Thirteen years after James Cameron’s long-awaited return with 2009’s Avatar, here comes James Cameron’s second long-awaited return with Avatar: The Way of Water. The franchise opener was a global phenomenon, smashing box office records and ushering in a new era of 3D filmmaking. Can its belated sequel make an equally big splash, or is The Way of Water a bit of a wet lettuce?
There isn’t a specific word for when society collectively and spontaneously agrees to just stop doing something, but there are plenty of examples: like in the first year of the pandemic, when we all silently agreed not to bother with April Fool’s. It happened in 2009, too, when for around six months the world went crazy for Avatar. 3D was back (baby!) and this time it was going to revolutionise cinema. Giant blue Smurfs were in and so were papyrus fonts. Obsessives wanted to inhabit Pandora. There was even a video game. Avatar was king of the world. Sequels were inbound. James Cameron was back (baby!).
And then, just like that, we all collectively and silently agreed that actually once was enough thanks, James. Except, for Cameron, it wasn’t. And so, for thirteen years, Cameron retreated to toil and tinker in his workshop, meticulously crafting and developing the technology to bring to life the story that couldn’t possibly have been told in 2010 or 2011 or 2012. Only in the far flung future of 2022 could the mind-boggling vision of The Way of Water finally have been realised.
The digital technology that brings us back to Pandora surely is the best technical deployment of 3D on film, and the most photorealistic CGI ever created. May we all rejoice, for digital Na’avi eyelash rendering has finally been mastered. It is also indescribably sterile and unengaging, like a 100-proof distillation of the dullest qualities of the MCU, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films and the Star Wars prequels. (Although, at least in those films, there were flashes of wit, vision and visual panache.) At 192 minutes, The Way of Water is less of a narrative film and more an endless tech demo one might expect to endure in purgatory.
As a result, it’s hard to discuss the characters or story because there aren’t any, really. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) – with a maddening penchant for calling him “mah-Jake” – are back, now with several kids in tow. Neither of the parents have any sort of arc, so that’s left to middle son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and adopted son Spider (Jack Champion), both of which are left unfinished in anticipation of a sequel which may or may not happen.
The plot, too, is DOA. Returning villains – headed by Stephen Lang’s Quaritch mk. II – have motivations so laughably thin that they’d barely pass muster on your average episode of Thundercats, while an endless – endless – second act is dragged along by a parade supporting characters splashing about on space whales and looking stern. That’s to say nothing of the colonialist politics that the film blithely plays with. For what this reviewer’s thoughts are worth, the film’s politics are so laughably trite, the colonisers so comically evil, and the natives so one-dimensionally noble, that it is all too childishly simplistic to even bother getting worked-up over.
One does not go into a James Cameron film in search of emotional subtlety, and the original Avatar wasn’t exactly a tour-de-force of narrative innovation. Simply put, it was very good at what it did and there was no doubting the clarity of its vision. As the credits roll on one of the most spectacular and unengaging films of the year, The Way of Water’s vision is as clear as mud. As Cameron has become more fascinated with the technology of storytelling, it seems he’s become less so by the actual storytelling. If we’re to wait another thirteen years for Avatar 3, one can only hope he can recalibrate his fixation on the former and rediscover his passion for the latter.