Avatar: The Way of Water – Underwhelming Beauty
by Emilio Siredey
I still remember when I first saw James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) in theatres when it came out. Even though I was only 8 years old, I oddly recall that I found it pretty exciting and that I had fun watching that movie. And yet, despite the fact that I clearly remember enjoying the film, I don’t believe I ever thought about it again until I visited the Pandora section at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom in 2019. Furthermore, through conversations and online discussions, I found that plenty of other people had a similar sentiment, appraising Avatar as cool or interesting while finding it unmemorable. As for the prevalence behind this opinion, the one explanation that I’ve come across is that, much like the thrill rides at Disney’s amusement park, the enjoyment of Avatar lies in the experience.
I believe that this is exemplified most clearly by The Way of Water's biggest achievements, which are the technical and visual elements of the film. From the get-go, the Avatar movies were designed to be witnessed either in 3D or IMAX, something that has been expressed by Cameron himself as well as the cast of the film, as they were made to be cinematic experiences that would get people back to the theatres. It is by no surprise then that the production design and VFX of the movie are astounding. From the water and environments, to the creature and character design, the film feels so fluid and full of life at all times.
However, in my opinion, that is about all that can be considered remarkable about the new Avatar film. Case in point, The Way of Water follows a fairly simple and somewhat cliched narrative. Without delving much into spoilers, the story takes place around 14 years after the first movie. The humans have returned to Pandora and Jake Sully, (Sam Worthington) along with his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) choose to go into hiding to protect their family from the new threat. This leads them to seek refuge among the sea tribes of the Na’vi, where they have to blend in and learn to adapt to a new way of life.
Already, the premise feels like a rehash of the first film’s story, where Sully had to adapt to the Na’vi’s way of life in the forest, going through their different rites of passage, only now he has to do it along with the rest of his family. Speaking of which, Jake and Neytiri’s children, while not uninteresting, do little more than fulfill the specific trope that each one of them represents. Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is the responsible older brother who looks after his siblings. Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is the weird kid that doesn’t quite fit in. Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the problematic younger son who’s story mirrors that of his father, and Tuk (Trinity Bliss) is the youngest sibling who adds little to the story and serves mostly as comic relief. I also feel that I should mention that Sigourney Weaver’s character was slightly uncanny and off putting, as her voice doesn’t quite feel right when matched with the face of a teenager.
In terms of pacing, at points the movie seems to drag on for quite a bit, especially with all of the ‘sightseeing’ segments where the characters just sort of gaze around at the world around them in awe. Even though it is understandable for the film take its time including a lot of these scenes, with the environment being one of the franchise’s main attractions and all, and while they are definitely well made and pretty to look at, at times it feels more like something out of a National Geographic documentary than a feature-length film. This is not to say that the story is bad or poorly constructed, but I feel like we should expect more out of one of the highest grossing films of all time.
In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water, and the Avatar franchise in general, is much like the thrill rides that you find at an amusement park, visually pleasing and somewhat exciting to experience, plus fairly straightforward and somewhat shallow when you look further into it. However, despite its lack of depth and somewhat cliche narrative, The Way of Water is still an enjoyable and fun cinematic experience, and I can see why so many people like it. After all, most people like thrill rides as well.