Does anyone care about Avatar anymore? That’s the question that has vexed film critics and pop culture commentators in the 13 long years since James Cameron released his paradigm-shifting science fiction epic. While the 2009 film became the highest-grossing box office hit of all time (with a brief moment in which it was dethroned), re-introduced 3D to a new generation of moviegoers, and pushed the limits of CG technology, it has seemed to fade almost altogether from the zeitgeist during the past decade, replaced by the MCU, Stranger Things, the streaming revolution, and all kinds of other entertainment game-changers.
Meanwhile Cameron toiled steadily away, planning not just one Avatar sequel but four, while patiently waiting for visual effects to catch up again to the vision he had for further tales set on the moon named Pandora. Thanks to the re-release of Avatar itself earlier this fall in a striking new 4K remaster, combined with the initial trailer for the first of Cameron’s four sequels, suddenly the franchise seems front and center in the cultural conversation again. And now that Avatar: The Way of Water is arriving in theaters at long last, the question can be answered: Was it worth the wait?
The answer is mixed. There is no question that Cameron has once again delivered a visually stunning, achingly beautiful film, with even more detail and immersive world-building going into his creation of the world of Pandora and its inhabitants than in 2009. There may even be some debate over whether Cameron has made what is essentially an animated film that incorporates a few live-action actors instead of the other way around. But one of his major filmmaking choices—his decision to shoot much of the picture in the hotly contested 48 frames-per-second frame rate—proves far more problematic.
What’s even more of an issue is that, just as with the first Avatar, Cameron has pretty much put visual effects and filmmaking bravado first and relegated story and character to a lower priority. But while the first film essentially lifted the “white savior rescues Indigenous tribe” template from Dances with Wolves, the Disney version of Pocahontas, and any number of similar tales, what plot there is in The Way of Water is thin and (pun intended) very watery, with repeats of major beats from the first movie and no discernible character development to speak of for any of the major players.
There are apparently readers who feel that the description of any plot whatsoever constitutes a spoiler, so we respectfully suggest that those readers stop here if they want to go into The Way of Water completely cold. For the record, everything we’ll discuss from this point on in any detail happens more or less in the first 30 minutes of this 190-minute motion picture and appeared in the trailers.
The Way of Water kicks off more than a decade after the events of the first film, as we are reintroduced to Jake Sully (performed in motion capture by the returning, merely adequate Sam Worthington), who ended Avatar by having his mind and soul fully integrated into his Na’vi body. Jake is mated with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and they have since had three children of their own, two sons and a daughter, while adopting two others: a human boy named Miles, nicknamed Spider (Jake Champion), who was born on the human base in the first film but now lives among the Na’vi, and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a teenage Na’vi with a strange connection to the first film’s late Dr. Grace Augustine (also played by Weaver).
This is where The Way of Water takes perhaps its strangest narrative turn: although the human colonists were driven off Pandora at the end of the first movie, this one opens with their destructive return, this time led by the pragmatic, ruthless Gen. Ardmore (Edie Falco). And they’re not just here to mine the moon for “unobtainium” anymore. With Earth on the brink of becoming uninhabitable, the plan now is to colonize Pandora completely.
The movie then skips ahead one full year, and we get the impression that a whole movie is kind of missing as it’s revealed that the Sullys and their Omatikaya clan have been forced out of the forest and into hiding in Pandora’s floating mountains, out of which they operate as a sort of insurgency against the humans. The latter, meanwhile, have erected an entire city on the coast, and are now deploying “recombinants”—elite soldiers whose human memories are integrated into the bodies of powerful Na’vi warriors—to infiltrate the real Na’vi.
One of those recombinants is Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was killed by Jake and Neytiri in the first film but who has been resurrected in a Na’vi body. When it becomes clear to Jake that Quaritch is out for revenge against him and his entire family, the Sullys flee to Pandora’s vast network of islands where they hide themselves among the water-centric Metkayina clan and try to adopt to their new tribe’s customs even as Quaritch begins a murderous quest to find them.
All that is packed into the opening act of the film, and the pacing is off from the start. The Way of Water adopts a stop-and-start rhythm that never really picks up steam. Much of what happens in the first act seems rushed just to get the main players back on the board while the long second act of the movie details the Sullys’ immersion into the ways of the Metkayina clan, their relationship to certain underwater life forms, and the friction between the Sully kids and the children of Metkayina leaders Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet).
The problem with this is that none of the kids, with the possible exception of Kiri (played with a sprightly energy by the great Weaver), is given more than a token attribute at best. Jake and Neytiri’s older son, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is supposed to be the responsible one, while younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the rebel always getting in trouble, and little daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is there mainly to be cute and get into danger. Their interactions with the Metkayina kids might as well take place in an American schoolyard with blue-skinned aliens throwing around the words “bro” and “dude” in jarring fashion.
For much of the middle section of the movie, Jake and Neytiri themselves are strangely passive, left mainly to yell at Lo’ak for his latest transgression and Neteyam for not watching out for his sibling. Tonowari and Ronal are given even less to do, a tremendous waste of Curtis and Winslet (who barely makes an impression here under the motion capture). But no one here, not even Jake and Neytiri, have much of a character arc at all: “Protect the family” is where Jake begins and ends, unlike the first time where at least he went from reluctant human soldier to tribal leader.
The worst offender in all this is Quaritch, who was one of Cameron’s most cartoonish, one-dimensional villains in the first movie and is now even more so here (along with the rest of the humans, to be honest). While there is some half-hearted attempt at giving this version of Quaritch some shading through an unexpected plot point, he is just walking vengeance and places the movie on a predictable path to a rematch between Jake and his colonel.
This all makes The Way of Water a bloated, often boring mess of a movie that’s nestled inside some of the most amazing visual effects work ever put on the screen. Make no mistake: the CG used to create Pandora here is a monumental step forward from the first film, with the Na’vi truly looking like three-dimensional beings. Even the texture of their skin, faces, and expressions have made incredible leaps ahead. One feels for almost the entire running time that one is watching real creatures.
The same goes for the settings themselves, with Pandora even more exquisitely detailed and rendered than before. The underwater sequences are full of life and visual vibrancy, even if the action within is never that interesting. The floating mountains, the atolls on which the Metkayina live—watching all of this in shot after shot is just wondrous, and even the 3D this time around is more fully integrated into the imagery for a more nuanced kind of depth perception.
Where Cameron goes wrong, just like Ang Lee and Peter Jackson before him, is in the use of high frame rate (HFR) filming, in which the images are captured at 48fps instead of the longtime industry standard of 24fps. The result reduces the “film” quality of the images and, in theory, gives it a “live” feel instead, but just as with Lee’s Gemini Man and notoriously with Jackson’s The Hobbit, it looks more like an old video game or TV video broadcast than anything else.
For The Way of Water, Cameron and his team have refined the format to some degree, but it’s still incredibly intrusive, artifact-laden, and reduces the painterly quality of film to something akin to a sports broadcast. It’s an awkward and creatively reductive format for movies, cheapening the impact of this film’s otherwise terrific effects work, and we regret that he made this choice (which we imagine he’ll carry over to the next three Avatar installments).
With everything going on visually, from the highs of exploring more of Pandora to the lows of the 48fps format, it’s still rather unsettling to arrive at the explosive, relentless—almost overbearing, frankly—third act with little to no investment in the characters or how the story pans out. Even the late introduction of a secondary villain feels forced into place, and the rest of the story plays out merely to leave things in motion for the next movie.
We don’t regret watching Avatar: The Way of Water at all, even if its three-plus hours feels long (a lot longer than some of the pumped-up superhero movies Cameron likes to slam). It demands to be seen on the big screen, with all the bells and whistles, if only because there are so many elements of James Cameron’s vision that will take one’s breath away over and over again. But we do regret that he seems to have put all that visual magic ahead of a truly compelling story to accompany his extraordinary world-building. In other words, we wish he made us care more.
Avatar: The Way of Water is out in theaters on Dec. 16.