- Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement, Kate Winslet
- James Cameron
- Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
- Release Date
- December 16, 2023
Avatar: The Way of Water
That’s right, humanity has returned and they aren’t looking for the stupidest-named mineral in movie history anymore…because of reasons. Now, they want an entirely different substance for a wholly different reason (but one that’s actually given), and it’s one that conveniently also only exists on Pandora and, even more conveniently, is a substance that only the worst of humanity would wish to harvest. Plus, they want to get them some payback.
Specifically, Colonel Miles Quaritch, once again played by Stephen Lang (Avatar, Tombstone), wants vengeance. “But how can this be,” you ask. “Neytiri killed him in the last film.” That’s right, she did but now he’s back and he’s badder and bluer than ever. Thanks to a retconned MacGuffin, all of Quartich’s memories and personality were downloaded to a glowing flash drive before his death and then were downloaded into an Avatar specifically grown for him, should just such a situation arise. Apparently, his colossal failure in the first film made him the perfect man to get the job done in this film.
If you hope to enjoy this movie, you’re going to have to forgive several plot holes and MacGuffins in the first hour, like the new substance that humans want only exists in Pandora’s oceans, far away from Jake and the forest Na’vi. The only reason that the humans and forest Na’vi come into contact with one another is that the humans have built their base inland and next to the forest that is inhabited by Jake’s clan. It would have made far more sense for them to build their base on or near the water, nearer to their quarry and far enough away from their known enemies that they would almost certainly leave one another alone.
Not enough of a convenient plot-device? Well, how about this, if humanity has the ability to download and upload people as well as make clones of themselves, why wouldn’t they have just grown a regular clone of Colonel Quaritch instead of an avatar? The real reason is for a third-act showdown but the given reason is that Quaritch and his band of reincarnated Marines are needed in order to access and ultimately destroy an area of terrain inhabited by Jake’s clan that can only be accessed via indigenous people, which they wouldn’t need to do if they built their base where it made sense. Also, there are other Marines there, why not just use Avatars? Also, also, Quatrich failed so hard last time that he died. So, why bring him back at all?
While my notes are filled with many more of these convenient plot issues that are peppered throughout the film, two of the most glaring ones are these: First, this movie has the same problem that the last one did, like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley wisely said in Aliens (another of James Cameron’s films), “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” As we’ve already seen, humans have no problem wiping out the Na’vi to get what they want, so why do they insist on fighting in ways that give the Na’vi a chance against them when they could so easily overwhelm them with superior and unassailable firepower from space? The reason is…reasons. Second, one of the major points of tension in the first film was that it took all of the Na’vi coming together and plugging themselves into the Tree of Souls to permanently swap Jake into his Avatar. In this film, humans can just download a dead person’s personality and memories into an avatar like so much bootlegged porn (not that I’d know anything about that). At one point, it looks like these reincarnated Marines might go native, they say that they are going to do as much in order to better hunt their prey but it ends up leading to nothing more than them learning how to fly the bird-lizard things from the first movie.
Now that that is out of the way and you are prepared for just how much you are going to have to suspend your disbelief to enjoy this film, let’s plug our telepathic sex braids in and talk turkey. I went into this movie expecting to absolutely hate it. The first one, while a technological achievement, was boring and the politics were distractingly eye-rolling. Dancing With Wolves did it all better and it only cost $22 million to make. So, when I caught myself enjoying this film, no one was more surprised than I.
Once the interminable 10-minute prologue/exposition dump is done, we skip ahead one year to find that the humans and the Na’vi, led by Jake, have been continually engaging in battles and skirmishes since the humans landed. Quaritch 2.0 has finally landed, so Jake and his family find themselves at the center of the human military’s bullseye. In response to this, Jake, a lauded, fierce, and loyal warrior abdicates his clan leadership so that he might take his family on the run. It is his belief that the humans will leave the forest Na’vi alone once he is gone. This is really dumb, since the Na’vi gives no indication that they plan on stopping their fight once Jake and his family are gone, and our experience with the humans from the last movie shows that they are more than happy to annihilate every last Na’vi in order to achieve their goals.
It’s such a dumb idea that it would immediately make Jake appear weak and cowardly if it weren’t for the movie’s greatest asset, the way that it treats the family unit. Jake is clearly the head of the family, he is loved and, more importantly, respected by his wife and children. The children unironically call him “sir,” and his wife defers to him for the final word on family decisions. I can’t stress enough, how well this serves to draw you in and make you care about the Sullys. No matter how mundane the plot might be, wanting the best for the family raises all of the stakes, and the strength of their family unit is what carries the film’s meaningful emotional throughlines.
So, now the Sullys are on the run, and when they reach the shores of one of the island-dwelling variety of Na’vi, we are treated to, what feels like, a never-ending montage of the Sullys adapting to their new lifestyle (seriously, I think it’s still going on). Then, an hour in, the movie finally begins (that’s not hyperbole).
It’s pretty standard fare, the bad guy wants revenge. The bad guy looks for the good guy. The good guys struggle to belong in their new environment. Lay on a thick layer of boring teenage angst, and then the good guys’ kids do something that makes them friends with the popular kids. The good guys and the bad guys fight one another.
I’m sure that Avatar: The Way of Water is a technical marvel that required computational power greater than that of the sum of all the single 40-year-old men sitting in their mothers’ basements playing WoW right now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that most of the time, it looks like a really cool video game. This is especially jarring when the scenes cut from the Na’vi in their natural environment to humans in ships and bases. It felt like I was playing Wing Commander III, and I half expected Biff to pop up and call me a butthead (follow the above link and that reference will make sense). Some of this may be due to the fact that Avatar 2 jumps back and forth between 24fps and 48fps. So, for wide shots, it looks like The Hobbit, while close-ups show amazing detail like the individual tastebuds on a tongue.
Another issue with both the digital as well as flesh-and-blood performers is that of wooden performances. It’s my assertion that the facial design for the Na’vi is inherently flawed. There’s something about it that leaves their eyes mostly flat and unexpressive, which doesn’t allow you to fully empathize with them. It might be the lack of eyebrows.
As for the human performers, there’s one standout for which the casting director should be dragged out in the street and shot but only after James Cameron swallows 9 millimeters of hollow-pointed lead for creating him in the first place. If you’ve seen the film by now, you know that I’m talking about Spider, played by Jack Champion (Avenger Endgame).
Spider is the orphaned son of the original Colonel Quaritch. Apparently, he was left behind during the mass exodus at the conclusion of the first Avatar movie, and he grew up among the Na’vi and the handful of human scientists who chose to remain behind. Don’t worry if you don’t remember him from the first one, he didn’t appear in it and he’s been retconned into this one to give the new Colonel a single moment of doubt. That is the entire purpose of his presence in this movie. He’s described as “feral’ but the actor is completely out of his depth and the character is completely useless and obnoxious. Every time he’s on screen, his inauthenticity immediately pulls you out of the moment. More than that, he’s unnecessary. The moment’s doubt that he provides could have easily been replaced by a distracting explosion, or a sneeze.
While making this story more about family and one individual’s desire for vengeance than about the human race’s unchecked avarice and the military’s (writ large) boundless bloodlust, the movie manages to avoid the most egregious sins of wokeness which its predecessor committed. That doesn’t mean that it’s free of wokeness.
It’s still heavy-handed with the noble savage bs from the first, as well as having an outdated environmental messaging that rails against something that we’ve all pretty much agreed upon being bad for a century.
Every bad guy that isn’t blue, is white. Virtually, all of them are men, except for General Ardmore, played by Edie Falco (The Sopranos). She’s clearly a diversity hire, because you’ve got to have a woman in charge somewhere, and the preestablished story from the first film wouldn’t allow for Neytiri to be in charge. Falco is a great actress, and her character is a blink-and-miss-her, so you’ll only notice this if you are looking for it (and now that I’ve poisoned the well, you will be…you will be).
You might be able to make the case that Kiri, Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter, voiced by Sigourney Weaver, is a Mary Sue, but I don’t think so. While she does have a “tragic” origin and she does have abilities beyond that of the others, she isn’t an unstoppable force who is perfect at everything immediately. There’s something going on with her character, and my money is on her Mary Sue’ing it up in Avatar 3 (The Search for More Money) but in the here and now, she’s only a curiosity.
Finally, there’s a very pregnant female warrior who won’t stay behind during the final battle. Although, they do set her up from the beginning as someone who only barely listens to her husband (the leader of her people). So, it’s within the established framework of her character to be an obnoxious Karen. However, obnoxious Karens who won’t listen to a man who is in charge because she is a strong independent woman are pretty woke.
I struggled hard on whether or not to mark this “non-woke” or not. Our current standard is to do so if a show has four or five non-woke stars. If I could, I would have rated it at 3.8 on the non-wokeness scale. However, I’m not sure if that’s because of my feelings for this sequel or its much more woke predecessor, and since we are in our infancy and we don’t have the ability to give individual review criteria fractions of stars, it gets 4 stars but will not go into the non-woke category. The respect shown to the traditional family almost put it over the top, almost.
James Carrick is a passionate film enthusiast with a degree in theater and philosophy. James approaches dramatic criticism from a philosophic foundation grounded in aesthetics and ethics, offering insight and analysis that reveals layers of cinematic narrative with a touch of irreverence and a dash of snark.