Avatar: The Way of Water Movie Review: This visually splendid film is narratively hollow
Though the narrative beats familiar, the much-awaited sequel manages to captivate us with its enthralling visuals
Perhaps it’s unfair to James Cameron that we—the humans that we are—get used to beautiful things quickly. Where our mouths were agape for the entirety of the first film—as we vicariously lived in the beautiful Pandora and its painstakingly designed ecosystem—it’s hard to feel the same wonder, as Cameron leads us further into Pandora. Perhaps it doesn’t help that many new creatures simply feel like underwater equivalents of those we encountered on land in the first film. Hey, here’s the underwater Ikran. This, this must be the underwater ‘hometree’. Oh, this underwater sequence in which the kid, Lo’ak, is being hunted, must be the equivalent of his father, Jake, running from a thanator in the first film. I could go on and on—just like the sequel does with these repetitions.
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet
A filmmaker of James Cameron’s stature is no doubt aware of these echoes—and this includes even the film’s final shot—and surely, these are by design. All those Cameron dialogues from Avatar make a comeback too. “You are not in Kansas anymore.” “Outstanding!” “One life ends, another begins.” Again, I could go on and on, but the real question is, what thematic purpose does all this repetition serve? What big, overarching narrative function is fulfilled by the idea of these echoes? In fact, after a while, even all the great action feels so stretched and lacking in real narrative tension that I began to draw parallels with other films in the auteur’s career. The villain is singleminded in his desire to track down and murder his adversary. Terminator? While the climactic battle is going on, many important characters are in a sinking ship and are potentially drowning to death. You know what film it reminds you of. In a film that’s comfortably longer than three hours, I sought more narrative pleasures, more emotional conflicts and arcs—especially from a film that hits the ground running.
And for that reason, perhaps the best part of the film is its beginning when Cameron so quickly, so gracefully shows us what Pandora has been like in peace. The Sullies stick together. New avatars are introduced, new Na’vi characters that are echoes of their older ones… Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver—who were both so important in the first film—return in new versions (as Na’vi Quarritch and young Kiri respectively), and they are both, once again, compelling. There’s some hint of action at the very beginning—and you see even then that Jake Sully and company are not reliant on Eywa as much as they are on guns and ammo. Jake isn’t gazing in wonder at Pandoran life anymore; he’s now a guerrilla leader training foot soldiers, including his own sons, to fight back against humans. The dreaminess and peace of Pandora—such a rush in the first film—is replaced with war and resistance. We spend a good hour before the oceans usher in the wonders of Pandora once again.
And the spectacle is glorious to behold and the oceanic creatures tremendously lifelike—aided by the sparkling sheen of bioluminescence. As something akin to a 3D animated documentary on imagined sea-life, these portions are pretty great—especially in IMAX, where the detailing is astounding. Often, it’s easy to forget that it’s all VFX… it’s easy to forget that these aren’t Na’vi actors, shooting live-action. It’s that good—and yet, where the experiential pleasures outweighed narrative deficiencies in the first film, here, perhaps on account of familiarity with this world—or perhaps on account of any eye-popping ideas for Pandoran fauna—I was left craving a better story, something more dramatic, something more insightful, something that would contain more inner meaning. Diving deep into Pandora is all fine, but why don’t we also dive deep into Jake Sully, Neytiri and Quarritch? “I got your children! Haha! Come, and get some!” feels like a letdown.
There are some emotional themes—even if they don’t quite deliver the satisfaction of being fleshed out. There are outcasts and the bond between them. Just like Payakan, the outcast tulkun eager to return to its family, Jake’s second son, Lo’ak, too longs to be recognised by his own. Much like Lo’ak’s relationship with his father, Jake, is rather broken, so is Spider’s relationship with avatar Quarritch. In fact, avatar Quarritch is easily the most fascinating character in this film. In Avatar: The Way of Water, however, despite all the running time, these interpersonal emotional spaces don’t feel remotely as explored as the Pandoran sealife.
Still, there are portions in the film that show what James Cameron can do at his best. How he can break you with his portrayal of tragedy, and how he can piece you back together with a euphoric moment of retaliation. I doubt I would have believed anyone telling me that a whale-like creature attacking a ship would give me perhaps one of the most rapturous cinematic moments of the year. And yet, Cameron manages that—even without the late James Horner, whose absence is dearly felt in this sequel and whose score for the first film enters and exits this film in spurts.
Cameron continues to argue for the environment, for the preservation of ecological balance, and these are important conversations to have in times of revolting plunder and self-defeating exploitation. There’s definite utility in imploring our kind to see the beauty of life around us, in encouraging our kind to live in harmony with animal and plant life. It’s admirable—and touching even—that the legendary James Cameron seems to have trained his singular focus on this message and dedicated the remaining years of his film career to the Avatar universe. Perhaps Jake Sully saying, “This is where we make our stand!” could well be Cameron saying the same with his films. And hey, perhaps this second film—as weak as the storytelling is—is just the ace filmmaker setting things up for something more sweeping in future films. The lack of narrative pleasures in this sequel depresses, but Cameron’s craft wizardry makes you hope and yearn.