Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their home.
13 years ago ‘Avatar’ blew away all box office records, delivering another smash hit for James Cameron, and for a short while at least, initiating the 3D fad into the cinema going experience. For a film as commercially successfully and critically acclaimed (it did after all, get a Best Picture Oscar nomination), it’s strange how little it has resonated in pop culture since – pretty much everybody saw it, but very few were as immersed in the world of Pandora longer term in the way they are for things such as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nonetheless, this is all James Cameron has been spending his time on lately and we finally have the first of 4 planned sequels in cinemas – can it reinvigorate the hype and appeal that the first movie managed to capture, or is it going to make the studio’s investment in a further 3 of these films look like one of the worst outlays of money since ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Well….let’s start with where this one picks off.
For those who can remember ‘Avatar’, it broadly ended with the ‘sky people’ (aka the humans) leaving Pandora, with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) staying behind after turning his back on his people and becoming one of the Na’vi tribe. ‘The Way of Water’ picks up a decade later, where Sully now has a family of interchangeable little blue people with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), living mostly in peace and harmony. That soon changes when the humans return with the new aim of colonising Pandora for human occupation, as Earth is dying, bringing Sully and the Na’vi back into conflict with the same people they fought ten years earlier. They are led by a re-animated ‘avatar’ of Colonel Miles Quaritch, who is played again by Stephen Lang who was one of the best things about the first movie. This leads Sully and his family to abandon the forest to seek sanctuary amongst another race of Pandorans, who live by the water, hoping to keep Sully safe from Quaritch’s mission for vengeance.
Cards on the table first of all. I never saw ‘Avatar’ in the cinema (god knows why!) and wasn’t a massive fan having watched it at home a couple of times, although I recognise that the cinema experience was a big factor in whether people liked the movie or not (moreso than just about any other movie I can think of), so my expectations for ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ were fairly muted. Suffice to say, I got pretty much what I expected here. In terms of the story (and the dialogue), this is very basic stuff, with bland writing and a plot that could have been written by a 10 year old. It cribs a lot from Cameron’s earlier movies, most notably ‘Titanic’, which is borrowed from heavily in the final act – if it wasn’t the same director you’d say this was an act of plagiarism. Cameron’s environmental viewpoint also comes through strongly, as does his love of the ocean, with the storyline not so subtly taking aim at those who hunt ocean creatures and damage natural beauty points
The characters are either forgettable, irritating or a bit of both, with the thinnest of motivations, and dare I say it there are too many children involved which meant it was hard to care about any of their fates when you could barely work out who was who. Special mention to the awful character of Spider, apparently Quaritch’s human son who was left on Pandora, who stands out as really odd as the only non-CGI thing on screen most of the time. He seems to be doing a terrible impression of Warwick Davis in ‘Willow’ and Cameron’s attempts to set him up with a big moral dilemma that will no doubt carry into ‘Avatar 3’ did nothing for me.
Let’s talk the special effects. They were lauded when the first movie was released (rightfully so), and Cameron has pushed the boat out again (quite literally), with one of the key reasons for the 13 year delay relating to Cameron’s desire for technology to be available to enable underwater motion capture. It has arrived, and it does look spectacular, even if Cameron is clearly milking it for all its worth. It does look like a video game and there is very little in the film that is remotely real, which creates this really strange uncanny valley effect and I’m not sure I liked it – to quote someone who I can’t recall, when everything is a special effect, nothing is. That doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive, and there are some spectacular sequences, such as a great tense and quite frightening underwater scene where Lo’ak (Jake & Neytiri’s second son) is attacked by a large shark like creature, but a lot of it gets lost in amongst the desire to throw so much into every scene. I saw it in 4DX – my first time watching in that format – and was surprised at how it did help with immersion, but my engagement in the movie was only surface deep and I wasn’t invested in any of the characters to the extent I’d care about what happened to them.
I just can’t see how Cameron can spin out 3 more of these stories, especially if the plan (as currently stated) is to retain the same antagonist throughout – they look impressive and mark technological advancements for cinema no doubt, but beyond that there’s a real shade of the emperors new clothes about the ‘Avatar’ movies and for them to stand the test of time, the writing and characterisation has to be a lot stronger than it is in ‘The Way of Water’. If my cinema screening was anything to go by, there’s clearly a lot of interest in this movie, but how long will that last?
Directed By: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Giovanni Ribisi, Sigourney Weaver, Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Lo Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Gejlo, Duane Evans Jr., CCH Pounder, Matt Gerald, Jack Champion, Joel David Moore, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement, Brendan Cowell and Dileep Rao