“Avatar: The Way of Water” should need no introduction. It’s the sequel to the single highest-grossing film of all time, helmed by the legendary director James Cameron, who has devoted over a decade of his career to seeing it through.
A problem, though, is that it does need some introduction. In 2009, “Avatar” was revolutionary, but because of its visual effects rather than its storytelling, meaning that, bar a small number of superfans, the movie had little cultural impact. A sequel to that movie would hopefully focus on capturing that same visual magic for a new generation, and that’s what “Avatar: The Way of Water” does, for better or for worse.
As a visual showcase, the film is unparalleled, putting the special effects of its contemporaries to shame. It might as well be animated – taking place entirely in computer generated environments and starring almost exclusively computer generated motion-capture characters. But somehow, your brain forgets to notice. Everything in the film from the village of the Metkayina Na’vi (the river Na’vi tribe), the bioluminescence of Pandora’s sea creatures, and even the computer interfaces used by the humans is precisely detailed and designed. Combined with a higher frame rate in 3D screenings of the movie, the same feeling of the original film has been achieved. Watching “Avatar: The Way of Water’’ is visually impactful in a way no other film has managed to be.
In recapturing the visual splendor of the 2009 film, however, many of the original story shortcomings have been recreated as well. The plot is somewhat of a retread of the first movie – the same villains, similar subplots (a romance with a princess, an exploitable resource harvested in Pandora), and even the same musical cues at pivotal moments. Overall the film is largely uninteresting in the story department, packed with trite moments accented by Cameron’s awkward dialogue.
Another issue is that the film lacks a central character. The protagonist is still technically Jake Sully, but ample time is also devoted to his son, Lo’ak’s, relationships with the other teenage Na’vi, and his adopted daughter Kiri’s connection to Eywa, the god of the “Avatar” world. The split between the three, as well as many more background players, means that few are fully developed, and other characters like Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri are sidelined. This lack of focus is also seen in the Cameron’s commitment to including an abundance of plotlines that don’t go anywhere.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a glimpse into the future, but it’s also stuck in the past. Its stunning visuals are muddled by its unoriginal story, making for an experience that’s at times beautiful but at others, just plain boring. Though the film gets lost in places over its three-hour runtime, when it’s submerged in its vibrant alien world it is simply unmatched. James Cameron has spent over a decade in the world of Pandora, and while the plot may not compare to the visual detail, we ought to forgive him for stopping to smell the roses.