Movie Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

Well, it’s finally here. After 13 years, James Cameron has finally come out with the sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time (despite being briefly eclipsed by Avengers: Endgame): Avatar. Originally projected for release in 2014, Avatar 2 has taken eight more years to finish and at last premiers this weekend as Avatar: The Way of Water.

It’s hard to overstate how big a deal the original Avatar was back in 2009. The hype was off the charts in a way that feels alien to me now, no pun intended. Don’t get me wrong; the hype around Avengers: Endgame was also huge, but I didn’t see articles about how people were depressed after seeing it because the real world was so dull in comparison. That is a thing that happened with Avatar that is still being remarked upon today.

The original Avatar was like nothing people had seen before. Cameron built a virtual world filled with realistic(-ish) life with its own evolutionary tree. He created a race of aliens with a distinctive culture and a real, learnable language. (Check out my interview with the creator of the Na’vi language here.) And all of it filmed in IMAX 3D. He wanted Pandora to be as real and immersive as possible, and he largely succeeded there.

Even so, I had to wonder if Cameron may have finally bitten off more than he can chew this time. Avatar, for all its spectacle, was criticized for a lackluster plot—not terrible by any means. It rates a solid 7-8 out of 10 on review sites—but not worthy of the cinematic effort that he put into it. And it was also criticized for being derivative. “Dances with Wolves in space” and “FernGully in space” were common comparisons. With The Way of Water being possibly the most expensive film every made, it doesn’t exactly have as strong a foundation as it could to earn back that investment.

Plus, I feel like the hype is not there—or wasn’t before the release. That may change as the reviews roll in. The hype for The Way of Water didn’t really start until about a month ago, in my estimation, and it doesn’t feel as big as it was for Endgame, or maybe even The Force Awakens. Maybe I’m biased because I cared more about those movies, or maybe I’m more disconnected from Hollywood after the pandemic, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Will the movie turn a profit? Very likely. Will it outdo the original? Color me skeptical.

But how was the movie? It was…better. It wasn’t top-notch, but it was better than Avatar 1.

My rating: 4 out of 5. (That is, an 8 out of 10, where I would have given the original Avatar a 6 or 7.)

(It’s kind of confusing because movies are rated out of 10, but books are rated out of 5.)

And yes, I did see it in 3D. Avatar started the 3D craze that began in 2009 once people realized that 3D movies had actually gotten good, so I figured I should at least go that far for The Way of Water (although I did not see it in IMAX).

Of course, the 3D craze fizzled out after a while, and I think it was for a reason. This is the first one I’ve seen since…How to Train Your Dragon 3, maybe? Honestly, I don’t think 3D adds that much. Even in 2D, if you see in on the big screen, your brain can fill in the rest.

Anyways, spoilers below.

We return to Pandora after 15 years or so from the exodus of the “Sky People”—the humans who tried to exploit the moon’s resources. Jake Sully (the hero from Avatar 1 if you haven’t been keeping up) and Neytiri are living happily with their four children: Neteyam, Lo’ak, Tuk, and Kiri, the last of whom was adopted after mysteriously being birthed by Grace’s now-mindless Avatar…which is still kept alive in its incubation tank for some reason.

Then, humans being humans, the Sky People return, with all the brutality they had before, back to wreak more environmental destruction in their endless hunger for resources. (And in fact, they’re now talking about fully colonizing Pandora.)

Jake Sully leads a guerrilla campaign against the Sky People, so in response, the humans send a resurrected Colonel Quaritch (the now-dead villain from Avatar 1), to track him down. Quaritch’s memories were implanted into a pilotless Avatar, making him a Na’vi himself, which…I want to say should be an even bigger game-changer than it was, but I suppose it’s a rather limited use case. Everyone involved agrees that the new Quaritch is a different person from the original.

Regardless, the new Quaritch is as horrible as ever and is absolutely not above killing children and burning villages in his quest to kill Jake Sully. In the clash, he captures Spider, the original Quaritch’s now-teenaged son, who was left behind on Pandora and has gone native. Fearing that Spider will reveal their secrets (although he doesn’t), the Sullys leave their village and go into hiding among the Sea People, giving us a whole new ocean setting on Pandora to explore.

Oh, and also this is clearly part 1 of 2. Much like Pirates of the Caribbean or the original Star Wars trilogy, the second and third movies are clearly meant to be a single, unified story.

And that was a really complicated lead-up to explain the actual comments I have about the movie. So let’s break them down point by point.

The Good

The writing. Like I said, the writing was better than the original Avatar. I don’t have anything particular I can point to for this. It’s just all around, seeing the native life of the Na’vi, from how the two cultures within their world interact with one another to the individual family and friendship dynamics, it felt…real—natural. There also wasn’t this stilted, semi-allegorical plot about colonization and the exploitation of resources. It was still very much there, but the main conflict was more personal. The weak point to that is that it narrows the story in scope; there was no massive armada fighting at the Tree of Souls. But I think it came out with stronger writing for it.

New worldbuilding. Cameron made an interesting move in this movie by adding an entire new sapient species to Pandora: the Tulkuns. The Tulkuns are basically Pandoran whales, but unlike Earth whales (as far as we can tell), they are as intelligent as we are and have their own culture and language.

In fact, I think he added two new species. The Sea People, with their webbed hands and long, fluke-like tails (most of the differences are minor, but those two seem significant) look different enough from the Forest People that I interpreted them as being a different species—distinct enough that they must have evolved to live in the water for hundreds of thousands of years.

Cameron also included two new languages in the film. (No word on whether Paul Frommer was involved in their creation, too.) There was the sign language that the Sea People use to communicate underwater. And there was the Tulkuns’ language…which the Na’vi could somehow understand. I didn’t get how that worked. The Sullys had to be taught the sign language, but Lo’ak could understand Payakan with no training. (Or maybe it was an extremely distorted form of Na’vi, and I just missed it?)

And of course, as I said, setting the film on the ocean gave us a whole new alien ecosystem to explore, so there was plenty to work with there.

Kiri. She had one of the biggest unfinished arcs in the movie, and I’m really interested to see where they go with it. I’m not completely sold on her yet for the sole reason that there are a lot of ways that they could screw her up in the next movie, but she also has a lot of potential as a character.

The Bad

The whalers. Not just in a moral sense, but in a bad writing sense.

The humans are fully aware that the Tulkuns are as smart or smarter than we are. (And also the Tulkuns are strict pacifists because of course they are.) But the whalers still go after them. Why? Because it turns out that the brain secretions of Tulkuns are a powerful anti-aging drug for humans.

Say, doesn’t that sound familiar…? Oh, right. Elites today are taking adrenochrome extracted from the pituitary glands of children as an anti-aging drug…is a widespread Qanon conspiracy theory! This sat very poorly with me. It’s almost as bad as when Disney accidentally endorsed homeopathy in Frozen II. Maybe Cameron wrote the script ten years ago. Maybe there’s no other way to really justify whaling on Pandora, much less of a sapient species. But that felt like a poor choice in today’s socio-political environment.

(Also, the answer to that problem is the same as the answer to the adrenochrome conspiracy: Can’t they can just synthesize it in a lab? Especially if they can already clone Pandoran life?! (For adrenochrome, the answer is yes.))

The Meh

Lo’ak and Spider. Don’t get me wrong; these are good characters in principle, but their arcs felt a little weak to me. They didn’t get the narrative treatment they deserve.

For Lo’ak, it seemed a little too contrived how he kept getting beaten down by circumstance and ignored by authority figures, and after pushing it that far, the resolution didn’t feel properly developed. And of course, with Lo’ak’s arc being weak, Jake’s arc in relation to him was also weak. I felt like they were trying to pull a Hiccup and Stoick from How to Train Your Dragon 1, but they just didn’t land it.

For Spider, I didn’t see what they were trying to do with him until after the movie ended, and I still don’t understand parts of it. Looking back at the whole, I can see how he’s always trying to protect people—to save others even when he’s in just as deep himself—or even when they don’t deserve it. Perhaps it’s out of rebellion to be different from his father, but he didn’t show that much. Perhaps it’s part of the reason why he went along for the ride with Quaritch for so long, but again, it’s hard to tell. He shows amazing moral fiber throughout, but somehow, they didn’t manage to write it quite right, because I was confused by many of his actions in real time. He had good moments, but they didn’t combine into a unified arc for me.

Plus his return to the Na’vi, with the Sullys not knowing whether he was involved in the attack coming to them, was too quickly earned.

The ending. Spider saves Quaritch—because he’s Spider—but he doesn’t tell Jake (at least on screen; he presumably did later). Then, left right back where they started and given the choice between running again, returning to the forest, or standing and fighting with the Sea People, the Sullys adopt the Metkayina’s island as their new home. I know it’s not meant to be a proper ending to the series, but it also felt like a bit of a weird place to leave off, especially because it limits Cameron’s ability to explore other parts of Pandora. I’m not sure where he’s going with that.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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