In December of 2022, director James Cameron released the much-anticipated sequel to the 2009 film “Avatar” — “Avatar: The Way of Water.” This second movie in the franchise brings back the original cast with some new additions to tell the story of the Na’vi people from the planet Pandora, showing different aspects and versions of the Na’vi as Jake Sully and his family journey from the Pandoran jungles to the tribes of the sea. This movie portrays the Sully family as they are forced to adapt to their new surroundings and find a home among a new environment and people, all boiling down to what a parent will do to protect their family.
When you make and release the highest-grossing film of all time that still remains at number one after all the Marvel movies and other blockbusters that have followed, there are certain expectations for the sequel. Cameron took over a decade to create “Avatar: The Way of Water,” reportedly due to wanting to ensure it was the perfect follow-up with many rewrites and massive planning. This endeavor was a costly one as the film needs to amass at least $2 billion to become profitable, which would automatically make it at least the fourth highest-grossing film of all time. So was this successful? Currently, at $2.02 billion, the sequel reached its goal. So “Avatar: The Way of Water” is clearly going to be profitable, that was all but certain to happen, but does that mean it is a good movie that is worthy of these already-made sequels?
While certainly popular, in my personal opinion, “Avatar: The Way of Water” was the worst cinematic experience of my life. It seems like Cameron took so much time and attention toward the visuals that the story element of filmmaking was largely ignored, creating a meandering and derivative plot that turns the already over three-hour runtime into an eternity. This may not be the worst movie of all time, but being so long makes it the worst theater experience.
As previously mentioned, the thing that can be said positively about “Avatar: The Way of Water” is that it is visually impressive. Much like this first film, despite being made almost entirely using CGI, the planet of Pandora and the Na’vi look real and detailed. Underwater scenes that usually are the detriment of CGI-heavy movies are done well and don’t look any worse than scenes shot on land. All the designs are thought out extensively to show new alien species, parts of Pandora and types of Na’vi that have adapted and evolved for life in the sea rather than in the jungle. Unfortunately, a movie being visually stunning doesn’t get someone through an incredibly long runtime. By the time someone is through marveling at the visuals and is in it enough to just see the Na’vi as people and Pandora as a world like any other, there are still around three hours to sit through.
No matter how pretty a movie is, there is nothing that can hide bad storytelling and plot. “Avatar: The Way of Water” tries to distract with long shots of CGI creatures and needless exposition that masquerades as world-building, but when you get down to the plot and characters, the film is severely lacking. The plot of the sequel when broken down is nearly identical to that of the first film, just moved to the islands of the sea Na’vi. What plot of the movie is not taken from the first is taken in part from many other beloved films such as “Dancing With Wolves,” “Jaws” — and even Cameron’s own movies like “Terminator” and “Titanic.” The writing, while simplistic, also still manages to overcomplicate itself with its extensive world-building. Cameron, arguably one of the greatest modern filmmakers, who has written and directed many classics over the decades, clearly has some sort of blind spot in his abilities when it comes to this franchise. To call this his magnum opus as many have done would be almost laughable if it did not mean going through the grueling experience of watching this movie to know that it is far from his greatest work or anything even resembling some masterpiece.
As for the characters of the film, some were just there and some you hoped would be dead by the end. Sam Worthington is fine as Jake Sully, managing to work with the script’s poorly-assembled plot and terrible dialogue. Zoe Saldaña, who has skyrocketed in popularity since the first film in other roles, is given almost nothing to do reprising Neytiri. She spends half of her screen time crying and the other half screaming. She seems to be more of a plot device than the fully fleshed-out character that she should be after the previous film. The children of the film play a large role in the story, yet that is only because every aspect of the plot is driven by them disobeying their parents to a tiring and infuriating degree. Many new characters introduced in this film, such as in antagonistic roles or part of the sea tribe Na’vi, are not worth mentioning as many didn’t even make enough of an impact to critique. In case you actually want to see this affront to modern cinema, I will not spoil who the main antagonist is, but I will say that they are also one-note. These great actors did the best with what they were given, with even the young up-and-coming actors’ characters being annoying and tiresome due to the actions written for their characters.
Overall, “Avatar: The Way of Water” proves that just because you had to wait for something a long time, does not mean that time was spent making it good. Perhaps some earlier script draft was better, but this film takes all the mistakes of its predecessor and magnifies them exponentially while eliminating any likability from the first movie. While this franchise makes it clear it is visual-first and story-second, it could be argued that the story is not being made a priority at all. The entire plot is dictated by getting from one CGI set piece to the next, with Cameron hoping you do not notice the incredible amount of lipstick he’s applying to this pig of a movie. If you’re looking for a better way to spend your three and a half hours, I suggest watching any of the movies previously mentioned as they will offer much of the same plot at a better quality.
Rating: 0.5 out of 5