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Avatar: The Way of Water
★ | Sigh-tanic.
Let's start with the good news.
The Way of Water looks fantastic. It's a technical marvel, showcasing what 13 years, endless amounts of money, and no care about the human cost of overtime crunch can accomplish. It's a reminder that good 3D can look amazing and immersive.
Well, mostly. But we'll get to that later.
Everything else about James Cameron's long-awaited return to Pandora is disappointing. At its core, The Way of Water is a vanity project in search of an editor. Anyone to just say no.
It's both bloated and empty all at once. The runtime is easily an hour too long and in serious need of a script rewrite or three.
The plot, such as it is, straddles between a weird half-measure of a sequel and a reboot to get an entirely new generation of viewers on board. The result is an often embarrassing mess, where the story barely moves an inch until the film just stops dead in a conclusion best described as "huh?"
Set 13 years after Avatar, The Way of Water is about family. You know that because the characters repeat it every five minutes. Namely, it's about the Sullies, but especially Zoe Saldaña and Sam Worthington. Since humanity mostly left Pandora, they've settled down and raised a family. Including a young-again Sigourney Weaver, reincarnated as a kind of Hippie Space Jesus.
One day, the Bad Guys come back, including those thought dead, and Jake decides that instead of fighting for their home, like in the first film, the best offense is a get-the-hell-out-of-here-nse. Leaving their tribe at the hands of violent invaders, Jake and his family escape to the aquatic lands of Pandora.
Eventually, there's shooting, explosions, and a tone-deaf message about global conservation that feels superficial even by James Cameron standards.
What there isn't, even in comparison to the extremely slight first film, is memorable dialog, characters, or nuance.
The problem is that, unlike last time, Cameron has no story to tell. The Way of Water is all exposition and setup without payoff. Its structure is that of the worst Marvel films, where the narrative is so focused on the future of the franchise it forgets to have fun in the present.
Sure, we meet plenty of new faces and see more of Pandora. But they're all repeats of the first film. Which in turn makes the sequel feel smaller. There's no sense of awe and wonder because we have no scope of how far we've come.
By the end, I couldn't name a single one of the new characters, and I don't think I'm intended to. Even when death comes knocking, it's a necessary checked box for the plot. One with no lasting impact. Scenes end in places they weren't even close to when they began. A major character disappears for vast chunks at a time and nobody seems to notice or care.
Then there's the HFR or High Frame Rate. A technical decision so baffling it makes The Hobbit films look downright subtle in their gimmickry.
The film runs at a higher frame rate than normal, 48fps compares to 24, and the result looks like a grotesque electronics store display. Something used for demo purposes to sell a new TV. Underwater, where most things remain static, the effect works. In the air or in combat, it really doesn't.
On an IMAX screen, the motion is juddery, the images muddy when there is action, and the textures appear inconsistent. Movement looks like everything is on ice, and every single beautiful shot is ruined by an inferior technology slapped on to make a quick buck.
The first Avatar was a spectacular display of technical prowess. It utilized Cameron's brilliant populist instincts to capture the imagination of the planet. By comparison, The Way of Water feels like a pale imitation. Far closer to Battlefield Earth than the majestic pomposity of Cameron at his peak.
It's a dull, turgid mess that will earn a billion dollars.