Avatar: The Way of Water is both visually sparkling and narratively flat. In that sense, James Cameron’s sequel is much like the 2009 original (which happens to be worldwide highest grosser in history). The effects thirteen years ago were revolutionary and kicked off a mostly unfortunate trend of tentpoles getting the three-dimensional treatment. That sense of wonder from Avatar is present occasionally below the surface in a few astounding underwater sequences. Many blockbusters have competed with this franchise in visual splendor and come up short and that includes some shoddy MCU battles. Cameron and his crew can still wow, but subpar writing and a lack of tight editing remains a problem. If you loved the forests of Pandora in part 1 and didn’t want to leave, you’ll likely love lounging in the aquatic action of this follow-up. If your feelings were mixed like mine were, expect a similar reaction.
Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi spiritual leader in waiting Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are married with four kids as Water begins (it’s set a decade and a half plus post Avatar). Adopted teenage daughter Kiri (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) is miraculously spawned from Sigourney’s scientist in the original. We suspect she might have special powers if she can get over her Jan Brady lot in life. Older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is the responsible one while second born boy Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the rebel. Youngest girl Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is eight and precocious. The Sully tribe are living a peaceful existence until those mean corporate Earthlings return to Pandora. On their list of plays is total colonization as the home planet is dying.
Due to a memory implant system, Stephen Lang’s villainous Colonel is leading the charge in the guise of a Na’vi big blue boy. He has revenge on his mind since it was Neytiri who arrowed him to death years ago. There’s also a son he left behind that the Sully’s are raising who goes by Spider (Jack Champion). Clad in a loincloth, his character comes off as a cartoonish plot device. He’s got about as much depth as Bam Bam Rubble. The dynamic between Spider and his father is one of a few daddy issues happening. I half expected a sky complected Maury Povich to interrupt and start moderating.
Since Jake is being targeted for his skill in fighting off the Sky People, he relocates his brood to the tropical island of At’wa Attu. They feel out of place among the residents who spend much of their day submerged. The chief of their clan known as the Metkayina is Tonwari (Cliff Curtis). He and his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) are skeptical about harboring their guests. It’s in and around the island where some memorable moments happen. The Metkayina share a spiritual connection with the giant mammals swimming below. Lo’ak befriends one of them and it’s a subplot that clicks.
Part 2 relegates Jake and Neytiri to the sidelines for much of its three hours and 12 minutes. A larger focus is on their offspring and how they feel like fish out of water. The filmmaker’s own well-documented fascination with the deep comes in handy with the whale tale portions and beyond. The bulk of its themes, on the other hand, are heavily borrowed from before. Cameron and his tech wizards can enthrall us and exasperate us in this new habitat that questions our humanity.
*** (out of four)