Avatar: The Way of Water: a dismal watery sequel

Lacking the groundbreaking immersiveness that distinguished the first film, James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel is numbing, overlong and deadeningly obvious.

16 November 2022

By Andrew Osmond

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Sight and Sound

James Cameron has proven capable of remarkable sequels: Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) are outstanding films that twisted and developed upon their predecessors. Avatar: The Way of Water, however, is dismally numbing, the director’s worst film since Piranha II: The Spawning (1978). It attempts to build on Cameron’s planet-scaled epic, Avatar (2009), and, over three long hours, finds nowhere to go.

Visually, it feels overwhelmingly similar to the first film, despite the ambitious formats in which it’s being released (IMAX, 3D, with variable frame rates); it lacks the wonder, the groundbreaking immersiveness that made the first film exceptional. (I reviewed Avatar favourably in Sight and Sound on its original release and make no apologies; I saw its reissue in September, and it seemed only better thirteen years on.)

Like Judgment Day and Aliens, The Way of Water foregrounds parents protecting children. The parents are Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human soldier who went native and was reborn as a giant blue-skinned Na’vi at the end of the first film, and his warrior mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Now they have four kids, who are friends with Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy left behind on Pandora, the Na’vi homeworld, after the first film. He’s the son of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Avatar’s now-deceased villain – only it turns out a Quaritch clone was cooked up to carry on the fight in Na’vi form.

If cloning is an outrageously shameless story device even by sequel standards, it’s par for the course here. The Earthlings invade again, bringing more carnage to Pandora, while the cloned Quaritch goes on a personal hunt for Sully – a strange tactical priority given Sully has renounced his Na’vi leadership and gone on the run. He and his family are given sanctuary by an aquatic Na’vi tribe, cueing reruns of the first film’s training scenes, as the characters learn to flourish underwater and bond with fishes. Where the first film’s Na’vi lived in symbiosis with swooping lizard-dragons, the sequel introduces a species of sapient whale-like creatures called tulkun.

But by this point in the film, it’s already too late. The sense of discovery that imbued the first Avatar is gone – not that Cameron strives to reclaim it. He delays the trip to the sea for an inordinately long time, ploughing through messily paced forest firefights that feel like videogame simulacra of better ones in Avatar; they’re no longer coherent, so they can’t be epic. When the characters do reach the water, it still can’t disguise the sense of a rerun, scripted like a lacklustre TV cartoon. When one of Sully’s sons bonds with an abandoned tulkun, it’s like a very expensive episode of Flipper (1964-67).

Meanwhile, the evil Quaritch raids Na’vi villages, echoing American atrocities such as My Lai. But as you’d expect in a family-friendly blockbuster, the villain’s rampage against the Na’vi is almost bloodless, a perversity in itself. Cameron tries to distress us with an extended whaling scene, where the evil humans slaughter a gentle tulkun, but it’s so obviously inserted for our outrage that real outrage is impossible. There’s also a father-son subplot involving Quaritch trying to bond with a captive Spider, which makes very little sense.

Against the villain’s sordidly familiar deeds, there are efforts to remind us of how magically immersive Pandora once was. Another of Sully’s kids has a special tie to the planet – she’s Kiri, whom Sully adopted after she was mysteriously born from the artificial Na’vi body used by the Sigourney Weaver character in Avatar. The teen Kiri is played by Weaver too, via motion-capture, but this approach feels pointless: with its messy screenplay and sloppy structure, the film is weighted against interesting performances, even when Cameron tries conveying how Pandora feels to an ecstatic Kiri lying face-down in the sea or rolling on luminous grass.

I saw the film in a 3D IMAX presentation with HFR (High Frame Rate), which may not be the best way to experience it. There are fleeting moments of startling clarity when one feels ‘in’ the scene, and some impressive uses of twisting, interesting spaces – the best example being a chase among huge underwater fronds, as if we’re in a giant’s fish tank. But the 3D can’t prevent the deeper backgrounds from often feeling flat, and the villain’s battle machines frequently have the screen presence of tin toys.

The first Avatar ended solidly. The Way of Water ends like every other franchise film with more sequels pencilled in – which is to say, it doesn’t really end at all.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in UK cinemas now.

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