Movie Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

There’s a certain beauty to how much technical wizardry James Cameron inserts into details that don’t really matter that much. The Marines in “Avatar: The Way of Water” possess machinery and weaponry that are the stuff of sci-fi wet dreams, yet here they’re just part of the scenery. That’s what gets Cameron excited: the ability to show the audience something they’ve never seen before, while treating it as if it’s no big deal.

If only he paid that level of attention to his screenwriting. Case in point: early in the film, a commanding officer tells his men, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s 2022, and Cameron is putting 83-year-old pop culture references in his scripts. Jesus.

Sadly, that’s not the least of the movie’s troubles. It boasts a run time of three hours and 12 minutes, yet there is virtually no story. He had THIRTEEN YEARS, and this was the best he could do. Cameron has always been a better storyteller than a screenwriter, but this time he fumbles on both counts.

(I would love to tell you that this is the only time I mention how much time people had to get things right for this film, but reader, it is not.)

And yet, despite the smoking hole in the ground that is the story, despite actors who have won Emmys and Oscars reciting dialogue that will haunt their dreams until their last breath, the movie is quite watchable, at least once. Technical wizardry is a powerful drug when used properly.

In the 10 years since Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) abandoned his Marine batallion to join the Na’vi tribe he originally swore an oath to massacre in the name of American cheddar, Jake and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have four children, one of whom is adopted (more on her later). The Sky People (humans) return to Pandora hell bent for revenge (seriously, the mission consists of little more than killing Jake), and Jake, not wanting anyone in his tribe to suffer for his actions, volunteers to leave the forest and seek refuge in a group of reef islands. Jake and his family settle in Metkayina, where they learn the, um, ways of the ocean, but the recombinant avatar of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is hot on his tail, forcing Jake to find a way to come to grips with his past in a way that doesn’t destroy anyone’s present or future.

The adopted child in Jake and Neytiri’s family came from the avatar of Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who also provides the voice). They do not explain how someone successfully impregnated a comatose avatar, nor how she successfully gave birth. It’s possible that Cameron is setting up a huge payoff in “Avatar 3” or “Avatar 4,” but for now, we have to settle for the Wizard Rule.

I looked at my watch twice. That might not sound like a compliment, but it is. The first time came around the 40-minute mark, towards the end of Jake’s time with his tribe, as he’s setting up chain of command in his absence. I looked again two hours later. Despite how bloated most of the scenes were, every single second of underwater footage is jaw-dropping. If the final 140 minutes of the movie had taken place underwater with a different, better-plotted storyline, this could have been one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.

But it’s not.

Cameron hasn’t been remotely subtle with his messaging so far, even naming the rare element that the Sky People sought to steal from the Pandorans unobtanium (I mean, come on). In the opening of “The Way of Water,” the ships the Sky People use to land on Pandora literally scorch the earth in a manner not unlike the apocalypse scene in “T2: Judgment Day.” In fact, Cameron even works in a sequence where an ocean vessel dips and capsizes in a manner similar to a certain “Titanic,” but – see where I’m going here? – in a manner that requires a lot more technical wizardry. It’s gorgeous, immaculately shot and executed, but ultimately meaningless.

How do you think Cameron felt about “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which also features a water-based society, hitting theaters six weeks before his film did? That had to bother him, right? Especially since both films are under the same studio banner (Disney)?

Three actors (actresses, actually) have received Oscar nominations under Cameron’s direction, but you wouldn’t know it after watching this. No one stands out, save perhaps Jemaine Clement as the marine biologist who’s grown weary of watching the military commit hate crimes against the ocean. Several of these actors (Weaver, Kate Winslet, Edie Falco) have won a lot of acting hardware. But again, you’d never know.

Lead actor and native Aussie Sam Worthington, meanwhile, still can’t do an American accent. HE HAD THIRTEEN YEARS.

(Told you.)

Let’s talk about Stephen Lang and his character Miles Quaritch. He died at the end of “Avatar,” but somehow his memories have been uploaded into a new Quaritch avatar to begin the hunt anew. The scientific viability of his clone is beside the point: this is lazy-ass screenwriting, and literally anything else would have been a better choice. Here, I’ll come up with an alternative right now, and I know fuck all about screenwriting.

There is a 10-year gap between the films, story-wise. It would be perfectly plausible for Quaritch to have had an adult son, quickly rising up the ranks in the Marines, on Earth when he receives the news that his father was killed by one of his own troops. The son, now a corporal just like his father was at the time of his death, volunteers for the next trip to Pandora to avenge him. Cast Josh Brolin in the role. After playing Thanos and Cable, he’d could do this part in his sleep. Also, as good of an actor as Lang is, Brolin is better.

Instead, we get a resurrected baddie a la Emperor Palpatine in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” which, for my money, is the single worst story decision in the “Star Wars” universe, and possibly every other universe.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is like a middle school kid’s report card. “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Cameron, your son is excelling in science and PE, but he’s failing English.” The hope, it appears, is that the stuff that works will make up for the stuff that doesn’t, but if the stuff that doesn’t work is the story, does anything else matter?

Reader, it does not.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
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