Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Avatar: the Way of Water

Josh Reviews Avatar: the Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water is set about a decade after the events of the original Avatar.  Jake Sully has been living peacefully as a Na’vi, and he and Neytiri have started a family.  They have two sons and a daughter, and they also look after Kiri, (who somehow is the daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine’s Na’vi avatar) and a human boy named Spider, who was orphaned when most of the rest of the humans left Pandora at the end of the first Avatar film.  But the Sully family’s peaceful life is shattered when the humans return, in force, and a band of new Na’vi avatars (actually “recombinants”) with the minds of vicious marines start hunting for Jake.  So the Sullys leave the forest behind and take shelter with another clan of Na’vi: the Metkayina; a group of water-based Na’vi who live on the reef of one of Pandora’s vast oceans.  But Jake’s war eventually follows the Sully family even there…

I feel about Avatar: The Way of Water, very similarly to how I felt about the original Avatar.  I enjoyed them both.  Both represent astonishing achievements in visual effects and sci-fi world-building.  Both are extraordinarily powerful visually; this world has been realized on a scale never before seen on screen, and so skillfully that it all looks and feels completely convincing and real.  Both are fun stories that move along at a propulsive energy.  (Avatar: The Way of Water is crazily long — three hours and twelve minutes, to be exact — which is way longer than a movie like this should be, frankly — but I wasn’t for a second bored or restless; I was completely captivated by the story being told and the visual spectacle unfolding on the screen before me.)  Both films have woven into their stories deeper themes about spirituality and environmentalism that I found meaningful.  And yet, at the same time, both films have stories that are surprisingly thin.  I found both films to be very predictable, and in both films I wish the characters were more complex and interesting.

I remember feeling that the original Avatar had impossible-to-realize expectations on its shoulders when it was first released.  Avatar was the first narrative feature film from director James Cameron since the extraordinary success of Titanic, which shattered worldwide box-office records and became a phenomenon.  Any follow-up to Titanic would have faced enormous expectations, but that Mr. Cameron wound up waiting twelve years before releasing his next film brought the hype up to crazy levels.  On top of that, there was so much press focusing on how Mr. Cameron had spent that decade-plus been working on developing new technologies and entirely new approaches to film-making (involving extensive motion capture of his actors, the creation of 3-D environments, etc.); and so Avatar was seen by many as a movie that would change movie-making forever.  I couldn’t imagine any way that Avatar could live up to those expectations… and then, somehow, it exceeded them, smashing through box office records.  And so, again, any sequel to Avatar would immediately be faced with the challenge of trying to live up to (or even surpass?) Avatar’s box-office domination.  Add to the mix that Mr. Cameron again waited an enormous amount of time between films (it’s been THIRTEEN YEARS since Avatar was released, back in 2009!!) and, once again, the film faces seemingly impossible expectations.

On the one hand, I am impressed by this sequel.  Avatar: The Way of Water feels completely of a piece with the original Avatar, despite the lengthy hiatus between films.  In look, in style, in feel, it flows directly from the first film.  As I have already written in the above paragraphs, it is once again a staggering visual spectacle that puts all other films to shame with its all-encompassing CGI world and characters.  And it is once again a thrilling action/adventure story.  At the same time, I must admit a twinge of disappointment that, after spending so long on this sequel, and with Mr. Cameron’s having utilized a team of writers to develop the stories and scripts for the sequels, they weren’t able to improve what I thought was that first film’s main weakness, which was that the story and characters weren’t as sophisticated and interesting as I’d hoped.

Shall we dive in?  (Pun intended.)  SPOILERS AHEAD, my friends, so beware!

Let’s start by focusing on what’s good about The Way of Water.  I know I’ve already written this several times in this review, but wow, the visuals in this film are extraordinary.  It would be a mistake to take this for granted.  There is basically not a moment of this film that isn’t, in some way, a visual effects shot.  This film is packed full of CGI characters, creatures, props and environments.  Not for a moment was anything short of 100% convincing to my eyes.  This is amazing to me.  The Na’vi characters are incredible; they’re so life-like and expressive.  These aren’t just creatures — these are people.  These CGI characters act with nuance and subtleties.  I count about fifteen Na’vi main characters in the film.  Each one is completely distinct and memorable as their own character.  (With the slight exception that there were a few moments in the films in which I couldn’t tell the difference between Neteyam and Lo’ak, the two Sully boys.)  They’re all completely believable; I almost instantly stopped thinking of them as visual effects and just accepted them as characters in the film.

The forest of Pandora was such a memorable and iconic aspect of the first Avatar film, so I respect the bravery of Mr. Cameron & co. in moving away from that location after this film’s first act (and then never returning to it).  I loved the water-based setting of this sequel film.  I loved getting to explore an entirely new area of Pandora, which was brought to life with as much depth and attention to detail as the forest was in the first film.  I loved how the Metkayina Na’vi look different than the Omaticaya clan from the first film; their bodies are adapted to their water-based lifestyle.  I enjoyed seeing their reef habitat and living spaces.  And of course I loved seeing all the new water-based creatures, particularly the enormous Tulkun.  As was the case in the first film, I loved how specific each new creature was.  These aren’t generic monsters; they feel like real living animals.  It’s very cool.

I really liked all of the new characters in this film, especially all the kids.  In many ways, I was far more interested in the Sully kids than I was the Sully parents (Jake and Neytiri).  I really liked the way they developed all of the kids, including the main Metkayina kids (Tsireya, Aonung, and Rotxo).  In my opinion, the best character in the film was Grace’s Na’vi daughter Kiri, who was played by Sigourney Weaver.  I love that they found a way to keep Ms. Weaver involved in the film, despite her character’s having been killed off at the end of the first Avatar.  Ms. Weaver is phenomenal, and Kiri is a fascinating and compelling character.

Mr. Cameron is a master of sci-fi action spectacle.  The film builds to an incredible, extended action sequence as the Sully family, and the Metkayina clan, battle against the resurrected Na’vi version of Colonel Quaritch.  It’s a breathtaking action sequence that had me on the edge of my seat.  It’s a complicated battle with many different characters, and yet Mr. Cameron constructs the sequence brilliantly, so the geography is always completely clear.  We can easily follow each character through the battle.  Similarly, it’s very cool and clever that the battle has many different stages.  Too often in movies, the CGI battles in the third act can get boring or repetitive.  Not here, as the film constantly moves forward and ups the stakes, bringing new and more dangerous challenges for each of the characters.  It’s thrilling to watch.  (It’s also quite violent, something many of the families in my screening seemed woefully unprepared for.)

What doesn’t work?  First off, I rolled my eyes at the stupidity of Sully’s plan.  He thinks Quaritch is going to stop hunting him?  It’s obvious from the beginning that the war is going to come to the sea-dwelling Metkayina, and that Sully’s family is putting them all in danger by being there.  Anyone who’s ever seen a movie before should be able to guess that.  So that Sully seems oblivious to this through much of the film’s run-time is crazy to me.  His plan seemed dumb (and doomed) to me right from the start.  Also, Jake’s running away ignores the larger problem, which is that the humans are back and are going to continue destroying Pandora’s natural resources if they’re not stopped.  It’s weird to me that Jake and Neytiri don’t seem to care about that anymore.  Nor does the movie.  While earlier in this review I’d commended the film for leaving the forrest behind, I found myself continually wondering what was going on back in the forrest.  Weren’t the humans continuing to fight and kill the Omaticaya Na’vi?  It’s weird that the movie introduces a new human villain in General Ardmore (Edie Falco) and then forgets all about her.  What was Ardmore up to during this film’s events?  It also seemed strange to me that she’d be OK with Quaritch’s taking his men away to hunt Jake.  If Jake was hiding and not leading raids against them anymore, I wouldn’t think the General would care about him.  I’d have liked to have seen some conflict between Ardmore and Quaritch on this point, with his perhaps going rogue to hunt Jake, over Ardmore’s objections.  While I’m talking about the humans, why is it that their whole reason for being on Pandora in the first film — mining the precious metal “Unobtanium” — is never mentioned in this sequel?  Very, very late in the film we’re given a whole new reason for humans to be on Pandora: the cure for aging found in the material that can be harvested from dead Tulkuns.  Why did they feel the need to give us this entirely new macguffin?  It seemed to needlessly muddy the water regarding the motivation of the humans.

I’ve discussed what I see as the weaknesses in Jake’s character in this film; a connected problem is that Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña’s character), who was such a badass warrior woman in the first film, and who was clearly smarter and better than Jake throughout, is reduced to such a passive role in this film.  She just goes along with all of Jake’s plans.  She really doesn’t have much of anything to do until the final battle, and even there, she’s completely secondary to Jake.  That was a bummer.

Sigourney Weaver’s character Kiri is, in many ways, at the heart of the film.  And yet, weirdly, the film never explains her origins.  How was she born from a dead avatar?  Who was her father?  I assume these answers will be given in a future sequel.  That’s a little frustrating to me.  More frustrating is that the film sets up a potential conflict — that she’d be risking her life if she tries again to connect to the Eywa (the “great mother” at the heart of Pandora) — that the movie then ignores!  I was sure the film’s climax would involve Kiri (and perhaps Jake and Neytiri)’s having to choose whether to risk her life to save the day by connecting with Eywa.  And yet, that never happens!  Kiri’s powers are useful at the end — guiding the light-producing fish to help her family escape the sinking ship — but it doesn’t seem to cause her any problems at all.  What a bizarre missed opportunity!

For a film that is three-plus hours long, there were many characters and situations that I similarly wish had been more deeply explored.  I didn’t get a good enough sense as to Jake and Neytiri’s feelings about Spider.  They seem to care about him, but no one other than Kiri seems to notice or care when he’s captured by Quaritch.  Then, at the end, Neytiri threatens to kill him, and seems ready to do it.  It’s a shocking moment!  But we never see any fallout from that.  Does Neytiri regret what she did?  Is Spider pissed/betrayed by it?  By the same token, I wish the film had better developed Spider’s feelings about his father, Quaritch.  The movie seems to want us to think that Spider might choose Quaritch over his adoptive Na’vi family, but his loyalties never seemed much in doubt to me.  Quaritch is so evil it wouldn’t have been plausible for Spider to ever choose to stay and live with him.  But wouldn’t the end of the movie have been more powerful had we felt that Spider’s loyalties were more divided?  Or, if the movie didn’t want to go in that direction, then I’d have enjoyed seeing more of Spider’s attempts to resist or undermine Quaritch and his men, during the long stretch of the movie in which he was trapped with them.  As it is, Spider just seems to hang out with them for a long while, which seems surprisingly passive and uninteresting.

The Metkayina Na’vi and the Tulkun who are their soul-siblings both seem to be staunch pacifists.  And yet, the film’s climax sees both triumphantly taking up arms against the film’s bad guys.  This happens a lot in action/adventure films, in which it’s portrayed as a triumph when a pacifist character finally takes action.  But I’ve always found it to be a bummer.  It’s a particularly surprising move in a film like this, which clearly wants to have a spiritual message underneath all the spectacle.  I think it’s a bummer that the filmmakers couldn’t find another way to tell this story than by showing that, actually, violence IS the answer in the end.  (One of the only sci-fi/action films to successfully pull this off is Return of the Jedi, in which Luke’s struggle is to NOT pick up his lightsaber and attack the Emperor.)

Other thoughts:

  • It’s fun and surprising to see Quaritch back.  As with Sigourney Weaver, I’m glad they found a way to bring Stephen Lang back for the sequel!  Quaritch is a great villain, and it’s cool to see him as a Na’vi.  But at the same time, here too is a character for whom I’d have loved to have seen some deeper development.  Quaritch hated the Na’vi — so wouldn’t he experience some self-loathing now that he is one?  I can also see Quaritch’s being excited by his enhanced strength and physical presence, as he is in the film.  But I’d have loved to have seen more to this character than just the one-note villain, even though he’s a great villain.
  • I really liked Tonowari and Ronal, the leaders of the Metkayina Na’vi.  I didn’t realize until after having seen the film that Ronal was played by Kate Winslet, who of course portrayed Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic.
  • I was interested in the two humans on the hunting boat that Quaritch commandeers to hunt the Sully family.  Captain Scoresby was a good scum-bag of a villain.  (Though I’m currently watching the final season of His Dark Materials, and it’s weird to me that they’d choose the name Scoresby for this character, as it’s such a memorable name, and Lee Scoresby is such an important character in those books and on the show…)  It also made me happy to see Jermaine Clement pop up as the marine biologist on the boat.  (Though here too, I wish we’d gotten deeper into this character, who seems like a good dude even though he’s party to the hunting and killing of the Tulkun.)
  • The sequences of the hunting and killing of the Tulkun reminded me strongly of the whale-hunting sequences in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  That film also had a pointed anti-hunting message that I’ve always appreciated.
  • Considering that James Cameron directed Titanic, it was funny to me that a large element in the film’s climax was our characters being in jeopardy, trapped on a sinking ship.
  • It’s also funny to me that this franchise is called Avatar, even though there are no longer any avatar characters in the film!

I’ve enjoyed both Avatar films, even though I continue to feel that these are my least favorite of all of James Cameron’s films.  Are we going to get three more Avatar sequels, as Mr. Cameron has said he has planned?  I’m down for them!  This is a rich sci-fi world, and I’d be happy to return to it.  I just wish they could find a way to tell a tighter story, with more nuanced and developed characters.  Combine that with these films’ astonishing visual spectacle, and we could have a real masterpiece on our hands.  As always, I am eager to see what James Cameron does next.

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