Jeff's Reviews

Thoughts on every movie I've ever seen.

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Directed by James Cameron

Starring Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Sam Worthington


A long wait for this one. Was it worth the wait? Almost.

Overall, another technical masterpiece from Cameron. There’s no disputing that the beautiful world he has created and the visual effects used to bring it to life show a creativity and technical competency that makes him one of the great filmmakers of our generation.

For the first 30 minutes, with most of the action taking place in the forest, I started to get worried that we wouldn’t be treated to anything new. But soon enough, we’re whisked away to another edge of Pandora, and it’s magical. The places and animals and eclipses are beautiful, and the Na’vi biological adaptations are clever.

As far as I can tell, the effects are perfect. I couldn’t find any flaws, and I was looking hard. Every frame looks authentic. I’m not sure people understand how impressive it is to get realistic water in CGI, let alone having it splashed around by CGI characters. A truly impressive feat. Even the super close-up skin textures of the Na’vi was breathtaking. These films are beautiful to look at.

And Cameron uses some familiar camera techniques to highlight the coolness, with spontaneous camera zooms for a detailed look at the coolness or slo-mo for moments of acrobatic action. A fire blazing across the surface of the water and bullets fired into the ocean are reminiscent of action scenes in Cameron’s True Lies, and much of the footage in the climactic scene at the end has echoes of Titanic.

But the story… is too familiar. It’s virtually a rehash of the first Avatar, with the same themes and characters. We have another mystical chosen one from Eywa, the Reef clan’s son Ao’nung has the same bullying attitude and expressions as Tsu’tey from the first film, and we have the same overmilitarized bad guys. Cameron similarly recycled things with Terminator and T2, but it worked because the stories were cleverly different enough and the huge leap forward in visual effects helped distract us. But here, it’s all too similar.

Despite the fact that they now have a family, Jake and Neytiri don’t have a significant character arcs. What we see is mostly just them doing things, while some of the characters around them have smaller, less dramatic character arcs. If we have essentially the same characters facing essentially the same threats, then we’re not going to have a very engaging story.

It feels simultaneously clever and deceptive that Quaritch and Grace are back in the story. Nice to see them, but if we can’t trust death anymore, then how seriously should we take it when characters die in these stories? Spider saving Quaritch’s life seems dramatically unmotivated and is yet another example of a character cheating death. We’ll surely see Quaritch as a bad guy again in Avatar 3.

Kiri is an interesting, Jesus-like figure. It’s pretty clear that Eywa is her father, right? I’m sure she’ll figure prominently in future films. Winslet is there, but unfortunately her vocal performance is not all that distinctive or recognizable. How is the water clan, who presumably had no interaction with humans and certainly weren’t taught by Grace, fluent in English?

The biggest stretch in the story was knowing that killing whales would bring Jake out from hiding. The whole plot rides on this point, and I’m just not sure it was a sure thing. Shoehorned into all of this was Amirta, the magical yellow juice from the brains of whales. While unobtanium was a magical plot element that properly motivated the story in the first film, here the magical stuff is inconsequential. Why is it shown to us? Is a seed being planted for a future film?

And some things are just too on the nose. Military grunts with tattoos and sunglasses and fatigues and an “ooh-rah” in every scene? A water-based clan with obvious Maori influence? Couldn’t we have come up with something different there? No, Cameron doubles down, filling scenes in this part of Pandora with New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement (even if he fakes an American accent) and an Australian-sounding sidekick. A “save the whales” campaign beats Cameron’s familiar environmentalist message into us, and Horner’s familiar four-note “something horrible has happened” leitmotif when the whale dies is almost laughable.

How could Cameron have presented us with a story that is simpler and more engaging? Instead of reducing the dramatic arc of the leads, adding more inconsequential characters, and filling his family with many children, maybe Cameron could have returned to his roots and focused on a single strong female lead realizing her maternal instinct and protecting a single, innocent child, a recurring theme in many of his previous films. Who knows, maybe this is something he has planned for a future Avatar film.

In the end, as beautiful and carefully crafted as the visuals are, they just don’t have the novelty of the first film. And the story, while serviceable, doesn’t pick up the slack.

Cameron is obsessed with underwater exploration and adventure. I bet this was an absolute joy for him to make. Jake’s family is staying with the water clan, so we’re assured of at least some of the same in Avatar 3. But if Cameron keeps rehashing the same story, Avatar fatigue might start setting in. I wonder if Pandora’s mother planet, Polyphemus, will ever feature in the story…

Since this franchise is supposed to go on for many more years, I wonder if Cameron has purchased the rights to the voice and likeness of Quaritch and Weaver and other characters to digitally recreate them as needed in future films. Seems like a sensible thing for Cameron to do.

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