Avatar: The Way of Water is now in theaters.
By Zachary Greenberg
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I was a sixth-grade student in 2009 and an avid fan of the blockbuster film Avatar. Avatar quickly became a cultural phenomenon and later claimed the title of the highest-grossing film of all time.
I loved the world of Pandora that Director James Cameron created. It was full of vibrant colors, floating mountains, incredible alien species, and indigenous people known as the Na’vi, who cared to protect their world at all costs. One of my favorite video games was Avatar the Game on the Nintendo Wii, where I got to fight as a Na’vi warrior against the evil humans who were trying to destroy the planet’s natural resources.
At the time, the story of Avatar left the franchise in a good spot. Pandora was saved, the bad humans were gone, the main character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) had transferred his consciousness from his human body to his synthesized Avatar body, which mimicked the Na’vi people, and he could now be with his girlfriend Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) forever.
Now, after years of rumors, the Avatar sequel has finally arrived. If the movie had come out just a few years after the original, I would have been excited. But now, all of that was more than half a lifetime ago for me. I no longer care for a sequel; the original film, along with the great video game (and the amazing section at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park), was enough to satisfy my entertainment from this franchise. However, I still wanted to give the sequel a fair chance and decided to rewatch the first film a week before seeing the sequel to help build up my excitement. I recommend you do the same, as it can help remind you of who the characters are and what made this franchise so special.
The Way of Water actually started off as perfectly as I could have hoped. It did a quick highlight reel, going through Jake enjoying the peace he had fought for with Neytiri and building a family. Unfortunately, the humans return, bringing more ships and an old enemy back from the dead: Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). This time, the Colonel is back in an Avatar body, with his memories transferred over.
To me, this was an acceptable premise for a sequel. It had been almost 15 years since Avatar in our time, so it makes sense to fast forward over a decade in Jake’s life too. I also liked bringing back the Colonel as an Avatar villain. The Colonel was a ruthless villain who was smart, manipulative, scary, and a ferocious fighter. Putting all of those skills into a nearly 10-foot Avatar body was a terrifying and exhilarating prospect, from my perspective.
In the first act of the film, the Colonel kidnaps a few of Jake’s kids and holds them hostage to lure Jake into fighting. Jake and Neytiri take the bait, not realizing that the Colonel had been revived and was the antagonist, and go on a rescue mission to save them. After a fierce battle with the Colonel and his goons, who had also become Avatars, Jake and Neytiri end up saving their kids and escaping, but not without being frightened by the revelation that Colonel was back and stronger. So far, the film was action-packed and well-paced and had surpassed my expectations.
Until the rest of the movie happened. The majority of the rest of the film took place in the aquatic village, Awa’atlu. There, Jake and his family went to hide amongst the Metkayina clan, who lived far away from his Omaticaya clansmen, where he hoped they’d be safe from the Colonel.
At the aquatic village, Jake and his family basically repeat the premise of the first film. Instead of Jake learning how to use his newfound Avatar body and live like the Na’vi, now his family, who primarily lived in the forest, must adapt to living in the ocean. The visuals of the different aquatic creatures, such as the Tulkun, an intelligent whale-type creature that can communicate with the Na’vi, and the Skimwings, basically water dragons, were magnificent to behold. Additionally, all of the shots underwater were dazzling, with the water looking realistic as if it were the ocean, and the crystal blue coloring enabled us to view the Pandoran inhabitants clearly.
Where Cameron succeeded most visually was in the animation for the Na’vi people. The Avatars looked extremely realistic, with their muscle movement coordinated flawlessly. Whenever they came out of the water, their skin looked slightly wet with droplets all over their body. I watched the film in 3D and it certainly paid off, making the visuals look even more lifelike.
Despite the outstanding visual effects, I felt the character development fell behind in The Way of Water. Neytiri, who had been one of my favorite characters in Avatar, felt very one-dimensional and not complex at all. In the first film, we saw that despite her initial hesitations to accept Jake due to his human background, she learned to trust him and ultimately falls in love with him. There’s even a part in the film where she loses faith in him after the death of her father. It made their relationship feel earned when they finally beat the humans by working together and got to live happily ever after.
However, in The Way of Water, she has no complex or conflicting motives. She is more of a background character in this film and even when she is on screen, she doesn’t do much. The same can be said about the main character, Jake. In the first and last acts of the movie, Jake is the featured character and it’s awesome. I loved the finale where Jake goes “Die Hard” on the Colonel and his goons to defend his family in a climactic and violent skirmish. But for much of the film, Jake is not featured and is just a background figure like his wife.
For some reason, The Way of Water chooses to focus on the Sully children more than the first film’s power couple. The middle hour and a half of the film could have been cut in half, as it doesn’t develop the plot much. It’s mostly just seeing the Sully kids befriend the Metkayina local children and play with their water animal friends.
Another issue I had was that the stakes in The Way of Water are small compared to those in its predecessor. In Avatar, the fate of Pandora was at stake, with the humans declaring war on the Na’vi by destroying the Omaticaya home tree, the first of many atrocities to come if not stopped. That is why Jake gathers clans from across the planet for one final stand against the humans, where they prove victorious. In the sequel, the stakes are simply that Jake dies, and that’s about it. It doesn’t have the same weight as the fate of all Pandorans in one final battle. There is a quick mention of the humans eventually moving to Pandora due to pollution on Earth, but it is not addressed afterward. I guess that will create an intense conflict for a future Avatar film.
Also, I did not like the casting choice for the villain, General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco). Falco is not intimidating at all and seeing her spar in her robot suit looked ridiculous. The actress was not in good physical shape, looking unathletic and frail. Thankfully, she is not in the film very much. Apparently, Falco even said she thought the film came out years ago but flopped since she shot the scene so long ago and did not hear anything about it for a while. If the actor is not passionate about the role, it is not going to translate well on screen, and this is clearly demonstrated by General Ardmore’s monotone speeches, which make me want to fall asleep instead of cowering in terror.
Even though I have several problems with certain characters and a lack of character development, the film is overall a spectacular watch. Is it an extremely deep movie that will keep you up all night thinking about it? Probably not. But the groundbreaking effects will keep you entertained throughout the whole experience. The first and last 45 minutes are also exciting and action-packed. Despite the middle of the film being slow, the visual effects more than make up for it. I recommend treating The Way of Water as more of a National Geographic special on an alien planet, with the occasional action scene and drama for a more enjoyable experience.
I give Avatar: The Way of Water a B.