If there are two things that James Cameron likes, it’s developing cutting-edge technology to deliver massive theatrical spectacles, and water. Frequently for the filmmaker, who got his start directing special effects on movies like “Piranha II: The Spawning,” those two things go hand in hand. Consider, for example, the 1997 drama “Titanic,” for which Cameron made several dives to the actual site of the wreckage to capture footage for the film. That movie’s perch at the top of the list of highest-grossing films of all time was only dethroned by Cameron’s own 2009 sci-fi epic “Avatar,” for which he spear-headed ground-breaking new motion capture technology.
“Avatar” kickstarted a new 3D movie craze, but the film—which is still a marvel to gaze at today—showcased Cameron’s weaknesses as much as his strengths. The movie’s pro-green, anti-colonialist messaging is wrapped up in flat dialogue, one-dimensional characters, a plot that has been compared to a rip-off of other movies like “Pocahontas” or “Dances with Wolves,” and what could be interpreted as a white savior narrative (the native Na’vi are only able to defeat their enemies under the leadership of a white male outsider).
Thirteen years have elapsed between “Avatar” and its sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water” (the first of four proposed follow-ups), and while Cameron continues to push the boundary of what motion capture technology can accomplish— in this case, his team developed a way for motion capture performers to actually work underwater for the movie’s many undersea sequences—his storytelling is as regressive as ever.
About the same amount of time has elapsed on Pandora as it has been since our last visit there. I’m not interested in providing a recap of the first film’s plot and the world-building established within it, and neither is “The Way of Water,” which opens with a montage that rushes through the last decade of events on Pandora, including Jake and Neytiri’s (Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña, reprising their roles from the first movie) growing family. The pair have two sons, Neteyam (James Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), a young daughter, Tuk (Trinity J-Lo Bliss), an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born of Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar, and Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy who takes after the Na’vi and who Jake and Neytiri think of as a son. Having a family comes with new responsibilities, so when humans return to invade Pandora, Jake and his family flee for the protection of their children and their clan at large. This is mostly because, unlike in the previous movie when the conflict with the humans primarily revolved around mining Pandora for resources, the villain has a more personal angle. After dying at the end “Avatar,” Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is back, his consciousness placed in an avatar all his own— and he wants revenge against Jake and his family for previously thwarting him.
“The Way of Water” spends barely any time with the air-based clan of the first film, quickly expanding the world of Pandora to encompass other clans with different ways of life. Jake and his family seek refuge with the Metkayina people, sea-faring folk who live on the water. They aren’t exactly welcomed by their chief (Tonowari, played by Cliff Curtis), his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), and their children—not only because Quaritch is after them, but because of their human heritage. Does Cameron (and Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who are credited on the screenplay with him) delve into that complicated relationship with any real nuance? No. “The Way of Water” fast devolves into “Daddy Issues: The Motion Picture,” with the narrative turning into a repetitive cycle of Jake’s kids getting into trouble, him yelling at them about how they should know better, them apologizing, only to go out and do something they shouldn’t be doing all over again. There are some truly heartfelt moments shared between the family members, and Cameron is getting at something with Jake and Neytiri navigating being the fearless warriors of the first movie but now also having the responsibility of parenthood on top of that. But the movie almost always feels like a 90-minute story thrust into a three hour and twelve minute one. For every sequence that’s especially exciting or pretty to look at, there is so much space between that drags and drags.
And “The Way of Water” is very pretty to look at, even if it frequently feels like the film is counting on astounding visuals compensating for lazy storytelling. I rewatched “Avatar” right before seeing the sequel, and that film still holds up remarkably well, but the clarity and attention to detail in “The Way of Water,” including how well it blends its human characters (notably fewer here than in the previous movie) into digital surroundings, is astounding (I should note that I watched “The Way of Water” in IMAX 3D, but not the higher frame rate version, a technique that comes with its own set of complications). I mentioned before that the film drags in spots, but the final battle is enough to jolt the audience back to consciousness. Cameron is great at directing big action scenes, remaining focused on the characters’ physicality and how they move through these massive spaces, and it’s thrilling to watch the Na’vi shooting and diving at their human enemies with all the elegance of a choreographed dance.
But “The Way of Water” remains a mixed bag as far as its themes and messaging go. The narrative shifts from “save the rainforest” to “save the whales,” the violence exhibited from humans toward the majestic creatures who reside alongside the Metkayina drawing the most empathy from the viewer, but the on the whole is much more conservative in its politics than it seems to think it is. So many of the characters in “The Way of Water” are reduced to archetypes, none more so than Neytiri. Saldaña again delivers a strong performance that is rooted in fierce devotion and love, but her character is given so little to do in this sequel that she barely registers. There are some interesting things going on with Kiri too, but she, along with the film’s other many new characters, isn’t very well fleshed out. She likely will be eventually; unlike the self-contained first movie, “The Way of Water,” especially in its final act, feels much more like it is designed to set up the next installments, leaving some messy loose ends behind that we can only assume for now will be addressed later. The Metkayina people are similarly one-dimensional, despite the fact that so much of the film is set on their turf. And while there are some indigenous people and people of color in the cast, the film otherwise engages in a form of digital blackface with the motion capture characters such as those played by Winslet and Worthington (this is especially evident in their hair styling). And on the flip side, Spider—a white human character—sports dreadlocks for some reason.
You know the saying: one step forward, two steps back. As progressive as the technology is that is responsible for bringing “The Way of Water” to life, the tropes present in its storytelling and characters are equally as regressive. I’ll credit Cameron for giving us a grand, colorful spectacle the likes of which we don’t see enough from today’s Hollywood blockbusters. But that alone isn’t enough to sustain an over three hour long film, much less a purported five film franchise.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 192 minutes. Rated PG-13.