It’s been 13 years since James Cameron’s Avatar beat his previous blockbuster, Titanic, to become the highest-grossing film ever released. But now at long last he has returned to the jungle moon of Pandora – and roughly 13 years have passed there, too.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his mind now permanently installed in a blue alien Na’vi body, is the chief of his clan, and he and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have four children.
They spend their time lolling around in skimpy loincloths, thinking about how happy they are, but inevitably their Edenic and slightly risqué tranquility ends when spaceships from the planet Earth roar down from the skies. The invaders raze miles of jungle in a fiery apocalypse, much like the one at the start of Terminator 2.
Then they stomp around in massive robotic exoskeletons, much like the ones in Aliens. It’s clear pretty quickly, then, that Avatar: The Way of Water, is a James Cameron’s Greatest Hits: as the “Water” in the subtitle might suggest, several sequences come straight from The Abyss and Titanic.
Anyway, with the humans intent on total conquest, Jake wages a guerilla war against them, blowing up railway tracks and stealing weapons. He is a stripy-blue Robin Hood – and he has a stripy-blue Sheriff of Nottingham to contend with. The villainous Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) was killed at the end of Avatar, but his memories were transferred to a Na’vi body, so now he is just as super-strong and super-tall as Sully. He’s also understandably bitter about the small matter of his own death.
The stage is set for a rip-roaring adventure, a space opera sprinkled with debates on the ethics of colonialism and assimilation. But then Cameron takes the film in a new direction – and The Way of Water becomes a damp squib.
The Way of Water is now officially part of a Lord of the Rings-style continuing franchise, so it doesn’t bother to stand up on its own
What happens is that Jake figures out that the revived Quaritch has a vendetta against him, so he and his family fly off on their pet dragons to a distant archipelago where they can hide in a tribe of Na’vi mer-people. It’s a confusing choice, for Cameron and Jake alike. Avatar didn’t tell us much about Jake, but it did establish that he was a gung-ho soldier, so for him to scurry away rather than take the fight to Quaritch seems pathetically cowardly and out of character.
More importantly, it saps the narrative of the high-stakes urgency it had when he was leading his troops against the bad guys. Cameron asks the viewer to forget about the genocidal conquistadors torching Pandora’s forests, and to enjoy the Sully family’s beach holiday instead.
For scene after scene, Jake, Neytiri and their brood stroll on the sand and swim in the sparkling sea. The Sully kids flirt and bicker with the mer-kids via some rudimentary dialogue mostly made up of the words “bro” and “cuz”. One of Jake’s sons bonds with a lonely whale. And everyone spouts new-age hippy platitudes, along with solemn lessons on the history and geography of Pandora.
It’s like the irritatingly idyllic gap-year social-media posts of someone you hardly know, or a re-edit of the Return of the Jedi in which Luke, Han and Leia hang out in the Ewok village for hours on end. You’re promised a Vietnam War allegory with echoes of Philip K Dick’s mind-bending science fiction. What you get is the twee and vapid tale of a boy and a whale splashing around together.
It’s nice and scenic, of course, and all of Cameron’s technological obsessions are on show. There is cutting-edge CGI and performance capture, digital 3D, hyper-real clarity and so on, but these gimmicks tend to take you out of the film rather than drawing you in: as impressive as the visuals are, the action never feels real because it’s always halfway between a cartoon and a live-action film. Nor does The Way of Water look significantly better than Avatar, which was genuinely startling back in 2009.
And in terms of the design, it’s nowhere near as magical as those Roger Dean-inspired landscapes were when we first landed on Pandora. One issue is the shift from the rainforest to the sea. In reality, the Earth’s oceans are already so full of such jaw-droppingly weird creatures that the ones dreamt up by Cameron and his team aren’t much weirder.
It’s fun, in a Little Mermaid sort of way, to see a school of tattooed, four-eyed whales stage an underwater ballet; but it’s not as awesome as actual footage of an actual whale.
Such spectacular interludes also contribute to the film’s numbing, leisurely slowness. The Way of Water clocks in at 192 minutes, which is half an hour more than the first Avatar, but after the opening scenes, when the humans land on Pandora, the story is barely moved on at all. In three hours, the plot amounts to the Sullys going off on their family vacation, Quaritch finding them, and everyone having a climactic, yet small-scale sea battle. And that’s it.
There are no complicated military strategies or challenging conversations or nuanced characters: the Terminator had more personality than anyone in The Way of Water. And any non-whale-related storylines are left unfinished.
One of Jake’s children, for instance, is somehow the biological daughter of Grace (Sigourney Weaver), who was killed in the last film. But who is her biological father? And how can she communicate telepathically with the wildlife of Pandora? You won’t find out here, because The Way of Water is now officially part of a Lord of the Rings-style continuing franchise, so it doesn’t bother to stand up on its own.
Yes, we may have had a 13-year wait for the first Avatar sequel, but apparently there are three more due to come out in 2024, 2026 and 2028. If The Way of Water is anything to go by, that’s not a prospect to relish, but let’s hope Cameron uses those sequels to address one key point, at least. How is it that 22nd-Century humans can travel all the way to Alpha Centauri in spaceships packed with robots and clones – but they still haven’t developed glass which is strong enough to withstand a wooden arrow?
Avatar: The Way of Water is released on 16 December
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