'Avatar: The Way of Water' Is Breathtaking and Clunky All at the Same Time
Review: James Cameron's Avatar 2, in theaters now, is a gorgeous sci-fi blockbuster and an even better nature documentary.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
"The way of water has no beginning," explains a doe-eyed blue alien, "and no end."
Given that the Avatar franchise began 13 years ago and has three more sequels in the works, that's the truth. Not to mention that the new movie, Avatar: The Way of Water, clocks in at a near-endless 3 hours and 12 minutes, which sure is a long time to wear 3D glasses.
But director James Cameron's epic sequel, in theaters now, has a lot to pack in: It's a decent sci-fi blockbuster, a visual effects master class and the best nature documentary you'll ever see.
Before Avatar 2 you can refresh your memory of the original 2009 Avatar on Disney Plus (or just catch up with our handy guide). The first movie showed former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arriving on the lush green planet of Pandora to be plugged into a giant blue alien body (or avatar) that could walk among the giant blue aliens who live there. Instead of helping his human comrades strip-mine Pandora, however, he falls for the Na'vi and their oneness with the planet's beautiful but bitey plants and animals. Specifically, he falls in love with tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Fast-forward to the sequel, and the now married couple lead guerrilla raids against the greedy human capitalists, while raising a family of young Na'vi children and teenagers.
The new film unfolds from the viewpoint of these kids, each of whom struggles with their part-human/part-Na'vi background. When the troubled teens run into some new and distinctly unfriendly avatars, the Sully family jump on their flying lizards and wing their way across the sea to seek shelter with a new tribe of Na'vi who live in harmony with the ocean.
It's on new shores that Avatar soars. Some early scenes of aliens in combat gear scoping out the environment look exactly like a video game, but that feeling disappears as we spend time with families of Na'vi in and around the ocean. These scenes in the sea are just breathtakingly beautiful. In footage that would make David Attenborough proud (if you sent him off into space), lithe Na'vi dive in crystal clear water and frolic with coruscating sea creatures, dappled by shafts of sunlight.
Even a moment as simple as a character dangling their feet in the water is teeming with layers of bioluminescent movement. In probably the most delightful use of 3D I can remember, fish and Na'vi dart out of the screen toward you before dancing away into the depths. You can almost reach out and splash your hand in the sparkling water. It's utterly hypnotic.
As you explore this beguiling underwater realm alongside the Na'vi, these CG characters become completely real and far more fleshed out than the real actors over on the human side of things. As in the first film, there's a divide between human actors in real sets and computer-generated aliens in impossible imagined environments, although it's a lot of fun when they meet in battle and the difference in their sizes means an arrow in the hand of a Na'vi becomes a giant spear impaling a puny human.
Humans tumble from exploding vehicles like action figures scattered across a sandbox, but the battles are more than empty spectacle because you've come to identify so much with the Na'vi's harmonious existence with the planet's ecosystem as they stand against the humans' brutal, greedy and pointless exploitation.
The biggest interaction between these two worlds is the growing relationship between a grizzled combat vet in a big blue avatar body and a human child raised on Pandora. They're stubborn enemies and yet have something in common, as they're each torn between both human and Na'vi worlds. The combat vet is played by Stephen Lang (the brutal soldier from the first movie) returning in blue CG form, and his villainous character has a far more interesting story than Jake and Neytiri do.
The focus on the kids means the grown-up characters are left underdeveloped. For Jake and Neytiri, being guerrilla warriors and parents should be a deeply intriguing internal conflict. What if fighting for your children's future means you don't get to see that future – or worse, what if fighting for everybody else's children costs you your own kids?
You might end up thinking about these questions, but there's hardly any suggestion that either Jake or Neytiri are wrestling with such considerations. They seem to be constantly arguing, but not really about anything. The strain that their crusade places on their marriage and their love is at least as interesting as all the teen hormones flying around. But I couldn't tell you if they hold opposing viewpoints about any of the big questions you'd think they'd be grappling with.
Neytiri is particularly short-changed. She's a "strong female character" in that she can shoot a bow and arrow while somersaulting through an explosion, which is cool. But it isn't particularly clear what she thinks about anything. It's jarring that Jake, the newcomer to Na'vi society, not only becomes chief of the tribe but -- even when on the run -- continues to speak for her. The first movie was heavily criticized for its "white savior" tropes. And while Way of Water's heart seems to be in the right place, Jake is still continually the one telling the Na'vi how things are.
The abundance of creativity in so many areas makes it particularly disappointing when the plot insists on wheeling out assorted hoary old cliches. Teen bullies taunting a troubled newcomer. A knife-to-the-throat hostage standoff. These are such clanging cliches that their inclusion must surely be deliberate, like a wink at the audience to reassure us so that we'll go along with the goofier stuff (subtitled whalesong, anyone?). Yes, scenes like this have a certain universal clarity, and younger viewers may be seeing them for the same time. But it seems baffling that such an otherwise imaginative film would recycle such well-worn tropes.
Still, the parental anguish and the engaging journeys of the young characters give The Way of Water emotional heft. The sci-fi action is cathartic and exciting, the environmental message is irresistible, and the visuals are just incredible.
Even at over three hours -- and again, those 3D glasses can get uncomfortable -- it's hard to think of anything that could be cut. The section that wanders around underwater could probably do with a stern tightening, except it's probably the best part of the whole film.
3D glasses aside -- once it's begun, you might not want this movie to end.
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