen, which I think was a huge mistake. Winslet is one of the greatest actresses of this generation. How was she not given a more prolific character with more screen time?
Also, a lot was said about how weird it was to have Sigourney Weaver playing Kiri, a 14-year-old character who is the daughter of her own character from the original film. I think the fallout behind that is stupid. When you watch the movie, you don’t even notice or realize it’s Weaver. Much ado about nothing there as far as I was concerned.
For me, the star of the original Avatar, as well as The Way of Water, was Stephen Lang. Lang, who played the obsessed, sadistic General Quaritch in the first Avatar, is back as a full-blown avatar himself this time. Apparently, off screen in the original movie, the government made Quaritch use a chip that stored his memories and thoughts in case he perished during the mission (spoiler alert – he did. But hey, it was 13 years ago, so you should’ve caught up by now). In this film, the government plants that chip into an avatar that they created of Quaritch’s image and likeness in order to reincarnate the fearless leader and throw him back onto the battlefield to catch and kill Jake. It all sounds kind of cheesy, but there is nothing cheesy about Lang’s performance. He totally personifies the “bad-ass villain” all the time. Quaritch gave this movie an edge it absolutely needed. His dark aggression balances out the bright, moral vibrancy of the film.
Anyway, like I wrote above, Avatar 2 is fun, exciting, still mesmerizing at times with pockets of jaw-dropping 3D filmmaking. Honestly, that’s all I wanted it to be. It’s flawed, but it’s not maddeningly flawed. My thought process as I watched went a little bit like, “why didn’t they do this or that? Oh well, whatever…check out that amazing school of fish swimming in my face! This is dope!” In an era where going to the movies is quickly losings its luster and, dare I say, becoming an endangered experience – we need movies like Avatar 2 to reel us back in to the brick-and-mortar theaters when the streaming sites cause us to often drift away.
The Way of Water at times felt like three movies combined into one (Yes. It’s long.) The first act is the escape from Pandora, the second act is the integration of a Na’vi family living away from their natural habitat and co-inhabiting with the Metkayina sea folk (this by far was the weakest part of the movie), and the third act is a full-blown action movie where Titanic meets The Perfect Storm meets Under Siege. The identity of the film was nearly compromised during the third act, as I sometimes honestly forgot I was watching Avatar and thought I was watching a 90s action movie in 3D. However, the end was sound and brought the audience back in to the emotional story of the price these tribes had to pay while fighting to stay alive and keeping their homes from the “sky people” aka humans.
I would absolutely recommend seeing Avatar: The Way of Water, but long-term, I worry about the life cycle of this franchise. It can’t afford another extended hiatus, and it certainly can’t afford a negligence of growth to just an OK story.
MATTER RATING: 8/10
OSCAR SCALE: 10/10 (Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Director)
BY CHRIS GUEST