Released: 15th December
Seen: 16th December
In 2009, Avatar came out and was genuinely revolutionary. It caused a surge in sales of 3D TVs, becoming a benchmark for what 3D could look like and basically creating a brief 3D revival around the early 2010s, it was one of the most visually astounding films ever to be released and quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time, a title that it would hold up until 2019 when Endgame came out. Then it would take back that title with a re-release in 2021. Avatar absolutely dominates the discussion on the box office, proof that you don’t bet against James Cameron… and no one gives a single damn about the story of the film.
Think about it, for a film that made so much money, what impact did it have on pop culture in general? Not that much, to my understanding there are three things that Avatar gave us and that is a sketch about a font on SNL, a character on Glee knowing Na’vi as one of their random quirks and the phrase “Blue Rabbits Fucking”. It was popular, sure, but the big complaint about it (even at the time, this isn’t just rewriting history) was that there was no real story there to get interested in, the joke of the time was that it was Ferngully crossed with Dances with Wolves so when people heard that 20th Century Fox had paid for four sequels it was laughable, it still kind of is because god damn it there is just no story or interesting characters here… but it’s so damn pretty!
Avatar: The Way Of Water takes place a decade after the first movie where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is chief of the Omaticaya, along with his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), adopted teenage daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), their other daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) who all live happily, along with a regular human boy named Spider (Jack Champion) who can’t be returned to Earth because of his age. Things are going fairly well until the humans from the first movie return to try and do another spot of colonialism, led by the reanimated Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who now inhabits a Na’vi avatar body due to some reasons.
Even though the stated plan of the humans is to colonize Pandora, for some reason the plan changes for Quaritch to get some revenge on Neytiri and Jake Sully since they’re the ones responsible for his death (he died in the first one, so death isn’t that big a deal apparently) so Jake, Neytiri and the rest decide to banish themselves and move in with a water-based tribe that are a slightly different shade of blue and learn their ways to try and protect their original tribe, in turn risking the lives of this new tribe when Quaritch comes hunting for them. Oh, also there’s an entire thing about hunting tulkuns which are basically space whales so yeah, there’s an entire ‘Anti-Whaling’ subplot in there.
13 years. It’s taken James Cameron 13 years to make this sequel and the best plot he came up with was “What if the first movie, but wet”. That’s basically what this entire thing is and on a story level it’s just not that interesting. We get to meet a whole bunch of new characters, good luck trying to remember their names or anything about them. The only interesting thing about any of the new characters is that one of them is a teenager played by Sigourney Weaver (that wasn’t a mistake on my end, thanks to the magic of motion capture you can cast anyone as anything!) but other than that good luck telling anyone apart. Luckily the main villain never gets out of the camo outfit they inexplicably put him in or else we might not know who the hell we’re meant to hate!
If the first movie was Ferngully meets Dances with Wolves then this is basically a sci-fi version of that documentary The Cove mixed with… well, Ferngully, turns out Avatar as a franchise just really likes making you think of Ferngully. It might also be doing a little bit of Captain Planet, the last movie was all about the earth and this one’s all about water, with three more to go we just have to wait for one about Fire, Wind and Heart and we can collect the set. Well, there is one key difference… I can remember shit about the characters in Captain Planet, did I mention that nothing about these characters matters?
Take Jake Sully, the protagonist of this film. In the last one, he was a wheelchair-bound soldier who not only got to find love but basically become a new man so there was something resembling a reason to follow his story and an actual arc… here he just makes dumb decisions and that’s it. These characters were never exactly fantastic in the last one but at least they had arcs of some kind. No such luck here, at best you might say that Spider has one since he has to learn about his actual dad but other than that, nothing. Nothing in the characters or in the plot to grab onto.
Avatar is, frankly, just about the visuals and that’s it, hell if we’re being honest those visuals are basically the same as we saw in 2009 except this time there are some underwater shots (which are apparently the reason why this took so long because they had to invent underwater motion capture… despite this all being digital so it wouldn’t actually matter!). It is no shock at all that this film is absolutely stunning to look at, the visual detail is absurdly gorgeous in every way and no matter where you look, you’re going to just be in awe of what this team put together on the screen.
Every visual detail is impeccable and truly a sight to behold. The rich luxurious world of Pandora is explored so effectively on a visual level that it’s hard not to be impressed. Every single frame of this film is meticulously thought out, from the great cinematography to the insanely well-rendered CGI. It shouldn’t be a shock that a film that took 13 years to make looks this good, that should honestly be the bare minimum but there are times that you inevitably get stunned at just how goddamn pretty the damn thing looks. There’s a visual inventiveness on display with the details of how certain things look, the way they work. We don’t need an explainer on every detail because it’s all explained visually.
Basically, Avatar’s legendary world-building skill is in full effect, this feels like a real place that’s rich with history that we could theoretically explore. You feel like you could jump in the ocean and swim among the people, most things look like they have a backstory and a lengthy bit of history… but all the world-building doesn’t help the lack of interesting story. If I’m more fascinated by the way the Na’vi can speak to the weird space whales than I am by the literal main conflict then what’s the point? Why does this need 3-hours? What are we using those 3-hours to do other than just indulge James Cameron’s strange need to make this world exist?
That 3-hour runtime is an absolute slog of a thing because, have I mentioned this yet, there’s nothing about the story that requires it. Most of the three hours are spent just going “Look, isn’t it pretty?” and that’s it. The story isn’t epic enough to earn that runtime, it’s barely epic at all. It’s genuinely hard to think why it needs to be that long other than just wild egotism (as I type this it’s come out that James Cameron has a 9-hour cut of the next movie ready to go and might just do the CGI for all 9 hours before cutting it down to an actually releasable length… so, egotism feels like the real reason behind all of this) but it’s very pretty egotism.
Even the 3D of this film looks pretty good, or at least as good as any 3D ever looks. It gives some scenes a slightly interesting visual element but frankly, you won’t miss anything special just seeing the 2D versions of this, it doesn’t make great use of the effect and really it just makes it feel like this film is out of date because it’s the same 3D technique that the last one used. 3D is a fun gimmick that really only works when the film-makers lean into it and just throw shit at the audience but this film doesn’t even do anything that fun, it’s 3D because that’s what Avatar is… that’s mostly why the first one made so much money because it was all in 3D so it was basically impossible to pirate and you had no choice but to just go see it again and pay the increased price for the film, not sure that’ll work this time.
Avatar: The Way Of Water is basically the first movie again, only now it’s the first movie with the novelty mostly worn off. It’s the first movie after people spent a decade making fun of how the first movie was actually mostly a visual spectacle with little substance. Is it good to look at? Undeniably, and despite all the problems with the story and characters I’m glad I saw it on a big screen because it is an absolutely stunning film to look at and really makes the most out of the cinema experience… but there’s nothing here that’ll bring you back other than wanting to see the visual effects again. It’s not well written, the characters aren’t that interesting and the plot is just so basic that it fits in well with the cheap environmental cartoons of the 90s. I won’t be shocked if this one somehow pulls out the 2 billion that the first one did, but it’s not a film or a franchise that needs to keep coming back when all it can offer is something nice to look at.