When James Cameron’s Avatar premiered in 2009, it represented a landmark moment in visual effects for film. Cameron made some of the most effective use of CGI and motion-capture performances since Andy Serkis’ brilliant portrayal of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Na’vi, as alien and as CGI as they were, felt real to audiences as their animation took realistic form, as did the stunningly beautiful planet of Pandora. But while these visual effects were a spectacle, the story itself, while moving at times, was simplistic and derivative of other films in the realm of colonists and Indigenous peoples.
It’s effectively a sci-fi mix of Dances with Wolves and Ferngully, and appropriated various African and Native American cultures to create the Na’Vi with barely any of those peoples involved in the writing or directing (although thankfully the standout Zoe Saldaña and other Black and Indigenous actors starred). With its sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron and his visual effects team have fortunately expanded on the tremendous visual aspects of the world they’ve created, but the director and his fellow writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have unfortunately doubled-down on the simplicity of their storytelling and characterizations of their beautiful CGI characters, leaving the anticipated sequel sinking far beneath its potential.
Slight setup spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water follow:
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Saldaña) have settled with their family years after fending off the human invasion, with their clan now including their kids Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and their adopted children, the human Spider (Jack Champion), and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the Na’vi/human daughter of Weaver’s character from the previous film, Dr. Grace Augustine. When Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the human villain of the first film, unexpectedly comes back in his own Na’vi avatar and attacks Neytiri and Jake’s family with a new human colonial force, the family flees to the ocean-based Metkayina Na’vi clan as they learn their ways and eventually fend off the colonists.
But why don’t they stand their ground as they did in the first film? Reader, I could barely tell you, and the frustration of watching Jake and his clan make baffling decisions was as overwhelming as the CGI. The amount of plot contrivances in this movie are inordinate, serving to chug audiences along to see more of the beauty of Pandora, and in particular the gorgeous ocean shots where the film really (and literally) shines. But even then, as we marvel at this CGI construction, much of the presentation is garish rather than spectacular, overwhelming our eyes and ears rather than comfortably immersing as the first film did. But at least the Pandora whales and other ocean life were beautiful to marvel at, effectively serving as a prolonged advertisement for Pandora at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom.
The Way of Water is an overwhelming visual spectacle but is far more interested in that than in sufficiently developing its various characters, many of who are vapid vessels for Cameron’s soulless dialogue and CGI experimentation. The Metkayina are stunning, but we barely know anything about their interiority unless it’s in service to Neytriri and Jake’s family. There are too many plot threads to count that barely coalesce into something compelling. While the most interesting story thread is with Kiri, the film doesn’t commit to giving us any answers, frustratingly leaving them to Avatar 3.
Neytriri, who was the breakout character of the first film, is lost in the (literal) sea of new characters and barely has a moment to shine, until the end when she is also subjected to frustrating plot contrivances more interested in setting up a sequel than logical character choices. My friend, who also attended the screening, said they could barely tell that Saldaña was in the film at all, a heavy step-down from the first.
And speaking of character choices, the worst character by far is Spider, whose decisions are baffling and made no better by this being a white character with dreadlocks. Why does this white character need to have dreadlocks? It’s bad enough that there are white actors portraying the Na’vi — who have traditionally Black hair — but why should we see it in real life? It seems symbolic of Cameron and his white co-writers’ modus operandi of appropriating Black and Indigenous cultures for his vision. Sure there are at least several Black and Indigenous actors (including the excellent Cliff Curtis, who is of Māori descent, as the Metkayina leader Tonowari), but they unfortunately are still whim to Cameron’s white savior vision.
Which brings us to the villains. Critics rightfully excoriated Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker for bringing back Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious as the “real villain” of the Sequel Trilogy, and it’s not hard to make the comparison here with Quaritch. Both villains are exceptionally shallow and single-minded on being “bad.” A straight-up villain isn’t a bad thing at all, but the lack of complexity, vision, or understanding of their motivations (which boil down to simple and boring revenge) make these villains more of an annoyance than someone compelling to watch. Yes we know colonialism is bad, and we see their horrible actions and effects, but these scenes end up feeling more like snuff than making an interrogative point that the audience can learn from. Once again, if Cameron had more diverse co-writers whose histories colonialism and white supremacy actually harmed and affected, there could have been something truly compelling here.
Overall, Avatar: The Way of Water is a colossal disappointment on a story and character level, saved only by its stunning visuals (at least when they’re not too garish). Cameron’s white vision dilutes any truly compelling story point about colonialism and resource exploitation, using them as fads (including in the hypocritical usage of Indigenous landmarks and captive animals for promotion) rather than complex narrative devices. It’s a vapid and empty vase and theme park ride of a movie that’s as forgettable as its main protagonist’s name. We’ll see if Avatar 3 can salvage a more compelling story.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): C-
Overall Score (on a representation level): D