kate winslet and cliff curtis in 'Avatar: The Way of Water'

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Review: Nothing New Under the Sea

James Cameron slaps some impressive visual sheen on an old formula

Say what you will about James Cameron, he never messes with a good formula. The undisputed king of sequels knows there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, just repackage the same story as before but bigger, flashier, and with better effects. And that’s exactly what you get with Avatar: The Way of Water, the second film in a planned five-part franchise that began 13 years ago: an aggressively rote and predictable story wrapped up in the most cutting-edge motion capture effects yet seen on film. The result is a movie I simply can’t in good conscience tell you not to go see, for no other reason than its complete lack of risk-taking guarantees almost universal appeal. 

The film doesn’t waste a lot of time catching you up on the events of the first installment because you’re about to see all of it again anyway. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human soldier-turned-Na’vi, now lives on Pandora as the leader of the cat-like forest people with his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, always superb). In the intervening years since the tribe’s original victory, humans have established a permanent outpost on the planet, encroaching on the ecosystem and extracting resources. Sully has trained the entire tribe in military tactics — including his children — and leads regular guerilla attacks against the colonizers. Worthington reprises his role as one of Cameron’s reliably bland leading men, this time wearing an additional hat of stern bad-dad commander as he reprimands his two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), for their lack of discipline. 

Lo’ak in particular is rebellious and impulsive, earning his father’s ire for getting himself and his siblings into trouble. They include the inexplicably-named Spider (Jack Champion), human son of original villain Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Spider was stranded on Pandora as a baby and has been raised, Tarzan-like, among the Na’vi as one of their own (the less said about his blonde dreadlocks and loincloth the better). Then there’s Kiri, who was born from the avatar body of human scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) before she died, the identity of her father a complete mystery. You wonder why Kiri’s voice is surprisingly husky for a 13-year-old before you realize she too is played by a digitally-altered Weaver. At last, technology allows over-35 actresses to be young and employable again! Kiri seems to have some sort of innate connection to the ecosystem of Pandora, with the ability to manipulate its flora and fauna. Immaculate conception and mystical powers? What is this, The Phantom Menace?

Anyway, Sully’s attacks have grown bothersome enough that the human military decides to bring in a strike team to take him out. The group is composed of — who else? — the same bad guys as last time. Commander Quaritch and his team of soldiers have had their consciousnesses transferred to Na’vi avatars after their deaths in the first film. Lang’s return is more than welcome; the actor lays on a thick coat of cartoonish swagger that is perfectly-pitched for a film awash in archetypes. When Sully learns that his family is being targeted by Quaritch, they decide to leave the forest and disappear among Pandora’s network of islands, where they are reluctantly taken in by a tribe of fish-like Na’vi led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his mate Ronal (Kate Winslet).

We’re currently in the era of debating whether all-CGI films can be described as “live action,” and I’m sure James Cameron and the hard-working folks at Wētā Digital would love for me to praise the cutting-edge motion capture technology used in The Way of Water. And I will praise it, but as really beautiful animation, not uncanny valley-smashing verisimilitude. When you first lay eyes on the expansive digital construction that is Pandora, it appears as just that: a beautiful fabrication. The difference is once your brain accepts that this is not real, you see it as you would any other animated film. Nobody complains about being unable to enjoy Finding Nemo because the fish aren’t real, your brain simply accepts that what you’re seeing is an illusion and moves on. Once you get used to watching the motion-capture Na’vi move and talk, you forget about the actors and registration dots and trillions of pixels underneath. Which I suppose is a victory for the filmmakers, but not necessarily the digital revolution Cameron is going for. I watched the film in standard 24fps, so I can’t comment on the relative pros or cons of high-framerate filmmaking Cameron is still trying to jumpstart after flops by other high-profile directors. 

It’s clear from the amount of time spent exploring the island peoples’ home that Cameron really loves hanging out in this world. And you can’t really blame him, it’s a lot of fun watching our characters explore bioluminescent coral reefs, learn how to ride giant flying fish, and commune with the whale-like tulkun, an intelligent species hunted by the humans for a substance in their brains that the script simply says has the ability to “stop all human aging,” lol. Lo’ak befriends a gentle tulkun named Payakan, who is an outcast from his pod and bears the scars of a previous run-in with a whaling vessel. It’s notable that in a film with such an expansive cast, the character with the most interesting arc is a whale.

And the whale is the only character who really gets a complete arc in The Way of Water, because around the two-hour mark you start to realize that there is no way all of these plot threads are going to resolve themselves in time. This is 2022 after all, and movies don’t get to be self-contained stories anymore, they’re merely episodes in a miniseries. Both episodes two and three were filmed simultaneously, with the next installment due in 2024. So you’ll have to wait until then for most of the relationships, conflicts, and lore that are set up here to be paid off, and probably not even then since we’ve got two more in the pipeline. 

So it all adds up to a beautifully-animated movie that looks gorgeous on a big screen, with solid performances and a prosaic script I am nonetheless happy to get on board with for its anti-colonial, pro-environmental message. Nothing new under the sea, perhaps, except a tsunami of box-office cash.

Rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!


Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.