Avatar: The Way of Water, A (Spoiler Free) Film Review
By Chris M. Barkley:
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022, 2 of 4 stars, 192 minutes) with Sam Worthingon, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Britain Dalton, Jaime Flatters, Jack Champion, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss and Giovanni Ribisi. Screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Directed by James Cameron.
Bechdel Test: Passes, but just barely.
You don’t tug on superman’s cape;
You don’t spit into the wind;
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger,
And you don’t mess around with Jim…
— “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” — Lyrics by Jim Croce, 1972
There is a myth surrounding my love of films; my family, close friends, acquaintances, readers of these columns and people in fandom think that I will praise, without reservation, practically EVERY movie I see and review.
I will say that this is mostly false; I love praising most films that I like because of their artistry of the collaborative process, craft, screenwriting, characters and direction. And I like sharing these discoveries with you readers as well.
Another factor I consider when I appraise a film is how it makes me feel; my movie collection (which looks more like a movie library or a channel at the moment) is filled with stories and images that provoked, startled, challenged and invoked memories and feelings that I happily return to see year after year.
And yes, there are movies that are definitely off my repeat viewing list; The Sting (1973), The Natural (1984), Gattaca, Dark City, Starship Troopers (all from 1997) and WALL-E (2008).
The trouble with the film industry nowadays is that a majority of audiences want to see big, common denominator films and that smaller, more personal and lower budgeted films are becoming harder to finance and becoming more scarce.
I will say, quite pointedly, that if you react to a good movie (or tv series, for that matter) that is a miracle of design, artistry, production values, music, film editing, screenwriting, acting, direction and a million other things going on behind the scenes…
Which brings us to Avatar: The Way of Water.
Spoiler Alert; I will be a dissenting voice.
When a film this anticipated comes along I’m usually among the first reviewers to weigh in. Well, this time around, I have to admit that I was in no hurry whatsoever, mainly because of the auteur behind this burgeoning Avatar empire.
The lyrics I quote above from the late Jim Croce’s hit song easily could be applied to the life and career of James Francis Cameron, the creator, writer, director and producer of some of the most successful and iconic films for the past forty years: The Terminator and its sequel, T2, The Abyss, True Lies, the Academy Award winning Titanic and the first Avatar film.
James Cameron’s reputation as being a hard driving, obsessed perfectionist is legendary. His reputation in the film industry is quite binary; either you love him, his process and work ethic OR you loathe him. But either way, he is respected for the level of success he has achieved during his career.
Back in 2009, The New Yorker Magazine profiled Cameron before the release of the first film, and provided what I consider a rather even handed view of the man and his filmmaking process: “Man of Extremes” in The New Yorker.
But no matter how I feel about him as a person (and I definitely have some opinions on the subject), that shouldn’t affect how I might feel about the work he produces. Usually.
The one thing I can say is that when it comes to Avatar: The Way of Water is that I was somewhat impressed with the look and visual effects of the movie and how hard Cameron was trying to win me over with this film.
The Way of Water takes us back to the moon of Pandora, where Corporal Sully (Sam Worthington), the former human soldier turned Na’vi avatar, has settled down and formed a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) with three native children Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver).
But the Sully clan, and the rest of Pandora denizens for that matter, have their idyllic lives disrupted for good with the sudden reappearance of “the sky people” (Terrans) whose landings signal a new wave of despoiling of the biosphere and establishing permanent human colonies.
Sully’s deceased antagonist from the first film, Col. Miles Qualritch (Stephen Lang) has been cloned and revived as a Na’vi avatar with most of his memories intact. With a heavily armed squad of similarly reconstituted avatar hybrids, his primary mission is to hunt down and destroy Sully and crush the growing native resistance to the human invaders.
What follows over the next three hours chronicles the Sullys on the run, Qualritch and his mercenaries hot on their trail, encountering new, sea based tribes and various and intermittent views of Pandora’s wonders, all leading up to a deadly and devastating clash.
The Way of Water’s visual effects are spectacular; the live action actors blend almost seamlessly with the computer generated flora, fauna, sea creatures and alien characters. Everything is vivid and almost lifelike. And I have read elsewhere that it’s even more so in 3-D.
But, and there is no way I can sugarcoat this, is that all of this is just a hollow exercise in spectacle as far as I’m concerned. The Way of Water is nothing more than a rerun of the first film with more bad guys, more guns, more explosions and chases and more children and female characters in dire peril, with some extra teen angst thrown in for extra measure.
And, I was pleased to see, I was not alone in my assessment.
While most mainstream critics and reviewers have lavished praise on The Way of Water, others have criticized Cameron for his simplistic and obvious plotline, hackneyed dialog, thin characterizations and his seemingly disingenuous lip service towards the plight of indigenous people and our ongoing environmental crisis. While it’s easy to see the ecological parallels between Pandora and Earth, I wonder if people are flocking to see are just there for the special effects and battles and walk away not even caring about that underlying message.
I have to admit that I did have a bit of a chip on my shoulder going into this movie. For one, I felt that the first film was thematically an adaptation of the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1972 Hugo Award winning novella “The Word For World Is Forest” (which was first published in Harlan Ellison’s landmark sf anthology Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972), a comparison that many observers have noted over the past thirteen years.
(In fact, if Cameron had put his sizable talents to work on adapting Le Guin’s story or her Hainish tales, Cameron could have saved himself a lot of production time and effort than creating Pandora’s backstory and ecology from the ground up.)
Secondly, I’ve seen several thousand films over the past six decades. If I’m not fully into a movie to the point where my suspension of disbelief is disengaged, I start to anticipate plot points, look for bad special effects, acting miscues and editing errors.
So after two hours and thirty minutes of Cameron’s painting by the numbers sturm und drang, I knew exactly what to expect in the last half hour, including the cliffhanger ending.
OK movies give their audiences what they want. Great movies confound, astound and upend their expectations. This may be true of some people regarding Avatar: The Way of Water but when I think about it, I was never the intended audience for it.
As of this publication (December 31st, 2022), Avatar – The Way of Water has grossed well over a billion dollars worldwide and there isn’t too much doubt that it may reach twice that amount by the time Lightstorm Entertainment and 20th Century Fox are ready to stream it for home audiences across all media platforms and roll out the deluxe 4K blu rays.
The profit margin is practically guaranteed because the third Avatar sequel has already been completed (and scheduled for a 2024 release, and pre-production for the last two are well underway.
So like it or not, there’s plenty of adventures on Pandora on the way. And having seen this sequel, I’ll probably be opting out of any more excursions.